First, a salute to the gallant gladiators who gave us a wonderful appetizer. That play-in duel between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Memphis Grizzlies was certainly one for the books. A study in contrast between a great offensive team and a great defensive team. A duel between a veteran team against the young turks impatient for their place in history. A face-off featuring a slow deliberate offense on one side, and razzle-dazzle speed on the other.
In the end, it was Portland’s veterans who eked out another come-from-behind win to bag the last seat to the playoffs. While everyone’s eyes were focused on the duel between Damian Lillard and Ja Morant, CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony sneaked in to deliver the fatal blows for the Blazers. As if to remind everyone that there is not just 1 go-to guy in the Blazer black and red, but three.
Congratulations to the Blazers for having accomplished a super-difficult feat. Portland had their backs against the wall, needing to win their last 4 games to have a chance to reach the playoffs. And they pulled it off by the skin of their teeth.
And kudos as well to the Memphis Grizzlies. Not expected to mature and contend until after 2 years, the Grizzlies were the pleasant surprise of the league, thanks to their superstar-in-the-making, Ja Morant. With their maturity and confidence growing steadily, expect the Grizzlies to be a force to reckon with in the playoffs from hereon.
Now, it’s on to the playoffs. Where the going gets even tougher.
For this article, here are my predictions for the NBA Western Conference.
The Denver Nuggets (46-27) take on the Utah Jazz (44-28) in a battle of worthy centers. The Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets will have their hands full against the defense-minded Rudy Gobert and triggerman Donovan Mitchell. Denver still has 2 starters – Gary Harris and Will Barton – in the injured list, but the emergence of Michael Porter Jr, Jerami Grant and stratospheric Bol Bol will more than compensate for these probable absentees. Once the 2 report back for duty, the Nuggets will have a bench as deep as the Clippers. And bench depth will be the big factor here. Nuggets in 6.
The Oklahoma – Houston showdown (both 44-28) promises to be an intriguing match-up. At the start of the season, both teams had switched superstars, with Russell Westbrook being traded by the Thunder for Chris Paul. The Rockets, with Westbrook teaming up with another former MVP, James Harden, looked like a much better team at the start of the season. However, as soon as the Thunder jelled under Paul’s leadership, things changed. With the team’s confidence in each other at its best, plus Russell’s reported injury, Oklahoma looks poised to stop the Rockets’ red glare. It will be the Rockets’ speed and athleticism versus the Thunder’s size and cohesion. Thunder in 6.
The Dallas Mavericks (43-32) have matured faster than expected. When the dynamic Euro-duo of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis catches fire, they can be an offensive tsunami difficult to stop. However, against the LA Clippers’ (49-23) own double trouble in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, plus their much-vaunted bench depth, it would seem that the Mavs are simply overmatched. Clippers in 5.
The LA Lakers (52-19) didn’t see this coming. With the Blazers (35-39) suiting up to be their first round dance partners, Lebron James is definitely facing a much worthier opponent. With the guns of Seeding Games’ MVP Damian Lillard, Carmelo Anthony and CJ McCollum blazing, the Blazers have a better offensive repertoire than the Lakers. Luckily for the Lakers, the Blazers are not as good defensively. The Lakers will need Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma to up their scoring groove, otherwise the Lakers are in for a long series. Lakers in 7.
More on the Eastern Conference match-ups tomorrow.
Cover photo courtesy of Voice of Nigeria. Other photos courtesy of: Detroit News, Forbes Mag, World Sports Review, Grizzly Bear Blues, Sportskeeda, Tounesna News, Oregonlive.com, Scorum.