Postseason basketball is what separates the mediocre teams from the championship contenders. Teams that do not belong in the playoffs get quickly eliminated in the first round, whereas teams that want to compete will show up each and every game like their life depends on it. The regular season is meaningless if a team is unable to get the job done come playoff time.
Over the past decade, there has been a fairly sizable gap in competition between the Eastern and Western Conference, however, it has never been more apparent than this season. When comparing the two conference’s playoff teams, there is a clear disparity with the East being extremely top-heavy and the West being much more competitively balanced.
Eastern Conference teams like the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, and Heat have dominated their first round series with three out of those four teams sweeping while the number one seeded Bucks look to close out the Magic on Wednesday.
In comparison to the Western Conference, every series is a nail biter with any team having a chance of advancing despite any predetermined seeding. Here is an overview of every Western Conference series as of August 25, 2020.
Los Angeles Lakers (1) / Portland Trail Blazers (8)
One of the most highly anticipated top verse bottom seeded matchups in NBA history with LeBron James and the Lakers returning to the postseason for the first time since 2013 to face off against Damian Lillard’s red hot Portland team. Lillard was coming off an incredible offensive stretch to help them squeeze into the playoffs and he brought his hot streak right into the series.
In a shocking upset, Portland was able to steal Game 1 in large thanks to Lillard continuing to carry, while the Lakers shot a horrific 35.1% from the field and 15.6% from 3-point range. Los Angeles came back with vengeance in a one-sided Game 2, even with James only scoring 10 points. And after a slow start to the series, the King finally entered playoff mode and went off for 38 and 30 respectively in Games 3 and 4 to gain a 3-1 series edge.
Even with the deficit, never count out Portland with that dynamic backcourt. Lillard has a history of coming through in clutch situations in the postseason and CJ McCollum can go off at any point. Anthony Davis looked to be the main source of offense for Los Angeles early on, but now with both him and James starting to heat up, the Lakers are starting to look more and more like a number one seed.
Los Angeles has the momentum right now, but if Dame Time is able to kick in once again, this series can be turned right back around.
Los Angeles Clippers (2) / Dallas Mavericks (7)
A series that many felt would be a cakewalk for the Clippers was their matchup against the Mavericks. The young Dončić/Porzingis combo can be lethal at times, but many felt that they were no match for the star power and depth of the Clippers. Last year’s Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, a top three MVP Candidate last season in Paul George, and 3x sixth man of the year winner Lou Williams should be able to handle an inexperienced Mavericks team with ease.
However, it has been anything but easy for this very talented Clippers team. Four letters, L-U-K-A. Dončić has single handedly kept Dallas within striking distance and has put them in position to actually take the series.
Los Angeles was able to take Game 1 with solid performances by Leonard and George, but Dončić was able to put up a staggering 42 points in his playoff debut. His hot shooting carried over to Game 2 to help Dallas even out the series, however, the key factor to that game was the shooting drop off from Paul George that has continued to linger throughout the series.
George has shot a dreadful 10/47 (21.3%) from the field from Games 2-4. When a superstar struggles this mightily, the team is bound to have its issues. Even with George’s shooting difficulties, Leonard was able to lift the Clippers to a Game 3 victory. And with Porzingis out the following game, Kawhi was almost able to will them to a Game 4 victory as well, if not for Dončić hitting a game winning buzzer beating three in overtime.
Dončić is averaging 31.5 points per game this series with back to back triple doubles in Games 3 and 4. This epic series has been much closer than anyone could have anticipated, and it will be very intriguing to see who makes it to the second round.
Denver Nuggets (3) / Utah Jazz (6)
Possibly one of the most surprising series of the postseason so far is between the Nuggets and the Jazz. Denver was favorited slightly, being the higher seeded team, but in general the matchups on the court were fairly even entering the series.
The phenomenal play by Donovan Mitchell, who has proven himself to be one of the league’s best guards in this series alone, has helped the Jazz take a 3-1 lead on a tough Nuggets team. In what you can almost call a warmup game for the Jazz, Mitchell put up an astonishing 57 points (3rd most in postseason history) only to lose in overtime.
However, after a disappointing opener, the Jazz have refused to look back, winning Games 2 and 3 in dominant fashion, and taking Game 4 thanks to clutch play down the stretch. Utah has just played some sensational basketball to take the lead in this decisive series and Mitchell averaging 39.5 points per game has definitely helped their cause. If the Jazz can continue to play as a unit with Mitchell continuing to shoot lights out, then they will be able to close out this series.
However, Denver is a well-built team and there is a reason that they are the number three seed in the very strong Western Conference. Players like Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić are All-Star caliber and can carry Denver at any time, while wildcards like Michael Porter Jr. can catch Utah off guard. Right now, it seems like Utah is in firm control of the series after an exhilarating Game 4, but it can really go either way.
Houston Rockets (4) / Oklahoma City Thunder (5)
Houston and Oklahoma City are two very quality teams that match up pretty well, but without much star power involved with Houston’s Russell Westbrook being injured, the entertainment level of this series was expected to be limited. Quite the contrary has occurred as intensity keeps rising, despite the Thunder looking to be almost written off towards the end of Game 3.
The Rockets were able to take the first two games with relative ease as Harden put the team on his back in Game 1, and they played very good team basketball Game 2. Houston was on their way to gaining a 3-0 series lead, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hit a clutch three late in regulation and Daniel House Jr. missed a key free throw down the stretch to allow overtime.
This opportunity allowed Oklahoma City to steal a game that they really had no business winning as Houston really let that one slip away. The win was all the Thunder needed to get back into the series and after a close Game 4 victory, this series is back to being up in the air. Houston has been letting games get away lately, meaning that if they can improve their crunch time play, then they can come out on top.
On the flip side, Oklahoma City is riding the momentum of two consecutive clutch victories and with a solid roster and great coach in Billy Donovan, anything can really happen.