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Western Conference Playoff Review

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

It has been an amazing first two weeks of the NBA playoffs. It’s been breakout after breakout for the next generation of NBA stars like Ja Morant, Devin Booker, Trae Young, and Deandre Ayton, showing they’re all made for the big stage in their playoff debuts. Fans should be thrilled that the game, thus far, has proven feisty and competitive, with blowouts being few and far between. With the Eastern Conference Semifinals matchups set with the Milwaukee Bucks vs Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks vs Philadelphia 76ers, and out in the Western Conference, we have the Los Angeles Clippers vs Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns vs Denver Nuggets. This year's championship winner will be a team that has never won before or hasn’t won a championship in decades.

Starting with the Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz series, the Jazz closed out the Ja Morant-led Grizzlies 126-110 in Game 5 behind Donovan Mitchell’s 30 points, ten assists, and six rebounds. He was a flamethrower all game long, shooting 11 of 16 from the field and five of eight from 3-point range in 29 minutes of action. Mitchell was the best player on the court and the emotional leader of the team, scoring on and talking smack to Dillon Brooks, who was being physical with him after the Jazz superstar made a tough 3 in his grill.

The odds-on favorite to win the Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert, was a monster on both ends of the court. He finished with 23 points, 15 rebounds, three blocks, and two assists in 33 minutes of action. Jordan Clarkson showed exactly why he was the NBA’s 2020-21 Sixth Man of the Year, scoring 24 points on 45% shooting. The Grizzlies backcourt of Morant and Brooks each finished with 27 points, with Morant contributing 11 assists and seven rebounds as well. Jonas Valanciunas had 18 points but also struggled with some foul trouble throughout the game, while Jaren Jackson Jr. had 18 points of his own.

The Grizzlies were down by as much as 26 points midway through the second quarter 60-34 and were down by 24 at the half 75-51. Both teams shot the ball well, with the Grizzlies shooting 46% from the field, while the Jazz shot 51%. The points in the paint battle was very close, with the Jazz having the advantage 60-52. The Jazz clearly won the rebound battle, cleaning up 51 boards to 39 from Memphis. The Grizzlies are a young and exciting team with a lot to build from these playoffs, but the Jazz showed why they were the best team in basketball this season. Utah will play the Los Angeles Clippers in the semifinals.

The Portland Trailblazers and Denver Nuggets series ended with the Nuggets taking care of business in Game 6, winning 126-115 in Portland. It was a shame for the electrifying Damian Lillard to go out like this after a blistering, fantastic display of shooting in Game 5. He scored 55 points on 17 of 24 shooting and 12 of 17 from 3. A new NBA single-game playoff record, formerly set by a sniper himself, Klay Thompson, who had 11 in 2016. Nobody else scored over 20 points in Game 5 to help Lillard in a game that went to double-overtime and saw his backcourt mate CJ McCollum step out of bounds on one late, crucial possession after struggling to shoot the ball all night. Robert Covington missed two easy dunks, and Carmelo Anthony shot a pitiful 27% from the field. The series looked all but over for the Blazers, after losing despite Lillard’s historic performance.

The duel of Nikola Jokic and Lillard has been a treat to watch all series long with both players averaging over 30 points per game, while shooting the ball with profound efficiency. Jokic, the favorite to take home the MVP award this season, closed out the series with a 36 point, eight rebound, six assist performance, in which he picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter before coming alive later in the game.

Michael Porter Jr.'s ascension as a player has continued throughout these playoffs, starting off with four straight triples and finishing the game with 26 points, five boards, and four assists which helped take pressure off Jokic. Monte Morris had 22 and Aaron Gordon scored 13 points. It was a high-scoring first half between the two teams, with Portland ahead 68-61. Lillard had 28 points and 13 assists but struggled from 3, unlike Game 5, shooting just 3 for 11 and 40% from the field overall. McCollum had 21, but also shot poorly from deep with Norman Powell chipping in 17, Jusuf Nurkic with 13, and Melo with 14 points.

The Blazers had no answer for Jokic all series long, causing Nurkic to get in foul trouble for the majority of the series and forcing him to commit five fouls in the closeout game. The Blazers 16 turnovers cost them, especially in crunch time. They had a hard time stopping the Nuggets from scoring in the paint, allowing 50 points inside for the Nuggets, compared to 38 for Trail Blazers. The Nuggets move on to the second round to play the winner of the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers series, while the Blazers will have questions to answer this offseason after a disappointing first-round exit in another series in which Lillard went bonkers, and the others didn’t show up to assist.

There’s trouble brewing in the city of Los Angeles, as both the Lakers and Clippers are down 3-2 in their series. Starting off with the Mavericks and Clippers, no team in this whirlwind of a series has won a home game, with every game ending with the road team coming victorious. The Mavericks took the first two games behind magician Luka Doncic, who had a 30-point triple-double in the first game and a 39-point performance in the second game.

