Finally! After the preliminary seeding games, followed by the sudden-death play-in between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Memphis Grizzlies, the stage was finally set for the world to witness the first-ever single-site NBA Playoffs. Sixteen (16) top teams of the NBA stepped forward to answer the call to arms, 8 each from the Eastern and Western Conferences. It is now time to separate the men from the boys.
It is by far the most bizarre playoff circumstance ever conceived in the NBA. After the world was turned upside-down by the scourge of this pandemic, Commissioner Adam Silver and his staff created an ambitious sterile Bubble in Orlando’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The strictest safety protocols were established to ensure that all players, officials and support staff would work together to eliminate the virus within the Bubble. And so far, the NBA’s approach to be able to hold these full-contact games has been successful.
That said, here are the Western Conference playoff partial results as of presstime, after the end of 3 games each in the Bubble.
1st seed Los Angeles Lakers vs 8th seed Portland Trailblazers (Lakers lead 2-1). The biggest surprise of them all is how the 8th seed Blazers are giving the Lakers a good fight. The Blazers had earlier fashioned a down-the-wire victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in to capture the 8th slot and a chance to joust with the Lakers. Game 1 saw the Blazers surprise a listless Laker team 100-93, behind the lights-out shooting of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony. This superb shooting however deserted the Blazers in Game 2, allowing the Lakers to equalize the series 111-88. And on top of that, Damian jammed his finger in game 2, silencing a significant part of the Blazers’ guns. Game 3 saw a back-and-forth battle that pitted the torrid offensive skills of the Blazers against the more disciplined, defense-oriented Lakers led by Lebron James and Anthony Davis. In the end, Lebron simply willed his team to the finish line (116-108) in what was a battle of attrition between the 2 seasoned teams.
2nd seed Los Angeles Clippers vs 7th seed Dallas Mavericks (Clippers lead 2-1). The Clippers got an early present from the refs in Game 1 when Mavs’ gentle giant Kristaps Porzingis was thrown out after getting a 2nd technical foul that was criticized by many as ‘too soft’. After the Clippers won in Game 1 (118-110), the 2nd Game saw more complaints from players on both sides, even as some fans felt the refs were trying to make amends for that game-changing call favoring the Clippers in the previous game. Luka Doncic led the Mavs’ successful uprising this time (127-114), with Kristaps and the other Mav gunslingers providing more than ample support. Seth Curry in particular demonstrated the stuff his bro Steph would be proud of. Game 3 however saw the exit of Luka Doncic due to an ankle injury. The Mavs tried to fight back once again with their 3-point bombers, but the Clippers’ bench depth was just too much. Kawhi Leonard displayed the form that earned for him the MVP of last year’s Finals, but it was their reserves’ consistency that spelled doom for the Mavs (130-122). This is a grueling match between 2 of the finest offensive teams in the league. And the Mavs will not go down without a fight.
3rd seed Denver Nuggets vs 6th seed Utah Jazz (Jazz lead 2-1). The Jazz have simply willed themselves over the Nuggets. The Nuggets took Game 1 in overtime (135-125). While the Nikola Jokic – Rudy Gobert match-up at center has been a toss-up, no one from the Nuggets side can stop the Jazz’ prolific Donovan Mitchell, who torched the Nuggets for 57 points in Game 1. Game 2 saw Mitchell continue his fiery streak, but it was the balanced support from Gobert, Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson which would spell the difference (124-105). Game 3 saw the re-entry of Mike Conley for the Jazz, totally upsetting the Nuggets defensive rhythm (124-87). Unless the Nuggets’ defenses show up, unless they have a sudden mindset change for Game 4, the lopsided wins by the Jazz in Games 2 and 3 suggests that the Jazz will score a big upset and show the Nuggets the door.
4th seed Houston Rockets vs the 5th seed Oklahoma Thunder (Rockets lead 2-1). Despite the absence of former league MVP Russell Westbrook, the small-balling Rockets are fast becoming the darlings of the league. Games 1 and 2 were a pleasant surprise (123-108 and 111-98), particularly when the Rockets’ reserves continued to rain heavy artillery fires even as James Harden rested on the bench in Game 2. The team is showing that they are not just a Harden-Westbrook show. In Game 3, the Rockets led the Thunder comfortably for 3 quarters, before relaxing their guards to allow Chris Paul and his wards to catch up and eventually win in overtime (119-107). If the Rockets 3-point shooting stays hot, and their fast-moving floating zone defense tightens up as it did in Games 1 and 2, it looks like the Rockets will step forward to the next round.
At this point, it looks like it will be the Lebron-led Lakers vs the hot-shooting Rockets, and the talent-laden Clippers vs the wily Jazz gutting it out in the West. The encounters in the west have been exciting heavyweight clashes where every shot, every block, every action mattered; with each team having had their share of aches and pains. Will we see Lebron bring the Lakers back to the promised land? Will the Rockets torrid 3-point sniping continue, leading to the crown finally? Will the Jazz maintain that mental edge to bring them to the next round? Will Kawhi continue his magical ride to another crown and another playoff MVP?
Come and watch the NBA Playoffs. Be entertained, be socially enlightened, and be safe from the pandemic.
More on the Eastern Conference playoff series next.
For a closer look, just click on the pics. Cover photo courtesy of Kim Clement via Associated Press. Other pics courtesy of Silver Screen and Roll, Dallas Morning News, LA Times, Deseret News, NBA.com, Sentinel Colorado, Action Network, ESPN.com, Bleacher Report, SSI.com, Essentially Sports, The Ringer, Odds Shark.