The Lakers went from being down 13 points to Golden State at halftime and staring a play-in game just to earn the No. 8 seed to opening the weekend as the favorite to win the Western Conference.
Being able to avoid an extra play-in game in addition to the top-seeded Jazz provided a huge boost to the defending champs, who proved against the Warriors that their elite defense can carry them even when the offense sputters.
Despite their standing as the No. 7 seed, Los Angeles remains formidable but is definitely more vulnerable since LeBron James looks rusty, Dennis Schroder is still trying to get his wind back after missing time due to health and safety protocols and homecourt advantage won’t be in the cards for them in any series.
That creates a wide-open environment in the wild, wild West, where only the Jazz will be a heavy favorite in the first round. The Lakers are favored to defeat the second-seeded Suns, while the sixth-seeded Blazers are getting a slight nod in the betting markets to get past the No. 3 Denver Nuggets.
The 4-5 matchup is a rematch of last season’s first-round series in the bubble as the Clippers look to again slide past Luka Doncic-led Dallas. Let’s take a closer look at the Western Conference playoff picture, going series by series.
Jazz, NBA’s lone 50-game Winner, Already Have Playoff Conquests
Utah picked up two major wins before even taking the floor on Sunday for its series opener against either Golden State or Memphis. The first involved avoiding a potential matchup with the Lakers that would’ve eradicated their regular season’s work of finishing with the NBA’s top record, earning the West’s No. 1 seed. They wanted no part of LeBron and Anthony Davis this early in the postseason, even with both coming off injuries.
The second boost came when star guard Donovan Mitchell practiced in full on Thursday, ending a six-week absence after severely spraining his ankle on April 16. Although Utah went 10-6 without its All-Star leader, having its closer and top playmaker back will make life easier for everyone. He’s on track to play in Game 1. While it remains to be seen whether he can be 100 percent or how quickly he can lose the rust, his return is vital barring no setbacks. Point guard Mike Conley is back too, looking spry after missing time to ensure that his hamstring is fully healthy entering the postseason.
Regardless of who the Jazz face, it will be well-equipped defensively with Rudy Gobert dominating the paint. The 7-foot-1 French center has put up a historic season on the defensive side of the ball and is again a terror on the boards. Even if Stephen Curry’s Warriors are the opponent, the Jazz will have the top-shooting team in this first-round since their 38.9 percentage from beyond the arc ranks only behind the L.A. Clippers in the Western Conference. Expect Utah to avoid any first-round upsets.
Second-seeded Suns Open as Series Underdog vs. Defending Champs
The Lakers were installed as a 1-point favorite for Game 1 of their series against Phoenix immediately after getting past Golden State, but betting markets shifted and the Suns emerged as a 2.5-point home ‘chalk’ despite the fact that they’re expected to ultimately lose the series. It’s typically rare that a team expected to ultimately advance isn’t favored in Game 1, but special circumstances exist here since Phoenix will be more rested and at home, where attendance for the series opener has been increased to 11,000 as L.A. hits town.
This series will be the first playoff encounter between the Lakers’ James and Suns’ veteran All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who have been great friends for decades. Both are among the most respected competitors in the NBA and will guide their teams from a leadership and performance standpoint.
James was out of the lineup in the most recent matchup between these teams on May 9 in a game that also featured the absences of Schroder and forward Kyle Kuzma. Despite being short-handed and closing as a 7-point home underdog, L.A. prevailed 123-110 behind Anthony Davis’ 42 points and 12 rebounds in one of the more impressive games he’s put together this season.
Keeping Davis from dominating will be Phoenix’s greatest obstacle in this series since third-year center and former No. 1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton won’t have much help in terms of quality size. Jae Crowder is a proven defender, but would be giving up roughly five inches if he’s stuck isolated against Davis.
Phoenix won the first two matchups against L.A. on March 4 and March 21, but Davis missed both contests and James only played in the first one. The Lakers are listed as a -168 favorite to win the series at FanDuel, which is listing a +136 payout on Phoenix. BetMGM has L.A. at -150 and Phoenix at +125. The expectation across the board at sportsbooks is that we’re in for a lengthy series lasting six or seven games. My call is that we’ll see L.A. prevail in six games, which would pay out +350 at BetMGM, +310 at FanDuel and +290 at DraftKings.
Blazers Expected to Give Nuggets a Major Battle
Despite opening the series in Denver and coming in as the lower-seed, the Trail Blazers are favored to get past the Nuggets at most sportsbooks. BetRivers actually listed it as a pick’em, with each team -110 to advance, but moved numbers deep into Friday with Portland moving to -122 favorite and Denver listed at -103. BetMGM has Portland at -120 and list Denver at even money +100, providing the most value if you’re going to ride with likely MVP Nikola Jokic and his squad. The Blazers are -115 at FanDuel while Denver is -105, while DraftKings actually favors the Nuggets (-115) with Portland at -106 there.
You get the picture. This is expected to be a battle. The Nuggets are being faded by some because of all of their injuries. Guard Jamal Murray tore his ACL late in the season and obviously won’t return. Small forward Will Barton will miss at least Game 1 due to a hamstring issue but is hoping to make it back at some point in the series. P.J. Dozier, who replaced him before straining his right adductor, is unlikely to make it back this round. Veteran Austin Rivers, another guard that has been playing in Michael Malone’s rotation due to all the injuries, is listed as questionable due to a non-COVID-related illness.
Michael Porter, Jr. has really stepped up to help fill the void over the past few weeks and played well against Portland, shooting 51.7 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from 3-point range. He averaged 12.7 points and 6.0 rebounds and should see those numbers increase due to usage. Jokic averaged 29 points against the Blazers, but his averages of 5.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists are well below his season clips of 10.8 boards and 8.3 helpers. Portland has a couple of big centers who are able to give Jokic problems in his former teammate Jusuf Nurkic and backup Enes Kanter, one of the league’s top offensive rebounders.
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have huge edges over the Nuggets projected backcourt of Facundo Campazzo and Rivers. Lillard, who lives for this time of year, combined with McCollum for averages of 42 points and 14 assists against Denver and should be lethal. The duo is bolstered by the addition of Norman Powell and a healthy Carmelo Anthony on the wing, so the Nuggets will have their work cut out for them. Jokic’s greatness will be an obstacle, but Portland has pulled its share of upsets as a lower-seed before and is likely going to find a way to prevail in the series.
Read more with Tony’s Mavericks vs Clippers odds & game prediction.