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For most of this century, the NBA’s Western Conference has been consistently viewed as the stronger conference. But that seems to not be the case this year. While some teams in the West have looked strong for most of the season, many of them are unproven. Meanwhile, the back half of the bracket features multiple former regular season and Finals MVPs.
One thing is for sure: the first round out West should be wild.
#1 Denver Nuggets vs. #8 Minnesota Timberwolves
Denver put together a terrific season, so much so that they were able to take their foot off the gas a bit in the last few weeks. Minnesota had to battle their way here, including fighting amongst themselves. But last night’s win over the Thunder showed a team on the same page.
But can they stay that way as they battle their division rivals and the MVP?
Keys To The Series:
Nikola Jokic is the two time reigning MVP for a reason. Others will be important, but Jokic is the key to Denver in general, as obvious as it sounds. Outside of Minnesota’s twin-towers of Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, they don’t have much depth inside. If Jokic can dominate the Wolves’ big men, whether by drawing Gobert outside or putting Towns into his familiar foul trouble territory, he’ll perform surgery on the Wolves’ normally solid defense.
For Minnesota, they need that same defense to limit the impact that the Nuggets’ supporting cast has on the series. Jokic is going to Jokic, but swarming to the ball and making life difficult for the likes of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. can give Minnesota a puncher’s chance.
Savvy-veteran Mike Conley has been terrific for Minnesota to close out the season. Towns and Anthony Edwards will take up a lot of Denver’s attention, giving Conley the chance to hit equalizing threes.
For Denver, they need positive play from Aaron Gordon. He’s quietly had a very nice season. Some timely buckets and solid defense against Towns will be huge for the Nuggets.
When Minnesota is at their best, there’s a lot to like. But the flip side is that at times they can be clunky offensively. Denver is ranked fifth in offensive rating. Their consistency will overwhelm the mercurial Wolves. Denver wins in five games.
#4 Phoenix Suns vs. #5 Los Angeles Clippers
Each team has a two-time Finals MVP on their roster, but none of those awards were won for their current franchises. The Clippers and Suns have made no secret of their arsenal gathering tactics over the past few seasons, yet still find themselves at the middle of the pack.
Keys To The Series:
The Suns swung for the fences at the trade deadline, adding Kevin Durant to an offense that already had a ton of firepower. While the sample size is small, Phoenix is 7-0 with Durant on the floor. The Suns will be able to score, there’s no doubt about that. The question is more about whether they will be able to navigate the end of close games. With Durant, Devin Booker and Chris Paul all accustomed to having the ball in the final minutes, will they go with the hot hand or have a go-to player?
The Clippers have no such doubt. When the game is on the line, the ball will be in Kawhi Leonard’s hands. But will Leonard be enough? With questions about Paul George’s health, Los Angeles may need to rely more on Russell Westbrook, which hasn’t always been a great recipe for postseason success. Leonard has had playoff runs where he appeared superhuman, but he may not have enough help.
Even if we assume a fully healthy Paul George, he and Leonard at best likely only match the offensive threat of Durant and Booker. The other starters match up fairly evenly as well. But in tight playoff games, smart decision making matters. Chris Paul’s ability to be a floor general against Westbrook’s sometimes erratic play could be what tips the scales.
The marquee matchup here is Durant vs. Leonard, but Booker and Paul will be too much for the other Clippers. Phoenix wins in six games.
#3 Sacramento Kings vs. #3 Golden State Warriors
It’s been forever since we’ve seen Sacramento in the postseason, whereas Golden State in late April seems as routine as sunrise and sunset. There’s no clever way to say it: it’s the young upstarts against the team that’s seen it all. What will prevail?
Keys To The Series:
Making their first Playoff appearance since 2005, the high octane Kings should be appointment viewing for any basketball fan. De’Aaron Fox may be the fastest player in the league with the ball in his hands, and Domantas Sabonis provides a steadying presence for the rest of Sacramento. The Kings can score in bunches, but they’re 24th in overall defensive rating. That’s not a great scenario for a young squad facing seasoned veterans.
The Warriors are the defending champions, but have had a truly bizarre season. Most glaring is a concerning 9-30 road record. But their away woes may be overblown for this series, given that Sacramento is a mere 87 miles from the Bay. This is a team that has been to six NBA Finals in the last eight seasons. The Kings won’t be able to throw anything at them they haven’t seen before.
Andrew Wiggins was the Warriors second best player during their title run last season, but he’s missed a ton of time due to illness in his family and hasn’t played since February 13th. Although Klay Thompson seems to have fully regained his form, the Warriors will need some semblance of last year’s Wiggins to advance, particularly on the defensive side.
For Sacramento, the talk will be about Fox but Sabonis can be the real difference maker here. Draymond Green is a defensive monster, but bigs who can dissect a defense with their passing have had a somewhat neutralizing impact on him in the past.
These Kings are fun, and Fox should become a household name after this series. But the Warriors are battle-tested and it’s hard to bet against that. Golden State wins in seven games.
#2 Memphis Grizzlies vs. #7 Los Angeles Lakers
This may not be the best series of the first round, but it may have the most drama. The Grizzlies have almost made it a point to be disliked this season, with antics ranging from on the court, to off, to on the sidelines with Shannon Sharpe. That’s to be expected from a team this young and this talented. But will they poke the bear one too many times?
Keys To The Series:
The Lakers and Grizzlies tied for the best record since the trade deadline, making this potentially one of the more competitive 2 vs. 7 matchups we’ve seen. During that same stretch, Anthony Davis has been on an absolute tear. Making him the focal point and allowing LeBron James to pick his spots more selectively will be key for Los Angeles. The added rest between games will help the older squad maximize James’ experience while minimizing the stress on his high-mileage legs.
Jaren Jackson Jr. of Memphis may well be the Defensive Player of the Year this season. However, despite his talent, he’s struggled mightily with foul trouble, playing less than 1,800 minutes this season, which is well outside the top 100 players. He needs to find a way to defend without fouling and stay on the court in this series, especially considering Steven Adams will be unavailable. If Jackson can’t do that, Davis will feast on the Grizzlies’ depleted frontcourt defense.
Austin Reaves has had a nice season, but he’s really blossomed in recent weeks when James was out with an injury. With James and Davis drawing warranted attention, Reaves could get a lot of favorable matchups. If he can deliver, it could put tremendous strain on Memphis’s defense.
Sometimes, you just need a pest. Think Dennis Rodman, Draymond Green, Danny Ainge. That guy who gets under your skin over the course of a series and makes you make a mistake out of frustration. It’ll be hard to rattle the veteran Lakers, but Dillon Brooks is going to give it his best shot.
Memphis has Ja Morant, which could be a problem for the older Lakers. But I just think the Jackson/Davis matchup is going to swing this series. Davis has proven what he can do offensively. Jackson has proven it defensively…except for availability. Los Angeles wins in seven games.