The NBA Western Conference Playoffs head to the second round with a changing of the guard. The defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers were ousted in six games by the Phoenix Suns, a team that hadn’t reached the NBA Playoffs since 2010.
Also, Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers lost in six games to the shorthanded Denver Nuggets. Portland parted ways with head coach Terry Stotts, who had coached them since 2012.
The two teams that knocked out established contenders will meet in the second round of the playoffs. The Nuggets are on a mission to make it to their second-consecutive Western Conference Finals appearance. Last season, the Nuggets overcame 3-1 deficits against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers to reach the conference finals, where they lost in five games to the Lakers.
The good news for Denver is that the Lakers are eliminated from the playoffs. The bad news is that the Nuggets have to continue to overcome the loss of guard Jamal Murray, who was instrumental in their playoff run last year, after he tore his ACL on Apr. 12 in a game against the Golden State Warriors.
The Nuggets faced the Trail Blazers, who eliminated the Nuggets in the second round in 2019, in the first round without Murray. Their guard trio of Monte Morris, Austin Rivers and Facundo Campazzo needed to fill the void lost by Murray if the Nuggets were going to overcome Portland’s guard duo of Lillard and CJ McCollum.
They filled in admirably and chipped in a combined 36.1 points per game (PPG). Michael Porter Jr. and trade deadline acquisition Aaron Gordon provided the Nuggets the wing defense they needed along with huge baskets in key moments.
However, the leader of the Nuggets has been center Nikola Jokic over the past few seasons and once again, the NBA MVP candidate put on a stellar performance to lead his team past the Trail Blazers. In Game 5, with the series tied at two, Jokic put up 38 points with 11 rebounds and nine assists, leading the Nuggets to a 147-140 overtime win despite 55 points from Lillard.
Jokic finished the series with 33 PPG and 10.5 rebounds per game (RPG), guiding the Nuggets to their third-straight Western Conference Semis appearance.
Their opponent is the Phoenix Suns, whose first-round series win over the Lakers was their first playoff-series win since the 2010 Western Conference Semis when they swept the San Antonio Spurs. The Nuggets will face off with the Suns in the playoffs for the first time since 1989 when the Suns swept the Nuggets in the first round.
After finishing with a perfect record in the NBA bubble last August, the Suns set out to capitalize on the momentum and break their decade-long playoff drought. The Suns traded a bevy of players and a 2022 first-round pick for point guard Chris Paul, who has had a knack for getting the most out of his teammates throughout his career.
Paul excelled in this role and with 16.4 PPG and 8.9 assists per game in the regular season, Paul helped the Suns to break their playoff drought.
Once the Suns got to the postseason, they had to get past the Lakers with Paul playing through a shoulder injury. Devin Booker stole the spotlight in his first postseason series in his NBA career with 29.7 PPG. 2018 first-overall pick Deandre Ayton showed why he was worth that pick with 15.8 PPG and 10.7 RPG. Guard Cameron Payne was the x-factor in the series against the Lakers with 12.5 PPG and a 42.3 three-point field goal percentage.
The Suns defeated the Lakers in six games and are one series win away from their first WCF appearance since 2010.
This series between the Nuggets and Suns will go the distance. Both teams have a clear superstar and plenty of firepower on the wings to match each other blow-for-blow.
Despite missing Murray, I see the Nuggets barely coming out on top. The Nuggets’ guard trio gives them enough depth and offense to win shootouts when needed. Also, with Gordon and Porter Jr. manning the wings, I see the Nuggets winning the battle in the perimeter with their size and shooting ability. Also, Jokic is unstoppable and I see him winning the battle with Ayton inside.
Prediction: Nuggets in Seven