The Clippers’ two wing stars, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George were facing the whole world on their shoulders in Game 3, and things did not look good in the beginning. Doncic and the Mavs got off to a scorching hot start, hitting 3 after 3 with Doncic, getting Ivica Zubac in the pick and roll on the switch. Doncic then exposed the mismatch with a step-back 3 or driving to the cup. The Mavs were up by as much as 19, but then Doncic went to the bench. Leonard and George roared the Clippers back into the game, eventually taking the lead and momentum. Doncic had 44 points in the game and suffered a cervical strain in his neck at the half of Game 3, but it was Leonard and George who came up with the last laugh, as Leonard scored 36 and George scored 29. Reggie Jackson also scored 16 in Game 3 and Marcus Morris contributed 15.

Game 4 saw the Clippers win at American Airlines Arena in Dallas once again, behind Leonard’s 29 points and 10 boards, with Doncic dealing with severe pain in his neck that hindered his mobility. The Mavs shot a horrid 35% from the field and just 16% from 3 point shooting range. Kristaps Porzingis has been a disappointment and a no-show in this series, while Tim Hardaway Jr, Dorian Finney-Smith, Max Kleiber, and Jalen Brunson have been fairly inconsistent game-to-game. Game 5 was at Staples Center and Doncic put on an exhilarating performance, dropping 42 points, eight boards, and 14 dimes. He torched the Clippers’ defenders all night long with step-back threes, fadeaways, and finding open shooters.

The 2018-19 Rookie of the Year did this virtually by himself, with Hardaway as the only other teammate in double figures (20). Leonard shot terribly, shooting seven of 19 from the field for just 20 points and a crucial airball in crunch time. George had 23 points, 10 boards, and six assists but had two excruciating turnovers in the last five minutes of the game and passed up the chance to take the lead in the winding seconds of the game with the Mavs up one. Reggie Jackson had 20, Morris had 16, and Nicolas Batum finished with 10. Rajon Rondo was ineffective, shooting some airballs throughout the game, yelling at Leonard after he airballed his 3, which went viral on social media right after

Second-year guard Terance Mann passed up an easy go-ahead layup to Batum to make it a one-point game, which led to a Batum miss and Hardaway grabbing the rebound.

The Clippers bounced back in Game 6 and Game 7 to win 104-97 and 126-111, respectively, of which both games presented a win-or-go-home scenario. The two way force, with Leonard having 45 points with six rebounds in Game 6 and 28 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists in Game 7, flirted with a triple-double.

The perennial superstar continues to show why he’s one of the best playoff performers in NBA history. His All-Star running mate, George, had 20 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists in Game 6 and followed that up with a 22-6-10 line in Game 7. Jackson also came up big in both games, scoring a combined 40 points in the final two games of the series. The Clippers made adjustments in Game 6, switching Leonard on Doncic in the pick-and-roll which made it tougher for him to get wherever he wanted to get on the floor, as he did prior in the series. Doncic had a 29-8-11 line in Game 6 but shot inefficiently from the field.

Doncic wasn’t the only one struggling to shoot, with the team shooting just 41% from the field, and 32% from three. Hardaway was the only other Maverick with more than 20 points (23) which wasn’t enough to close the Clippers out in Game 6. Doncic had an amazing Game 7 with 46 points, seven boards, and 14 assists, doing it all for the Mavericks. Finney-Smith had a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds, Boban Marjanovic had 14 points with 10 rebounds, and Porzingis, who’s been considered invisible and ineffective all series long had his best game of the series with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Ultimately, the Mavericks shot a dreadful 27% from 3, 64% from the line, all while committing 14 turnovers in the process. The Clippers will play the Mitchell-led Utah Jazz in the semifinals.

The Lakers were eliminated by the Suns in Game 6 at Staples Center. The Lakers’ star forward Anthony Davis tried to play with an injured groin but was immediately taken out within five minutes of the game, lacking the mobility to move at game speed. The Lakers were destroyed in the first quarter 36-14, led by the flaming hot Devin Booker who obliterated the Lakers and finished with 47 points, eleven rebounds, and three assists in the closeout game. The orchestrator of the Suns and a savvy point guard, Chris Paul had a pedestrian eight points but had 12 assists in his 29 minutes of action.

More importantly, he set the tempo of the game and made key baskets when his team needed him to step up. Jae Crowder, who was a key part of the Miami Heat’s final run last year, was a major contributor in Game 6 with 18 points and eight rebounds, giving this team toughness and grittiness on both ends of the floor while also being able to shoot the 3 point range. LeBron James finished with 29 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists but looked gassed thanks to the Suns’ onslaught of 3s possession after possession.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 19, Dennis Schroeder had 20, and others such as Wesley Matthews and Talen Horton-Tucker each had 12 points. Kyle Kuzma was nonexistent, continuing to show inconsistency, shooting just one of six from the field scoring just two points and four boards, not being that reliable third scoring option they expected he could be after they acquired Davis. The Suns shot a blistering 50% from the field and 51% from three, with Booker hitting eight alone. The efficient shooting of the Suns was just too much for the James-led Lakers to overcome. The Suns will play the Denver Nuggets, led by passing maestro Jokic and his scoring sniper in Porter Jr.

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