Previewing Nuggets-Jazz, Raptors-Nets and Clippers-Mavericks

With four series getting underway Monday and the other four Tuesday, previews will be released on those corresponding days.  Below are previews for the Nuggets-Jazz, Raptors-Nets and Mavericks-Clippers series, all of which tip off Monday.

10:30 AM PT playoff basketball is very nice.

Celtics-Sixers preview can be found here

No. 3 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Utah Jazz

For two teams that have questions about the viability of postseason success, Aug. 8th’s double overtime thriller between these two certainly quelled some fears.  Donovan Mitchell played like the best player on a championship team, hitting tough shot after tough shot to keep Utah in it after controlling most of the game.  Jamal Murray – in his bubble debut – matched Mitchell at times after Michael Porter Jr. brought Denver back in the third quarter.  Denver just pulled it out, and they’re in good shape to do it again in this series.

If Utah’s lack of firepower wasn’t pressing enough, Mike Conley’s absence for what looks to be at least two games of this series only adds to it.  The chemistry between him and Mitchell had obviously been shaky throughout the year – Utah moving Conley to the bench prior to the league’s suspension generated more success for the Jazz.  But Conley was shooting 37.5 percent from three on 5.4 attempts per game, and given that Emmanuel Muiday is the replacement for Conley, it’s a much bigger loss than January would have indicated.

Jordan Clarkson has produced the instant offense Utah hoped for when they traded for him prior to the deadline, but the point of that trade was to support the offense when Mitchell wasn’t on the court.  The Clarkson-Mitchell duo had a net rating of -0.7 this season, and a brutal -6.6 net rating in 83 minutes during bubble play.  

Utah’s best offensive lineup isn’t very good at offense.  It’s a group that will need Joe Ingles to be its second-best player, Royce O’Neal to emerge as a sharp-shooter and Rudy Gobert to, well, stay on the floor.

That should be doable against Nikola Jokic.  Denver won’t go small on Utah, play five out and force Gobert out to the perimeter much.  He’s not someone you’re going to feed, but pick-and-rolls with Mitchell or Clarkson could be an easy way to get buckets.  It forces Jokic to have to play defense, whether that be him hedging or dropping and going up straight up to contest.

The loss of Bojan Bogdanovic is crippling without Conley.  Things were going to be tough enough for Utah in this series without the Croatian sniper.  Conley at least provided a makeup for some of the shooting lost.

Denver is without key guys too, though.  Gary Harris and Will Barton aren’t expected to play for the Nuggets in Game 1 – Denver has been without them throughout the entire bubble thus far as the pair have been dealing with hip and knee injuries, respectively.  Counting Harris as a loss might be generous, his spot in the rotation might have been in question with the rise of Michael Porter Jr and PJ Dozier coupled with solid play from Monte Morris.  Harris’ shooting fell off a cliff during the regular season, making him a tough play for a team that has dealt with similar problems as Utah.

Porter Jr. might have solved those, though.  Now that Michael Malone is finally playing him, the 6’10 forward from Missouri is shining, and looks like the top five pick some projected him to be in the 2018 draft.  The skillset is the type that develops into a top ten player in this league someday.  He can get any shot he wants with his size, and make any shot with his scoring ability.

He’s the type of player that Murray probably never will be.  Denver’s playoff exits have been tied to their reliance on the offense Jokic creates, which can be figured out easily if a team seals the passing lanes and defends cuts.  That’s led Murray to have to create for himself and the team, and it hasn’t gone too well.

The problem is that Porter Jr. would thrive as the first option rather than the second or third.  Malone’s been resistant to fully turning him loose, which is odd considering Murray’s late arrival to bubble play.  In Murray’s first game back, Porter Jr.’s was 0-5 in the first half, and found themselves down 14 as a result. Porter Jr. then went on a tear in the third that got Denver back in the game, and he finished with 23 points.

Porter Jr. can’t get phased out like that, even if Denver gets back Harris and Barton and can use those guards off Jokic. He represents the highest ceiling the Nuggets can reach.  If Denver works through Murray or relies on Jokic too much, it allows Mitchell to become the best player on the floor, and as we saw last weekend, that can be trouble for Denver.  Even without substantial help, Mitchell can do what he wants.  He’s that good.

Malone’s unwillingness to give Porter Jr. a role elongates this series.  Denver doesn’t have to defend that well for Utah to struggle offensively.  They might actually not have to defend well at all.  The longer Porter Jr. doesn’t play, the more time Mitchell has to go off.

It will have to take a superhuman effort from Mitchell to win this series though.  He’ll have Torrey Craig on him, who’s done a good job in the past.  Combine that with the workload that he will have – which is a large one even with Conley on the court – and it’s tough to see Utah posing a real fight.  But they did last Saturday, and it was all because of Mitchell’s stardom.  If that’s what he can do alone, then his potential with an actual surrounding cast (which a player like Bogdanovic would be featured in) is scary to imagine.  For now, our viewing of that will be delayed.

