What an exciting first round of basketball! Each team that advanced showed they were the better team in every aspect. Only the Utah Jazz finished their series in five games or less. The Los Angeles Clippers were the only team to extend a series to seven games and win one home game. Two teams in the remaining series will advance to play in the conference finals, so it’s time to decide which two have the best chance of advancing.
#1 Utah Jazz v. #4 Los Angeles Clippers
Two heavy-weights in the west square off in a series that defines which team moves forward after the season. If the Clippers lose, does star Kawhi Leonard opt out of his contract or does he help recruit more talent to a roster needing some depth at guard? Will the Jazz and coach Quinn Snyder adapt and take the next step towards a championship? These are the questions that mediums will ask and try to answer on their own when the series loser is determined.
Utah made quick work of a feisty and inexperienced Memphis team, a better outcome than if they played Golden State. Utah’s top five ranked defense frustrated Ja Morant and company, but it’s doubtful they can stop proven veterans Rajon Rondo and Kawhi Leonard in a close game. The guard matchup will be fun with Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley taking on Paul George and Reggie Jackson.
Los Angeles’ forwards could determine the series with Marcus Morris, Nick Batum and Kawhi Leonard overpowering Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic. Both Ingles and Bogdanovic are great defensively, but trying to score against the Clippers’ stars will be difficult since their three play like a complete unit.
Verdict: This won’t be a short series, and that plays to coach Ty Lue’s favor since he’s 4-0 in game seven’s. Barring serious injuries, Los Angeles should advance to their first conference finals game in franchise history.
Prediction: Los Angeles wins series 4-2
#2 Phoenix Suns v. #3 Denver Nuggets
Both teams knocked out first round opponents who had a shot at the championship. Phoenix dispatched last year’s champion Los Angeles Lakers, due to injuries Anthony Davis suffered. Denver took advantage of a Portland Trailblazers team that scored only 14 points in their last game. Whoever wins this series is a favorite to represent the western conference in the finals because of coaching and quality veteran players who lead both on and off the court.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. had themselves a great end to their first round series, averaging 63 points their last two games. Coach Michael Malone used every asset as his disposal since the season-ending injury to Jamal Murray’s left knee. Forwards Aaron Gordon, JaMychal Green and guards Monte Morris and Austin Rivers are additional help on the three point line and initiating a passing game where Jokic can take control inside the paint.
Suns coach Monty Williams re-shaped Phoenix’s roster and poise in big moments. Veteran Chris Paul came in not just to implement Williams’ style, but for leadership and a starting role. The Suns have one of the best guard duos in the west, with Paul running point and Devin Booker as their top shooter. Forwards Mikal Bridges and Torrey Craig have to step up against Denver’s forward tandem of Green and Porter Jr. The most pressure is on Jae Crowder to nullify Aaron Gordon. If Crowder, an eight year veteran, can smother Gordon most of the series, Phoenix can make the conference finals.
Verdict: The Nuggets are deemed a favorite because of Jokic’s MVP-caliber season. Denver’s problem is they don’t have the right guards to stop either Devin Booker or Chris Paul. Facundo Campazzo doesn’t stand a chance against one of the best point-guards to play professional basketball, and Booker is leagues ahead of Austin Rivers and Monte Morris. Phoenix’s forwards stand a better chance since that’s the help Jokic will need. Williams is the better coach and has a balanced roster that buys in.
Prediction: Phoenix wins series 4-3