As the NBA Playoffs continue to round into form, teams have punched their ticket into the second round of the postseason with wins over first-round opponents. As expected, most matchups ended with the higher-ranked seed moving on and that was certainly the case in the Western Conference where the four highest seeds remain.
In their first-round series, the Utah Jazz showed that it deserves the respect of being the top seed in the west by taking down the (8) Memphis Grizzlies in five games. The way this series began was quite tumultuous for the Jazz organization.
Leading up to the playoffs, star guard Donovan Mitchell missed the team’s final 16 games due to an ankle injury he suffered Apr. 16 against the Indiana Pacers. To the surprise of many, including him, Mitchell was a late scratch from game one of the first round that the Jazz lost 112-109. The decision was met with large amounts of criticism with reports that Mitchell was “upset” with the decision and was quickly cleared to play game two where he scored 25 points in 26 minutes.
From here on out, the Jazz won four straight to beat the Grizzlies and Ja Morant, who averaged over 30 points a game in his first career playoff series.
With the Jazz ending the series back on Wednesday, the team received plenty of time to rest and see which team would face them. Fortunately for the team with the league-best regular-season record of 52-20, the team next on its list had to go the distance for the right to face them.
The series between the (4) Los Angeles Clippers and the (5) Dallas Mavericks was the only one in the first round to go seven games with the Clippers eventually taking game seven in its home court 126-111 Sunday.
A rematch from the first round of last season’s playoffs, the Mavericks looked for revenge after losing to LA in six games in “the Bubble”. Events took a dark turn for the Clippers as the team dropped the first two games at home only to follow that up with stealing the following two games in Dallas. Each team split the following two games in favor of the road team, making it the first time a road team has won the first six games in a playoff series in NBA history.
The main takeaway from that series was certainly the way Kawhi Leonard took over in big ways, especially at the ends of games six and seven. The two-time Finals MVP averaged 32.1 points per game in the series while playing over 40 minutes per game.
Despite winning the series in the end, the Clippers looked lost in many ways when it came to trying to find a way to stop Luka Dončić, who had one of the best series performances of all time, averaging 35.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 10.3 assists all while dealing with a cervical strain in his neck that he sustained in the middle of the series.
The Clippers are going to need a clear game plan for Mitchell right at the tip-off of game one. The Jazz all-star looks to be over the ankle injury that sidelined him for over a month.
We’ve seen Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue make some changes in his starting lineup to account for the looks seen from opponents, such as moving Reggie Jackson to the starting point guard and bringing Patrick Beverly to the bench. Lue could also reconsider how he uses veteran point guard Rajon Rondo in the rotation as “Playoff Rondo”, as he is also known, hasn’t seen any starting time as a new Clipper acquired at the trade deadline.
Ultimately, this series will be decided on whether or not Clippers guard Paul George is able to fight his playoff demons as he did against Dallas where he scored 23.6 points per game and grabbed 9 rebounds per game. This series could be his true chance to shake off the postseason monkey he has had on his back for his whole career.
Injury can also play a huge part in deciding which way this series falls. Clippers center Serge Ibaka is listed as out of game one with a back injury that only allowed for him to play two first-round games in very short spurts. Ibaka reportedly did not travel with the team to Utah. This injury is huge as it will ultimately leave Jazz center Rudy Gobert to feast on rebounds.
On the other end, Jazz guard Mike Conley is dealing with a mild hamstring strain he suffered in game five against Memphis. Conley averaged 17.4 points on 30 minutes per game in the first round, both numbers that can be expected to drop as he nurses this injury. He was reevaluated before game one and has been ruled out for the first game. His presence or lack thereof will certainly be a major factor in determining the victor.
A lot of questions have been asked about how the Clippers ended their regular season by resting Leonard and George for their final few games. While Lue and the coaching staff argue it was merely a precaution leading up to the playoffs, many accused the team of manipulating their seeding to push back any potential matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers. Whether or not there is any truth to that claim, the Lakers are gone, having lost to the Phoenix Suns in six games. With the other Staples Center team out of the way, the Clippers have an opportunity to show they can be the new kings of LA.
The Clippers are put in a position that entails going toe to toe with a top-seeded Utah team in the second round and needing to have the endurance to potentially go the distance again if it wants to make its first Conference Finals appearance in franchise history.
The series kicks off with game one on Tuesday, June 8 at 10:00 p.m. EST on TNT at the Vivint Arena.
Prediction: Clippers in seven