The NBA Playoffs are beginning to heat up, especially on the Western side of the bracket, and while some series are already looking like they could be four-game sweeps there is still a chance at a title for every team still playing.
The NBA Playoffs are back, and thanks to the return of full arenas brimming with screaming fans it feels like the playoffs of old when home-court advantage meant something and could turn the tide of a series.
With that being said there are plenty of teams that need more than just a loud stadium to help them move on from the first round. Some teams need more than others but everybody needs something whether it be a particular player to show out or whether they need better production under the rim from anyone on the team over 6’8″.
And while every team is not built the same, obviously, there are still plenty of the same needs that are being felt by multiple teams whether or not they are currently losing their series, tied with their opponent, or winning 2-0.
Without further ado, here is what every Western Conference team in the playoffs needs in order to win their first-round series and move closer to an NBA Championship:
(1) Jazz vs. (8) Grizzlies
Currently, the series is tied at 1-1 after the Jazz brought Donovan Mitchell back off the injured list and after his performance last night it was pretty simple to see how the Jazz lost the first game: Mitchell runs the floor.
The Utah Jazz needs to pray that Mitchell remains healthy so he can lead the team through the rest of this series, much like he led them through to the best regular-season record in the NBA. Rudy Gobert is a stellar defensive presence. Because of that, the Jazz should have no problem keeping points off the board for the Grizzlies, but without Mitchell that defensive pressure, which leads to offensive bursts, becomes null and void due to newfound reliance on Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanović. This is not slander to Conley, who scored 22 and had 11 assists in game one, or Bogdanović, who scored a team-high 29 points without Mitchell on the court for game one, but their leadership abilities fold under Mitchell’s and it was even obvious when Mitchell was tended to after a hard fall in game two and the Grizzlies started to heat up and almost completed the comeback.
Meanwhile, The Memphis Grizzlies, need to stick with their young gun Ja Morant, who’s averaged 39.5 min/game in the playoffs, because whenever he has the ball in his hands there is a magic that typically follows. Morant had a career-high 47 points in game two, only his second playoff game EVER, which is the most by a player 21 or younger in NBA playoff history–even more than LeBron or Kobe. With Morant on the court, it’s hard to see this Grizzlies team losing, even if they did so last night because his athleticism is unmatched and he has the talent to make everyone around him better–much like a young Russell Westbrook–which should strike fear in the eyes of the Jazz as they travel to Memphis for games three and four.
(2) Suns vs. (7) Lakers
This series is tied 1-1 after the Lakers finished game two with a dagger by LeBron James against a CP3-less Suns that have struggled to find their identity in the playoffs as they did so eloquently in the bubble last season.
The Phoenix Suns are a Cinderella team even though they are the second seed in the Western Conference, largely due to their 11-year break from the playoffs and overall mediocrity during that span of time. With that said, they have something special in this year’s squad and it all stems from Chris Paul, who should have his own award for turning teams around after pitiful seasons prior to his arrival. If you read my article about CP3 over last week you’d know that he is the glue that holds this team from falling from their newfound grace and it showed during game two when he only played 23 minutes due to a shoulder injury. Without him on the court leading the likes of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton to the right spots, it almost looks like a game of pickup basketball, everyone running around trying to find an open space and not truly maneuvering in a fashion that will make them open. If CP3 can’t come back 100% then this series is as good as over, let alone any future series against tougher teams than the reigning champions. And although Cameron Payne has really picked up the slack when CP3 is out, it is not remotely close to the same level of leadership thanks to Paul’s veteran experience and playoff history.
Speaking of the reigning champion, The Los Angeles Lakers, they seem to have these back-and-forth types of games lately where one game seems to have everything go their way: Anthony Davis plays out of his mind, LeBron is not shy with the three-pointers, and the supporting cast does their job well enough to not get screamed at by Frank Vogel. Then they have games like game one against the Suns where Davis is lacking his usual athleticism, LeBron is getting “hurt” every five minutes, and the supporting cast of Kuzma, Caruso and Drummond can’t seem to have anything fall through the bottom of the net. The two different Lakers teams all typically stem from one major factor: Davis playing mad. If AD plays with the same level of intensity and vigor as he did in game two, or during his game against Phoenix on May 9th when he dropped 42, then the rest of the team follows suit by getting open–which is much easier when Davis is getting double-teamed–and LeBron is able to lay back and play to his best skill: perimeter defense.