Prediction: Nuggets in 6

No.2 Toronto Raptors vs. No.7 Brooklyn Nets

Despite being the 2-seed vs. the 7-seed, this series feels like even more of a mismatch than Magic-Bucks, with Orlando having at least some hope in attempting to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo (more on that series tomorrow).

The Nets are just trying to get to next season with a large part of their rotation not even in the Orlando bubble due to various injuries and COVID-19.  With that, it’s probably best to just look at this series in terms of how Brooklyn could put up a fight.

They’re going to need massive games from Caris LeVert, who has shined in the absence of heavier ball-handlers like Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving.  In their loss to Portland Thursday night, LeVert showed what he was capable of: taking on a No.1 scorer role and doing it in a way that was efficient and translated to winning.  LeVert went toe-to-toe with Damian Lillard, who was at the peak of his powers, and almost won.

Part of that could be pinned on LeVert literally not being guarded – Portland’s defense was pathetic in the do-or-die match.  Imagine what LeVert might’ve been able to do if they weren’t trying.

He will certainly face increased defensive pressure against Toronto.  No team is longer and has the plethora of wings the Raptors do.  Options range from OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Terence Davis or even someone like Norman Powell.  Those guys are all lockdown defenders.

If LeVert is neutralized, Brooklyn is toast.  Massive shooting performances from the likes of Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs and company would have to be in store.  Perhaps there would have to be a Jamal Crawford game, which would be incredibly entertaining, hilarious and also be the most Toronto thing ever.

Toronto should dominate this series and it shouldn’t be close.  But, if LeVert continues to stay hot, it could be a really good sign of things to come for the Nets, whether he’s on their roster or not next year.

Prediction: Toronto in 4

No.2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No.7 Dallas Mavericks

It’s a testament to how good the Western Conference is, but for Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks to draw this matchup in the first round is just unfair.

Dallas felt like a way better team than one that will likely go home in the first round.  (Arguably) The best offense of all-time according to various metrics should not be facing the team that should win the title right off the bat.  A team that had a top five finisher in MVP voting should be making serious noise.  Dallas felt better than a one-and-done postseason showing.

The Clippers are a disastrous matchup for the Mavericks.  No one is going to stop Doncic – which is just an asinine thing to say about a 21-year-old – but Los Angeles has arguably the two best wing defenders in the league to put on him.  While Dallas didn’t post the highest offensive rating ever this year without others aside from Doncic producing, he’s the engine behind the car.  It’s a pretty fast one, too.

It seems unlikely that the others are going to make the Clippers really pay.  Despite having snipers like Kristaps Porzingis, Seth Curry, Maxi Kleber and others, it’s tough to get them the looks they’re used to if Doncic is getting clamped.  The Clippers don’t have to send so much help on the Slovenian star – Leonard and George can probably handle it.  That allows the other defensive menaces to stay closer to their guys – the shooters that Doncic so frequently kicks out to.  The shots that typically go down for Dallas may not in this series.

That’s the just offensive half.  Dallas finished the regular season 18th in defensive rating and had the second worst number – an ugly, ugly 120.6 – throughout the eight seeding games.  Their best defender is Dorian Finney-Smith, who had a good year but wasn’t allowed to reap the credit for it given his team’s performance – his effort just didn’t matter.  Doncic and Porzingis typically have their feet glued to the court.  Seth Curry will get picked on because of his size.  Kleber is surprisingly switchable and athletic on the defensive end – him against a Marcus Morris or JaMychal Green isn’t the disaster the other matchups are.

Doncic is going to have to pull some seriously special stuff in this series to keep Dallas around.  Him against Leonard or George pits a top four offensive player against a top one to three defensive player.  It’s a fascinating matchup, and the winner of it determines the series.  If Doncic can take on either of them, then no one ever would have been as good as he is at this age.  It would be historical.  It would probably break the league.  Doncic might get anointed the league’s best player right then and there.

The craziest part is that it’s not totally, 100 percent inconceivable either.  If Doncic single-handily won this series for Dallas, we’d just go “Oh, he’s just doing this a lot earlier than we expected to.”  It’d be stunning, but it also wouldn’t be that surprising either.  If anyone can do it, it’s him.

The problems on the defensive end for Dallas just seem insurmountable.  Not only do they not have anyone for Leonard, but they don’t have anyone for basically anyone else on the Clippers roster either.  That team is juggernaut offensively at their best, and they’re going to finally be that in these playoffs.  Remember how daunting their closing lineup was last year with the Lou Williams-Montrezl Harrell two-man game?  Take that and add Leonard and George as your wings, who can also emerge as 1A and 1B scorers if they want to do so.  This team has top-end talent and depth – it’s a rare combination in a league dominated by stars.  Because of that, this series should be a breeze for them.  

Prediction: Clippers in 5