(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs (8) Portland Trail Blazers
More power to Damian Lillard. My goodness. Sometimes he seems to be playing in a mesmerizing trance. Like he’s out there by himself. Take away fans. Take away travel. Take away the variables, and his complete confidence in his shot doesn’t change a bit. Unfortunately, C.J. McCollum is playing with a fractured vertebrae. And Jusuf Nurkic is still shedding some of the rust off. And Gary Trent Jr. (who deserves praise for his newfound stroke) can’t hit 5–7 three-pointers in 4 out of 7 games. Not against a very good defense.
The Lakers have lost some depth in the bubble. No Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo is listed as “day-to-day” but hasn’t played since March 10th (had to). Suddenly, Alex Caruso is looking at important playoff minutes. He’s more versatile and a better defender than some give credit for, but in a Lakers-Clips 2nd round series, you have to imagine Doc Rivers is glad Lou Williams won’t have to deal with Avery Bradley. Still, the Lakers have two of the top basketball players on the planet in LeBron and Anthony Davis. Dame might go off for 50 twice, but the Blazers can’t win this series unless LeBron or Davis get injured. Kyle Kuzma needs to have a good start to this run for the Lakers to hit their ceiling later on.
Prediction: Lakers in 6
(4) Houston Rockets vs (5) Oklahoma City Thunder
Oh, timing. Just as the Rockets were straining the limits of three-point shooting in a 48-minute game, making 21 of 61 threes in a win over the Bucks, Russell Westbrook was starting to feel something in his legs. Westbrook’s 100mph legs can’t just start up after a five-month hiatus and ease in to the restart. He’s currently listed as day-to-day, but is unlikely to play in Game 1 or 2 of this series.
James Harden is ready to do it all himself, and his range and deception make him impossible to guard…but without Capela at center, every Rocket has to rebound and every Rocket has to hit threes. Without Russ helping create transition threes, Austin Rivers and Robert Covington will have to raise their games.
The Thunder are a vivacious, resilient bunch. Back in October, few imagined this group was capable of a 50-win season in a loaded West in 2019–20. Trading Paul George for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and five future 1st round picks (three from OKC, two via Miami) was supposed to be a serious step back for the Thunder. The team has coalesced into a nervy bunch of athletic young guys that defend the three-point-line as well as anyone — critical against these Rockets. Health has been a big factor: CP3 and Gallo staying healthy has been unexpected.
This series will be tight and might provide the most fireworks.
Prediction: Thunder in 7
(3) Denver Nuggets vs (6) Utah Jazz
Michael Porter Jr. has emerged as a legit shooting threat and has the size to defend and rebound in a way that Paul Millsap used to (remember those Hawks playoffs teams). Millsap is on these Nuggets, but he’s 35 now, and playing about 20 minutes per game, while Porter has leaped into the starting lineup. Porter’s ability to shoot and run the wing would help boost the Nuggets offense and Nikola Jokic’ already magnificent court-vision. The Nuggets will need everything they can get out of Jokic and Murray, because sparkplug Will Barton and wing Gary Harris are both attempting to play through injuries, and will both miss Game 1. Those are big shoes for Mike Malone to fill. Both play with heart and energy.
The Jazz and Nuggets both play with huge home-court advantages during the regular season thanks to playing at elevation (Denver and Salt Lake City), which wears down opponents by the second half. Without those advantages, their offenses have to manufacture more conventional half-court points.
Mike Conley has returned to his former glory after a rough start in Utah. The Jazz will miss Bogdan Bogdanovic’ shooting, but hope that new acquisition Jordan Clarkson gives them some oomph off the bench. It’s my guess that Conley will come through and push the Jazz into the second round.
Prediction: Jazz in 7
(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs (7) Dallas Mavs
Many are looking to this as the most fun match-up of the first round. I don’t see Dallas as capable of defending the Clippers. With Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell back, the Clippers are just too deep. Harrell averaged nearly 19 points per game in 28 minutes, on 58% shooting. He is fierce. Despite his rust, Dallas doesn’t have enough interior defense.
Kawhi and Paul will blanket Luka Doncic at all turns. In their Aug 2 match-up, Luka had a decent offensive game (29 points, 6 assists, 4 turnovers) but finished with a negative 21. The Clippers won 126–111, and dominated the glass and the 4th quarter. That was without Harrell and with a rusty Lou Williams. This series will not be close.
Kristaps has the range to give the Clippers some problems, but he can’t defend well enough at the rim. Do you trust Maxi Kleber and Trey Burke to play meaningful playoff minutes?
Prediction: Clippers in 5