With one of the more “memorable” seasons in league history winding down, the quest to crown the 2020 NBA Champion is officially underway with the NBA Playoffs finally tipping off. As we tune in on the action, here is a Sidelines breakdown of the Western Conference’s first round matchups, including our predictions.
Lakers vs. Blazers
The Los Angeles Lakers have arguably the league’s most glamorous franchise, two of the five best players in the league right now in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a player who is in the conversation for greatest all-time in James, one of the league’s best defenses, and a team that breezed through the regular season while clinching the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
So why does it seem like they’re entering their first-round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers with less attention than a No. 8 seed that had to make a furious run through its seeding games and win a play-in game just to qualify for the playoffs? Well, that just speaks to how transcendent Damian Lillard has been.
Lillard, the MVP of the NBA Bubble, is clearly the focal point of Portland’s offense and the player defenses have thrown dozens of different looks at to try and stop. It hasn’t worked. It REALLY hasn’t worked. For example, when the Brooklyn Nets were trapping Lillard near halfcourt to get the ball out of his hands, Lillard simply and comfortably pulled up and shot from the logo.
But Lillard’s brilliance aside, Portland is still an eight seed, and an eight seed that struggles defensively at that. They are, however, not quite the typical first round fodder. The Blazers played nearly the entire season without bigs Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Those players give the team added dimensions offensively and keep the slower-footed Hassan Whiteside on the bench. Against the Lakers, their range will also come in handy. The Lakers are the best shot-blocking team in the league, so Nurkic and Collins (and Carmelo Anthony when the team goes small) should all be able to pull rim protectors Davis, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard out of the paint to create some driving lanes for Lillard. C.J. McCollum’s mid-range game could also help Portland neutralize the Lakers defensive advantage inside by making their bigs venture further away from the basket than they’d like on switches.
The Blazers love to shoot threes, and the Lakers are just 6-6 this season when their opponents hit 15 or more threes, so expect Portland to be firing away all series long.
Portland might have three of the best five players on the court in the series, but those top two for the Lakers are as formidable as it gets. The Blazers have no one who can effectively guard James, and although Nurkic, Collins, and Whiteside should at the very least bother Davis, the talent gap is huge. Plus, Collins left the play-in game with an ankle injury and McCollum has been playing with a broken bone in his back, so Portland isn’t exactly healthy.
The Lakers also have an array of perimeter defenders to throw at Lillard and McCollum. Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Alex Caruso are all above average defensively, and when things tighten up, expect to see James take Lillard for long stretches.
Prediction: Lillard’s heroics will be enough to steal as many as two games, but the Lakers should win in 6 or fewer.
Clippers vs. Mavericks
The Los Angeles Clippers drew about the most favorable possible matchup in the first round. Not that the Dallas Mavericks didn’t have an impressive season, but the Clippers seemed to have their number.
Los Angeles won all three games between the teams this season, including a 15-point win in one of the seeding games on August 6. Leonard only played in the last two of those three games, but he was virtually unguardable in both, scoring 29 and 35 points respectively.
The Clippers should also get an added boost to their bench, and Montrezl Harrell is expected to finally be cleared in time to play for game one. Harrell is an energetic forward who averages 19 points and 7 rebounds per game off the bench. In fact, combined with Lou Williams, the Clippers have one of the league’s best benches – Williams averages 18 points and nearly 6 assists per game off the bench.
The Mavericks are making a return to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. They haven’t made it out of the first round of a playoff series since they won the NBA championship in 2011. But, even if this isn’t the year they get out of the first round against the heavily favored Clippers, the future for the Mavs looks bright because of second-year guard Luka Doncic. Doncic had three triple doubles in the eight seeding games and missed having them in two other games by just two assists each. He does a little bit of everything for the Mavs and has also emerged as one of the league’s best clutch players.
Unfortunately for him, the Clippers are well-equipped to make his life miserable. Leonard is still among the league’s best perimeter defenders, and Paul George and Patrick Beverley are also capable of harassing Doncic for long stretches. If the Clippers aren’t forced to double-team him, that will help neutralize the Dallas perimeter shooting attack. Tim Hardaway Jr, Seth Curry, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Kristaps Porzingis are all great three-point shooters, but they’ll get fewer open looks if Doncic isn’t drawing extra defenders.
Porzingis should have an advantage inside – he’s quicker than Clippers starter Ivica Zubac and veteran backup Joakim Noah, and he’s taller than Harrell, Marcus Morris, and JaMychal Green, so he should be able to shoot over them.
That’s about where the Dallas advantages end, though. The Clippers are much deeper, with guard Reggie Jackson also capable of having big scoring games off the bench. Dallas is missing several key players out with long-term injuries, including Dwight Powell and Jalen Brunson. The team is also without veteran backup Willie Cauley-Stein, who elected not to play in the NBA bubble because of the birth of his child.
Prediction: Doncic will have some incredible stat-lines, but the Clippers will sweep.
Nuggets vs. Jazz
It won’t be hard to miss the key matchup in the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz series – it will be the two biggest men on the court.
