2020 NBA Playoffs preview: Western Conference Semifinals

Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The first round of the Western Conference Playoffs had plenty of drama; a 3-1 comeback, a 40-point triple double capped by a game-winner and two great seven-game series. While the first-round drama belonged to the West, round two projects to be dominated by Eastern Conference storylines. The action in the West begins Thursday when the Denver Nuggets take on the Los Angeles Clippers. Here is how I see these series shaking out.

  • (1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (4) Houston Rockets
    • Matchup preview: Much like the first round, the Lakers are matched up against a team that shoots a lot of threes and can’t really defend Anthony Davis. This Rockets team takes both of these factors to the extreme, as they will be throwing 6’5 P.J. Tucker at Davis, and they averaged over 50 three-point attempts per game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Lakers struggled with that equation in the first game against the Portland Trail Blazers, but then they clamped down on defense, relied more on LeBron James and Davis, and won the series running away. I think that this similar matchup will play right into how the Lakers have been playing over the last four games, and I don’t think the Rockets will have enough answers on defense for the superstars of the Lakers. The Rockets shoot enough threes to steal a game from Los Angeles, but I don’t think they have much of a chance in this series. They barely squeezed past a Thunder team that only outmatched them in heart and grit, and they will fall in a blaze to the first-seeded Lakers.
    • Prediction: Lakers in 5
    • Betting Angles
      • Lakers 4-1 +240
        • 4-0 and 4-2 are both +320, but 4-1 feels just right for this series. Just like it did for them in the first round, the Lakers pulled it off. The Lakers are better as they present huge matchup issues for the fun-sized Rockets, and they should win this series running away. Houston is just too random for them to be swept in my opinion.
      • Anthony Davis over in points/rebounds
        • His lines will be preposterously high due to the matchup mismatch, but I still think he hits the over. This is the time of the playoffs where AD needs to exploit these types of mismatches, and if the Lakers hope to be title contenders, they need Davis to really exploit being guarded by inferior “bigs”. I think the Lakers will win the title, and this series will be the start of Anthony Davis taking over.
      • Under in total points
        • The Lakers beat the Blazers by locking it up on the defensive end, and I expect more of the same in this series. The Rockets will draw a high line due to their shooting capabilities, but I don’t think they will control the tempo of this series. Three of the five Lakers games went under the total, and four of the seven Rockets games went under. I think it is a safe bet that at least three of the five games this series do the same.
  • (2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (3) Denver Nuggets
    • Matchup preview: After coming back from a 3-1 deficit against the Utah Jazz, the Nuggets have earned the privilege of playing the Clippers in the conference semifinals. Why do I call it a privilege? Because unfortunately for Denver, these two teams do not belong on the same court together in the playoffs. The Nuggets had a lot of positive takeaways from their first series: Jamal Murray emerged as a star and a reliable playoff performer, Nikola Jokic had another strong playoff series and the rest of the team got valuable playoff experience. On the other hand, the series exposed serious flaws with the team. They can’t defend anything, Michael Porter Jr. may be the worst defender in the league and the shooters on the team don’t have reliable shots, which seems like a problem to me. Before the playoffs, I thought the Clippers could be a good matchup for the Nuggets, with no one to stop Jokic, and really only having Patrick Beverley as a good option to defend Murray. Now, it looks like they will be able to suffocate these two guys and dare others to hit shots, which should be a winning formula for them. Also, after a series where Jokic’s laziness on the glass made Rudy Gobert look like the energizer bunny, I don’t feel so good about him going against Montrezl Harrell, the most energetic big in the league. Not to mention the Nuggets will have absolutely no answers for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George; I had no idea Porter was this helpless on defense. Overall, every indicator in this series points to a Clippers victory, and I don’t think there is anything the Nuggets can do to counteract this. Not even if they get the same Jamal Murray as they did in the first round.
    • Prediction: Clippers in 5
    • Betting Angles
      • Clippers 4-1 +200
        • This is the favored outcome, with a Clippers sweep close behind at +220. However, I will put a little on 4-1 and 4-2, which is +350. This Clippers team hasn’t shown consistency all year. They are coming off a six-game series with the Mavericks, and Paul George showed that he isn’t exactly reliable throughout a series. I think that Jamal Murray is who he showed us he was in the first round, and he can do that in at least two or three games this series. Will they win each of these games? Probably not; again, my prediction is a five-game series, but I would be less surprised if it goes six than if it were a sweep.
      • Jokic over in assists
        • In the first round, Jokic averaged 5.4 assists per game, which tells me his line will probably be around 5.5 or 6.5 for most of these games. In the regular season vs. the Clippers, he averaged 7.0 assists per game, equaling his season average. Jokic can be the matchup the Nuggets can exploit, unless the Clippers bring perimeter guys to double him when he gets the ball in the post. If they do this, they will be leaving a man open for one of the best passers in the game to find, and I’m going to bet that he does just that.
      • Kawhi Leonard/Paul George over in points
        • What is the biggest weakness in an already porous Denver defense? The wings. Who can they throw at these two players? Paul Millsap is cooked, Michael Porter Jr. might be the worst defender left in the playoffs, and Jerami Grant spent most of his time in round one getting destroyed by Donovan Mitchell off the dribble. While I do think Grant has a chance to at least contest these guys, he can’t guard both of them, and it’s not like he’s some wing-stopper. The Clippers will score at will with these two during this series, and there is literally nothing the Nuggets can do to stop it. If I had to put a number on it, I would guess Kawhi averages about 35 points per game, and George averages about 28.
      • Jamal Murray over in points
        • To preface this prediction, his points lines were all over the place in round one. For the first five games of the series, his line was around 19.5. In game six, it was 23.5, and in Game 7, it was 31.5. The books will pick a lower line because the Clippers defense is well-respected. Patrick Beverley only played one game in the first round, but he said he expects to play in the opener against Denver. In games where Beverley is playing, I would expect about 23-25 points from Murray; in games where Beverley is out, I would expect closer to 30. Check where the books are setting his lines, and check the status of Beverley, but if you are expecting Murray to crash down to earth after his scorching hot series vs. Utah, I would disagree. I bet he gets at least 30 in half of the games this series.

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