The eight-team field for the Western Conference is finally set, with the Lakers and Warriors earning the seventh and eighth seeds, respectively. Given the recent success of both franchises, it’s a bit jarring to see them on the lower end of the playoff totem pole. But, due in large part to injuries, there they are, while the Jazz and Suns occupy the top two seeds. Let’s take a look at the four first-round matchups, beginning with Utah and Golden State, where the way in which the top seed defends screens will have a major impact on the outcome.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
1-seed Utah (52-20) vs. 8-seed Memphis (38-34)
Game 1: Sunday, 9:30 PM Eastern (TNT)
Regular season series: Utah, 3-0
Less than a week after they lost to the Warriors on the final day of the regular season, the Memphis Grizzlies managed to exact a measure of revenge Friday night. Ja Morant continued his progression as an emerging force at the point guard position, while players such as Dillon Brooks and Kyle Anderson also stepped forward to push Memphis into the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. Their reward: a matchup with the West’s top seed, with Utah being the lone team in the league that ranks in the top-5 in both offensive and defensive rating. Quin Snyder’s team won all three regular season meetings between the teams, but they struggled with two key health issues down the stretch.
While Mike Conley was able to return from a hamstring issue late in the regular season, Donovan Mitchell has been out since mid-April due to a sprained ankle. The hope is that he’ll be ready for Game 1, with the star guard saying himself that he’ll be available. Getting Mitchell back in the fold gives the Jazz the explosive playmaker that they lacked while he was sidelined, and he’s capable of scoring from anywhere on the court. The question, with Conley and Mitchell back in the rotation: will Bojan Bogdanovic continue to aggressively look for his shot? While he was working his way back from wrist surgery, there were times early this season in which Bogdanovic was a bit too deferential. If Utah is to make good on this season and potentially win a title, they can’t afford for that Bogdanovic to show up.
The Jazz don’t lack for depth, as they’ve got two of the finalists for Sixth Man of the Year in Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles. And in the middle there’s Rudy Gobert, an elite rim protector who, over the years, has improved some when tasked with defending on the perimeter. That’s going to be key in this series, as Memphis will use Morant in a lot of ball screens. And if Gobert can’t move well enough to at the very least make Morant work to get to the rim, this series could go longer than expected.
This series will likely be decided in the paint, as the Grizzlies lead the NBA in paint, second-chance and fast-break points. They aren’t a great perimeter shooting team, but Taylor Jenkins’ team makes up for that by attacking the paint at every opportunity. And as we saw Friday night, Memphis does have some players capable of knocking down shots when left open. Grayson Allen, who hit two key three-pointers late, and Desmond Bane are two of those options. And then there’s the interior tandem of Jonas Valanciunas and Jaren Jackson Jr. Both were saddled with foul trouble Friday night, but the former is a double-double waiting to happen while the latter is one of the league’s more intriguing young talents. And if those two are having an off night, the Grizzlies can call on rookie Xavier Tillman for some quality minutes.
To completely rule Memphis out would be a mistake; this is a young, hungry group that seems to take joy in doing things that the outsiders say they can’t. But with this being the first postseason experience for many of the Grizzlies’ rotation players, and Utah’s talent across the board, this is a very tough ask for Memphis. Utah in 5, but many of the games will be tight.
4-seed LA Clippers (47-25) vs. 5-seed Dallas (42-30)
Game 1: Saturday, 4:30 PM (ESPN)
Regular season series: Dallas, 2-1
This is the lone rematch from last season’s playoffs, with the Clippers winning that first-round series in six games. That series turned after Game 3, as Kristaps Porzingis was ruled out due to a knee injury. While the Mavericks did manage to win Game 4 on a Luka Doncic buzzer-beater, the comparative lack of firepower was too much to overcome. Porzingis, who appeared in just 43 (out of 72) games this season due to injuries, is back to full strength as we head into the postseason. Hopefully that will remain the case, but his medical history is cause for concern.
Dallas won two of the three regular season meetings, with the first ranking among the most embarrassing performances by a home team in recent history. The Mavericks beat the Clippers by 51 points in the third game of the season, but it’s worth noting that neither Kawhi Leonard nor Marcus Morris were available, and the Clippers roster looks much different now than it did back on December 27. They traded Lou Williams to Atlanta, receiving veteran point guard Rajon Rondo in return. L.A. also added DeMarcus Cousins late in the regular season, and while he won’t be in the rotation every night, there will be times when his number is called. And with Serge Ibaka and Patrick Beverley finally healthy, Tyronn Lue’s rotation is whole heading into the postseason. While last year’s group never established the chemistry needed to navigate those unique circumstances, there will be no room for excuses this time around.
Flipping back to Dallas, it all starts with Doncic. He can do whatever the Mavs need from him offensively, be it scoring or distributing. Similar to last season’s series the Clippers will try to rattle him but, as they learned then, this approach doesn’t work very often. Having a healthy Porzingis to serve as Doncic’s sidekick will be of utmost importance for Dallas; I’m not sure they can win this series if the Unicorn isn’t kicking on all cylinders. And this is a series in which the importance of acquiring Josh Richardson will be revealed. While Dallas lost shooting in sending Seth Curry to Philadelphia, they needed to get more athletic (and better defensively) on the wing. That’s where Richardson is meant to help them out. Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith and Jalen Brunson will also be key contributors for the Mavs.
Every move that the Clippers made during this season, even before it, was geared towards righting the wrongs of last season. If this isn’t the year when they shed the stigma of “they’re still the Clippers,” when will it happen? We’ll certainly see some “Luka moments” in this series, but the addition of Rondo may be what gets the job done here (in addition to having Leonard and George). He can get guys in the spots where they need to be, while handling some of the playmaking responsibilities that would have been divided amongst Leonard and George alone. Clippers in 6, just like last season.