All-Stars Nikola Jokic of Denver and Rudy Gobert of Utah are giants on the court, but they’ve developed into stars in completely different ways. Jokic is one of the most skilled offensive players in the league, serving as the hub of Denver’s offense. He’s a crafty scorer inside and has range out to the three-point line, but he’s also a creative passer who excels at finding teammates cutting to the basket and spotting up for three-pointers.
Gobert doesn’t have the offensive capabilities of Jokic, but he’s capable of doing just about everything on defense. He’s one of the league’s best shot-blockers, he’s a good one-on-one defender, and even at his size, he’s capable of switching onto smaller, quicker players. On offense, he doesn’t have the range or the passing ability Jokic does, but he’s an effective screen and roll big man and one of the best finishers in the NBA.
So much of Denver’s offensive success is predicated on Jokic, so if Gobert is able to throw off his rhythm, it will disrupt multiple Nuggets players. Jamal Murray is able to be a shoot-first point guard because Jokic handles so much of the traditional point guard responsibilities himself. If Gobert forces the ball out of Jokic’s hands, it will make Murray have to focus more on his playmaking.
How the Nuggets matchup with Donovan Mitchell is also pivotal in the series. Mitchell has already had some big playoff performances in his young career, so he’s comfortable with the idea of stepping his game up in the postseason. The Nuggets are without their best perimeter defender, Gary Harris, and they’re also without Will Barton. Some combination of Murray, Monte Morris, and Torrey Craig is likely to guard Mitchell. Of that group, Morris is the best defender, but he’s undersized compared to Mitchell.
The Jazz will also have to deal with a relatively new problem – how to guard Michael Porter Jr and Bol Bol. Porter had a breakout performance in the bubble, averaging nearly 20 points per game and making the All-Bubble second team. Bol has earned minutes as a versatile scorer and shot blocker off the bench. Both played sparingly (in Bol’s case, not at all) during the regular season, so very little film exists on either player.
The Jazz will hope veteran Mike Conley can continue to be a secondary scorer to Mitchell. With Bojan Bogdanovic out for the season, the Jazz need another reliable scorer to take pressure off of Mitchell, and Conley played well in the seeding games. Expect Joe Ingles to also get plenty of looks.
Prediction: These teams are fairly evenly matched, and both short-handed. Of all the first round series in the West, this one is the most likely to go seven games – which is what we think will happen, with Denver narrowly avoiding the upset.
Rockets vs. Thunder
What first round NBA Playoff series has the most compelling storylines? Well, the Houston Rockets vs. The Oklahoma City Thunder is a good bet. Here is a sampling:
Will former league MVP Russell Westbrook miss the series against his former team with his injured quad?
Can Chris Paul continue his impressive bounce-back season with a strong performance against the team that traded him in the offseason?
How will Paul and former teammate James Harden interact, since their friction was allegedly one of the reasons the Rockets got rid of Paul after last season?
Westbrook’s absence is obviously the biggest issue in the series. He has made a big impact in his first year with the Rockets, allowing them to play at a faster pace than they played with Paul a year ago. The Rockets also famously play extremely small lineups – sometimes with just four guards and a small forward on the court at once. Part of the reason they’re able to do this is Westbrook is one of the best rebounding guards in league history. The Rockets are always at a disadvantage on the boards, but Westbrook crashing the glass at least helps close the gap. Houston is unsure of his availability in round one, but does hope to have him back at some point in the series with the Thunder.
As for Paul and Harden, we’ll see if the intensity of a playoff series, especially one where they’ll be guarding each other at times, escalates their personality conflicts. But as for production, both players have had remarkable seasons. Harden is a finalist for MVP and led the league in scoring. Paul overcame his biggest recent obstacle – poor luck with injuries – and had a vintage season while making the All-Star Game and leading the Thunder, once thought to be rebuilding after trading Westbrook and Paul George in the offseason, to a playoff spot.
The series has potential to be one of the most entertaining of any in the first round. Harden has a greener light than any player in the league. Westbrook compliments him by ferociously attacking the basket. They’re surrounded by players who set up shop on the perimeter and bomb three-pointers.
The Thunder counter with a trio of guards that has arguably been the best backcourt rotation in the league this season. Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroeder combine to average nearly 60 points per game. Paul is one of the greatest half court point guards of all time and an efficient shooter. Gilgeous-Alexander has blossomed into a capable scorer and one of the better rebounding guards in the league. Schroeder is one of the fastest players in the league end-to-end and should excel in the track meet style pace Houston prefers.
Where the Thunder should see an advantage is up front. Expect Steven Adams to post monster rebounding numbers in the series, and Danilo Gallinari should have plenty of chances to post up smaller players.
The Thunder also have another defender to throw at Harden, as defensive specialist Andre Roberson recently returned from an injury that had kept him out more than a year.
Prediction: The depth and size of the Thunder will all be difficult for a Houston team that is short in both areas, but the playoff experience of Harden and Westbrook should be enough to overcome those weaknesses. If Westbrook is healthy, expect Houston to win in six.