(3) Nuggets vs. (6) Trailblazers
This series is tied at 1-1 after Nikola Jokić went absolutely OFF during game two, dropping 38 points and leading a Jamal Murray-less Nuggets to victory after dropping game one against a dominant Damian Lillard.
The Denver Nuggets seem to have their identity and culture locked up within the likes of their MVP candidate Jokić. Without Jamal Murray, who tore his ACL in April against Golden State, the Nuggets truly rely on him like they never have before. The good news? Jokić has a great supporting cast that has been mainly built, not bought, like Michael Porter Jr. who is finally playing to the caliber that everybody thought he would after missing so much time at Mizzou, and Monte Morris who is averaging 11 points in his two playoff games so far. It’s easy to see where the Nuggets feel most comfortable: inside the paint, a place where they scored 54 points in game two. If the Nuggets can successfully feed Jokić under the net and keep him out of foul trouble then this should be an easy series for Denver, a team that was in the Western Conference Finals last season in the bubble.
And over on The Portland Trailblazers side of the ball, they still seem to be having issues everywhere other than in the hands of superstar Damian Lillard who is averaging 38 points per game in this series so far. Because of that, it is not Lillard who is going to be the key to victory over the next few games, instead, it’s the overall defense on the inside. Jokić is scoring at will under the rim and because of that, it’s almost impossible for Lillard and Portland to gain or keep any sort of relevant lead, meaning Lillard has to stay on the court for pretty much the entire game. The Trailblazers desperately need someone, preferably Jusuf Nurkic, to step up and play some serious defense in the paint. Easier said than done, I know, but with desperation comes intensity and in every sense of the word Nurkic is desperate to have a good series–his future in Portland is clearly reliant on it–and if he can draw a few more fouls from Jokić and put up more than a measly seven points as he did in game two then Lillard can rest more, the team can pump the brakes every now and then, and the Trailblazers could come out of this series with a serious upset.
(4) Clippers vs. (5) Mavericks
After a thrilling game two that ended with the Mavs winning by 6 it is now a 2-0 deficit that the Clippers must pull themselves out of, and they must now do so in Dallas thanks to their two embarrassing losses at home.
The Los Angeles Clippers may be the most disappointing franchise in the entire league, even before Kawhi Leonard and Paul George arrived, but now the term ‘disappointing’ isn’t even severe enough to describe this team. Two of the best players in the league being added to an otherwise mediocre team does not make a championship contender by any means, and they’re starting to realize that now in LA. So what can they do? What should they focus on if they want to complete this major comeback? Simple…defend Luka Dončić better. The man is a freak of nature and it’s obvious he is making the Clippers look like fools but now is where Leonard’s two defensive player of the year awards come into play, and if he can’t defend any better over the next few games then Luka’s 35 pts/gm are going to look like middle school numbers for the Slovenian superstar. Also, George and Leonard can NOT be the only ones scoring for the Clippers, they need to spread the wealth around if they want to win anything anytime soon.
The Dallas Mavericks are in a great position going into game three: they have homecourt advantage for the next two games, they have a 2-0 lead over a team that tanked the final few games in order to play them, and they have one of the best players in the NBA in Luka Dončić leading their squad on and off the court. The key to continuous victory for the Mavericks flows through him, but not only him, because Dončić is more than just a lethal scorer, he’s a great passer of the ball which shows through five separate Mavericks scoring double-digits over the past two games. It’s that simple for the Mavericks, just get the ball into Luka’s hands and keep him out of foul trouble and let him do the rest; if Dončić can’t shoot the ball he’ll find someone who can, and if they are being crowded by Leonard and the Clippers’ defense than Luka will still find a way to make the play one way or another.