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Predicting the Western Conference First-Round Playoff Matchups

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

The 2020-21 NBA season has flown by at breakneck speed, and just under five months after tipoff, the playoffs are officially here. Utilizing last year’s popular play-in tournament to determine the seventh and eighth seeds in each Conference, the first-round games are set to begin on May 22. With that being said, here are my predictions for the winners of each Western Conference first-round matchup of the 2021 postseason. Playoff seeds are noted in parentheses next to each team.

Utah Jazz (1) vs. Golden State Warriors (8)

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert lays up the basketball during an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Rudy Gobert | Image via Deseret News/Scott G. Winterton

This is assuming that the Warriors defeat the Grizzlies in their matchup to determine the eighth seed. Golden State, dragged into contention by the scorching Stephen Curry, should have no problem shooting their way past Memphis.

Though the Jazz sport the league’s best record (52-20), it would be foolish to write Curry and the Warriors off. Curry was downright transcendent in April, averaging 37.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.6 assists while shooting 51.8 percent from the field and a staggering 46.6 percent from the 3-point line. He’ll look to do the same damage to Utah’s defense with his back against the wall.

Star guard Donovan Mitchell should be back from an ankle sprain suffered on April 16 to give the Jazz a boost in their first-round showdown. While he is a key cog to Utah’s roster, they’ve done just fine in his absence thanks to the stellar shooting of Bojan Bogdanovic and Sixth Man of the Year contender Joe Ingles. Additionally, Rudy Gobert just wrapped up one of the most dominant defensive seasons in NBA history. Their well-rounded roster should best the Warriors if they manage to hatch a plan for containing Curry.

Prediction: Jazz in 7

Phoenix Suns (2) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (7)

Chris Paul and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns discuss during an NBA basketball game.
Chris Paul (3) and Devin Booker | Image via USA TODAY Sports/Mark J. Rebilas

This matchup pits two legends in LeBron James and Chris Paul against each other—they’ve faced off 28 times throughout their careers but have never met in the playoffs. James still isn’t fully healed from a high ankle sprain he suffered in mid-March, but that won’t stop him from giving his all. He’s certainly raring to go after missing the longest span of time in his 18 seasons.

The Suns took arguably the biggest leap from last season to this season, going from missing the playoffs entirely to finishing second in the Western Conference. Paul has a history of lifting teams into relevance, and his first year in Phoenix was no different. He, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton create a dangerous offensive core that loves to grind out every possession—the Suns are fifth-lowest in Pace (97.2 possessions per 48 minutes).

The tandem of James and Davis were shut down in the first half of their play-in game against the Warriors. Despite making good passes as always, James looked hesitant on some of his shot attempts. Davis couldn't find the bottom of the bucket after being defended by Draymond Green. It's easy to write it off as a fluke, but is this lack of aggression a sign of trouble in the postseason? Perhaps.

Prediction: Suns in 6

Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Dallas Mavericks (5)

Kawhi Leonard and Rajon Rondo of the Los Angeles Clippers celebrate during a timeout in an NBA basketball game.
Kawhi Leonard (2) and Rajon Rondo | Image via Getty/Jared C. Tilton

Get the popcorn, because this is going to be a shootout. These two squads met in the first round of last year’s bubble playoffs, with the Clippers emerging victorious in six games. Mavericks phenom Luka Dončić hit an incredible 3-point buzzer beater in Game 4; one game later, Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. stepped on the young star’s already-sprained ankle. (There seems to be a trend of ankle injuries in these breakdowns.)

Dončić insisted that there was no bad blood between him and Morris Sr., but it wouldn’t be surprising to see this year’s games get a bit chippy. Dallas has a porous defense that Los Angeles should be able to exploit, as both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George played at an All-NBA level this year. There’s always a risk of injury for Mavericks big man Kristaps Porzingis, and if that does occur, Dončić can’t carry his teammates against a juggernaut team like the Clippers.

Prediction: Clippers in 5

Denver Nuggets (3) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (6)

Denver Nuggets power forward Aaron Gordon dunks the basketball during an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets.
Aaron Gordon (50) | Image via AP/Mark Mulligan

Firstly, Damian Lillard deserves credit for dragging the Trail Blazers to the sixth seed in a season plagued by injuries. Fellow guard CJ McCollum missed major time after fracturing his foot in January, and stalwart center Jusuf Nurkić has played just 37 games this season due to a broken wrist, a calf strain, and knee inflammation. Lillard has been fighting through minor ankle, rib, abdomen, knee, and hamstring injuries throughout the season, but he has only missed five games.

The Nuggets suffered a major loss of their own when point guard Jamal Murray tore his ACL on April 12. Luckily, they have the front-runner for MVP in the stellar Nikola Jokić, who hasn’t missed a single game this season. Jokić averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists and led the league in player efficiency rating (31.36).

Jokić should have no issue exploiting the lead-footed Nurkić. If Nurkić stops him in the paint, it won’t matter. The Joker will simply hit a mid-range fadeaway or pop a 3-pointer over his outstretched arm. The Nuggets are simply deeper than the Lillard-led Trail Blazers, and this will give them an edge.

Prediction: Nuggets in 7

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