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Roundtable: Playoff race begins to take shape

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It appears that the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers will head into the playoffs as West favorites. Which team concerns you more?

Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): In terms of the entire NBA, I’d expect this to be roughly a 50-50 split. Very few teams can match up physically with either group. For the Nuggets though, I’d be more concerned with the Lakers. While the Nuggets saw firsthand just how dominant the Clippers can be, a lot of Denver’s issues were personnel driven with their starting lineup. If the starting lineup is altered, things might be different. For the Lakers however, it’s a different animal. Anthony Davis is a great big, and the one pick and roll combo that Jokic really struggles with now is a 6’8 point guard combined with a lob threat that can also hit threes. When the Lakers go small, I’m not sure how the Nuggets counter except with the hope to outscore them.

Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): I don’t think the Nuggets can match up particularly well with either team, but I’m going to pick the Lakers for this exercise. I don’t think the Nuggets have anything to stop Anthony Davis and LeBron James, and those two players would play heavy minutes in the playoffs. The Nuggets would have to rely on staying hot from the perimeter for four entire games, and I don’t think they can sustain that level of shooting. They could possibly match up with the Clippers if Jokic is the best player in the series, but I don’t see how Jokic could do that against the Lakers.

Nick Hertzog (@NickHertzogSBN): The Clippers for me, and it’s not particularly close. I’m not scared of playoff Anthony Davis at all. LeBron is LeBron, but the rest of the roster is a patchwork of mediocrity. The Clippers, though, give the Nuggets so many matchup nightmares because of their length. Plus, I think Kawhi Leonard is still underrated as a superstar in this league. He is every bit the player LeBron is in the playoffs, and the Nuggets have no way of defending Paul George at shooting guard unless Coach Malone has a “Coming to Porter” moment. Having said that, the Nuggets probably lose to either of them unless something dramatically changes between now and the 2nd round.

Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): Those are the two worst matchups for Denver in the playoffs, but I’ll take the Clipper as the absolute worst for Denver. The Nuggets don’t have the size to match up to the All-Stars on the Lakers, but the on-ball pressure that the Clippers can put on Denver’s backcourt and wings is a constant thing (and one that Denver struggles with). Denver is in two-way matchup problems with the Clippers or a battle of size and open court vs the Lakers. I think the Nuggets have a better chance to find ways to out-rebound the Lakers and hope Anthony Davis struggles under the spotlight than they do to get away from the 48-minute pressure of the Clippers.

The Denver Nuggets are locked in a battle for the 2 seed with the Clippers. How much more important is the 2 seed than the 3 seed this year?

Blackburn: In terms of winning a first round series, it matters little. The 6 seed will yield a tough series, as will the 7 seed. With the coronavirus becoming more prevalent of late, games could be played without a crowd in any venue (or cancelled altogether). Home court advantage suddenly feels a lot less important. Playing at Pepsi Center in a Game 7 would definitely be preferable to NOT playing at Pepsi Center, but it’s not so important that the Nuggets should stress if they get a 3 seed as opposed to a 2 seed.

Lewis: Getting the 2-seed is important this year if the Nuggets want to have a prayer at advancing farther than they did last year. I think they will be favored in the first round regardless of their opponent, even if it does take them seven games to advance. If they don’t have home court advantage against the Clippers, it would be extremely unlikely that they advance. They should be hoping that the Clippers get pushed down to the 4-seed, but that also seems unlikely.

Hertzog: It depends on whether you would rather face the Lakers or the Clippers in the 2nd round. I would rather face the Lakers, so the 4th seed is probably preferable because I don’t see any way the Clippers or Lakers lose in the first found. Ideally, we want the Clippers playing the Lakers in the second round, but the Clippers would have to fall to fourth, which is unlikely at this point. Regardless, if Denver finishes in the top 4, I still think we can view the regular season as a team success.

Gross: I don’t think 2 vs 3 matters if the Clippers are the second round matchup. Denver should win their first round matchup regardless. I mean if we’re talking about climbing to the 2 seed just to snag the Mavericks and avoid a first round loss then Denver is a paper tiger for real. And I don’t think they can beat the Clippers with or without home court, certainly not the way they’ve looked since the All Star Break. Whether Denver is a 2, 3, or 4 seed I don’t think they can take out either LA team, so the actual seeding doesn’t matter a ton as far as getting to the Conference Finals.

Teams below Denver continue to shift in seeding. Which team should the Nuggets most want to face in a first round series?

Blackburn: I have faith in Denver versus Oklahoma City. Despite the Nuggets losing to the Thunder immediately after the break, Denver has a great chance to match up with Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and the rest of the overachieving Thunder. They are a good team, but the key factor in any playoff series with them is that Nikola Jokic has a matchup advantage over every single player. He plays well against Steven Adams, and though Nerlens Noel is a lob threat big man, Jokic backs him under the rim on any post up. I have faith in Gary Harris matching up with Chris Paul as well.

Lewis: I’ve always wanted Dallas in the first round. While Luka Doncic may be the best player in the series, the Nuggets have the superior team around their superstar. The Mavericks don’t have any way of stopping Jokic inside, and the Nuggets should be able to muster up enough effort to limit the Mavericks offense. Regardless of how the regular season series goes, I would want to see the Mavericks.

Hertzog: The Rockets have no way of covering Jokic, but just on the off chance they get hot from three for a whole series, I’ll say Dallas. As good as Luka has been, he has struggled in the clutch, and second-year players in their first playoffs almost never get out of the first round. I think any first-round matchup is going at least 6, but I think the Nuggets would handle Dallas fairly easily before getting swept by the Clippers in the second round.

Gross: I would take Dallas, but that would require Denver to take the reins again on the 2 seed down the stretch. More likely they fall to 3 or the 4/5 matchup, which means I guess I’d prefer to see the Jazz. Gobert struggles in the playoffs and there are obvious ways to attack what the Jazz do over 7 games. Very curious about an OKC matchup that would barely be televised, though.

The race for the 8 seed is basically the Memphis Grizzlies followed by four other teams. Which team would be the most fun to see make the playoffs?

Blackburn: It can’t be San Antonio, and it certainly can’t be Portland. I’d like to see the Kings. They haven’t had anything positive happen for them in several years, and we’ve already seen enough of Zion Williamson and the Pelicans or Ja Morant and the Grizzlies. De’Aaron Fox is good, and it would be fun to watch a healthy (hopefully) Marvin Bagley go against the Lakers front court.

Lewis: I think it would be the Pelicans. Zion Williamson is an entertaining player, and I think Ja Morant is incredible. I’d like to see the Pelicans steal either Game One or Two in Los Angeles and see the Lakers fans start to worry a little bit about Davis choking against his former team. It would be a great story for the discarded Lakers to make a run for a bit in the first round.

Hertzog: I actually really like Memphis. I think they, OKC, and Toronto are the three best stories of the year in the NBA, and I’m all in on Ja Morant. They’ve made quick work of a rebuild without a star—good for them. The team I absolutely do not want to make it is the Spurs, of course. Let that reign of playoff appearances die a long overdue death.

Gross: I want to say the Kings, just for the sake of long-suffering Sacramento fans who deserve better. But I gotta go with the Pelicans here. Lots of flash and promise, they play hard and have all the chips one could want on their shoulders. The Pelicans would be a fun 8 seed.