2-seed Phoenix (51-21) vs. 7-seed LA Lakers (42-30)
Game 1: Sunday, 3:30 PM (ABC)
Regular season series: Phoenix, 2-1
Due to the combination of star power and a history of success, more than a few will view the Lakers as the favorites in this series. That’s understandable; when you can trot out LeBron James and Anthony Davis, you become a title contender immediately. And it isn’t as if Frank Vogel’s team played poorly for the entire season; when healthy, the Lakers boasted one of the league’s best records. James, Davis and Dennis Schroder are all back in the fold for the postseason, but the preferred starting five has shared the court for just four games.
While that may not be a major concern for James, Davis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, all members of last season’s title team, what about Schroder and Andre Drummond? Schroder has played in a conference finals series during his NBA career, but Drummond hasn’t been out of the first round. He was added to the fold to strengthen the Lakers in the middle, as the offseason signing of Marc Gasol did not have the desired effect. Drummond played well late in the regular season, and he’ll need to continue on that path if the Lakers are to extend their stay in the postseason. Behind him, who plays between Gasol and Montrezl Harrell will depend upon the matchup, and the Lakers can also use Davis at the five in crunch time. With Phoenix having Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky behind starter Deandre Ayton, this has the look of a “Harrell series” to start.
Phoenix is the 2-seed for a number of reasons, most importantly the offseason acquisition of Chris Paul. The darlings of the bubble needed a leader who knows what it takes in order to take the next step, and CP3 has been that guy. While he isn’t a finalist for MVP honors, there’s no denying his impact on the Suns. Devin Booker, one of the league’s best scorers, averaged 25.6 points and 4.3 assists per game during the regular season. And while it would not be fair to label anyone a “LeBron stopper,” the Suns have multiple wings who can defend multiple positions, headlined by Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder. But the key for the Suns will be Ayton, more specifically his consistency. While he’s had moments of dominance, there have also been times when he practically disappears. With this being his first playoff series, Ayton can’t afford to disappear.
While it is tempting to go with the Lakers, due to the presence of James and Davis. But Phoenix isn’t a “lucky” 2-seed by any stretch of the imagination. With Paul leading the way, Suns in 6.
3-seed Denver (47-25) vs. 6-seed Portland (42-30)
Game 1: Saturday, 10:30 PM (ESPN)
Regular season series: Denver, 2-1
For the second time in the last three seasons, Denver and Portland will face off in the postseason. The second-round series two years ago was highly entertaining, with the Blazers winning in seven games as C.J. McCollum took over late in the deciding game. This time around Portland faces a Denver squad that, while banged up on the perimeter, boasts one of the favorites to win MVP and a rising star. Nikola Jokic started all 72 games for the Nuggets, averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks per. Jokic is a big reason why Denver managed to earn the 3-seed despite losing Jamal Murray for the season and playing long stretches without both Monte Morris and Will Barton. That’s why he’s a finalist for MVP.
As for the rising star, that would be Michael Porter Jr. In a battle with Barton for the right to start when the season began, MPJ made the job his own and has emerged as one of the league’s top young scoring talents. The question has long been his attention to detail on the other end of the floor, and while he’s not elite defensive starter, Porter Jr. has improved. What also helps is the addition of Aaron Gordon, a jack-of-all-trades forward who’s athletic enough to defend multiple positions. His presence also gives Denver another potential playmaker, which can take some pressure off of Jokic. The concern for Denver is the backcourt, due to the injuries mentioned above.
While Morris has returned, it’s unknown when (or if) Barton will be cleared to play due to a strained hamstring. Rookie Facundo Campazzo played in big games while with Real Madrid and Argentina’s national team, but this will be his first NBA Playoffs. Austin Rivers, who played well when thrust into the rotation, will also need to step forward. Because Portland boasts arguably the NBA’s best guard tandem.
Between Damian Lillard and the aforementioned McCollum, Portland is getting an average of nearly 52 points per game from its starting backcourt. Add in Norman Powell, who was acquired from the Raptors at the trade deadline, and that number approaches 69 points per. Powell gives the Blazers a solid secondary scoring option while also being able to hold his own defensively. In swapping Gary Trent Jr. for him, Portland got more experienced in that role while also having the opportunity to re-sign Powell during free agency. The Blazers enter this series with a decided advantage on the perimeter, but the post is where they’ll need to truly be at their best in this series. The good news: they’ve got Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter to call upon at the five, and this is a defensive matchup that the latter can handle.
Defending in ball screens has been an issue for Kanter throughout his NBA career, but he has made strides. That being said, given the absences from Denver’s perimeter rotation, the Nuggets are not as equipped to exploit this potential weakness. At the forward spots Portland has a versatile defender in Robert Covington, who can be used at multiple positions, while future Hall of Fame scorer Carmelo Anthony has been an asset all season long as one of the team’s top reserves. This is a series that could go either way, even with the Nuggets’ backcourt issues; Jokic is that good. However, Lillard and McCollum are nothing to scoff at either. I like Portland in 7, in what will be one of the best series of the first round.
Raphielle’s been writing about college sports for more than a decade, making the move to college basketball alone in 2013. Beginning his work with the former website CollegeHoops.net in 2003, Raphielle spent 3 years writing for NBCSports.com beginning 2013, covering CBB and the Olympics. In 2016, Raphielle joined Heavy.com. If there’s a game on, there’s a strong likelihood that he’s watching it.