The two Western Conference semifinals matchups are finally set after a pair of tightly contested Game 7s. Each of the remaining four teams is loaded with talent and enters the second round of the postseason with high expectations. Will we get the much-anticipated Battle of L.A. in the conference finals, or will Houston and Denver pull off respective upsets? The Crossover staff makes their Western Conference semifinals predictions and weighs in on how they see the two upcoming series shaking out.
Clippers over Nuggets in six: I’ve said all along: The Clippers are the type of team that is only going to get better each series. A team plagued by problems in the bubble is developing a rhythm. Paul George is starting to come around. Kawhi Leonard looks every bit the Finals MVP. Meanwhile, Patrick Beverley is expected to return to terrorize Jamal Murray. Nikola Jokic needs to have a historic series for the Nuggets to compete with the Clippers in this one, and even that might not be enough.
Lakers over Rockets in five: Houston ground out a win against the Thunder, but after watching plus-sized Oklahoma City have success against the small-ball Rockets, I’m wondering whether a beleaguered Houston team will be able to hold up to the physical pounding the Lakers are likely to give them. Just like against Portland, L.A. will have to contain a dynamic backcourt. But Harden struggled mightily with his three-point shot against the Thunder, and Westbrook is prone to some wild shooting nights. I’m expecting Houston to toss up between 50 and 60 threes per game in this series. It might have to make close to 40% of them to win.
Clippers over Nuggets in six: Nuggets-Jazz was the kind of epic NBA playoff series that leaves the winner wiped out at the start of the next round. The Clippers finally started to look like the team we expected to see at the end of the first round, and they should thank the Mavs for pushing them there. Whenever Patrick Beverley is ready to go, the Clips can glue him to Murray as much as possible and go from there. The Clippers still have the deepest and most versatile team in the league. The Nuggets are still young and finding themselves.
Lakers over Rockets in seven: What a fascinating matchup. The Lakers have to chase James Harden and a healthy Russell Westbrook around, but the Rockets will try to win with small ball against Anthony Davis and LeBron James. It is really hard to have faith in Harden and the Rockets—too many postseason disappointments, plus they barely escaped a burn-the-program-down loss to the Thunder. And yet ... I'm counting on Westbrook's desire, Harden's skill and the Lakers' flaws to make this a good series.
Clippers over Nuggets in six: The Clippers are not a great matchup for a Denver team that often labors to defend the perimeter. The Nuggets are just going to have to score a ton of points, and Murray is going to have to remain on fire the entire time. I do think Jokic should have a better series now that he doesn’t have to back down Rudy Gobert every 45 seconds. But I don’t know whether it’s enough to beat L.A. four times, particularly with Kawhi's strongly asserting himself at the moment.
Rockets over Lakers in seven: Why not? This depends on the Rockets making an inordinate number of threes, because I don’t see how they'll keep LeBron away from the rim, but the Lakers aren’t infallible here, and neither is their defense. Chalk is boring, and I’m changing my original thought process.
Clippers over Nuggets in five: This series will be a fun battle of the duos. Leonard and Paul George have combined to average 51.3 points in the playoffs so far, while Murray and Jokic averaged 57.9 points through the Nuggets' first series. When it comes to which team will advance, experience may reign supreme. Leonard is battle-tested in the postseason, while George seems to have found his groove after a cold streak. Meanwhile, the Nuggets may be fatigued after fighting back from a 3–1 deficit against the Utah Jazz. The Nuggets have momentum on their side, but the hot-shooting Murray, Jokic & Co. may find difficulty against a well-rested and defensive Clippers team. It would not be surprising to see the Nuggets put up a fight, but the Clippers sport the more well-rounded roster heading into the matchup.
Lakers over Rockets in six: After going the distance against the Thunder, the Rockets' small lineup will move onto a new challenge in the Lakers. Los Angeles has size on its side in Davis and LeBron, and the team will likely use it to attack the Rockets in the paint and on the glass. Still, the Rockets went 2–1 against the Lakers in the regular season—though James missed one game—leaning on a 40–11 advantage on made three pointers during their two victories. James Harden and Russell Westbrook, despite fatigue, will need to lead on offense while the team must adjust defensively against the aggressive Lakers. Los Angeles may struggle with its offensive depth against Houston, but the team's size should be enough to lead it into the next round.
Clippers over Nuggets in seven: The Nuggets always seem to go seven, so give them that. They’ll go the distance, but will they win? Unlikely. Murray will finally meet his match in Leonard. Like the Lakers, the Clips are rested, while the Nuggets—Murray especially—have to be gassed after the Jazz series. So it looks like we’ll get the delectable conference finals everyone has wanted to see all season. Of course, this being 2020, we’ll probably end up with Rockets-Nuggets.
Lakers over Rockets in five: The Rockets didn’t exactly inspire much confidence against the Thunder. A well-rested LeBron is going to present all kinds of problems for a team that has to be bailed out by the defense of James Harden. It will be an intriguing matchup of small ball vs. some pretty brutish bigs. Unless Houston goes consistently wild from three (and the Rockets have put up tons of them, of course, without making too many of late), bet on size.
Clippers over Nuggets in five: Murray’s extended hot streak saved Denver’s season, but he and the Nuggets face a far different task against the Clippers. Paul George remains an elite wing defender despite his shooting woes, and Leonard is effectively the Terminator. Perhaps Jokic will feast against an undersized unit, though it still may not be enough. Los Angeles should cruise to the conference finals.
Lakers over Rockets in seven: This could shape up to be an all-time series if the Rockets’ superstars hold up their end of the bargain. And there’s some reason for optimism despite James Harden’s poor Game 7. Harden and Westbrook in particular fared well against Los Angeles in the regular season, and the Lakers don’t have any perimeter weapons like Luguentz Dort. Davis will likely feast. LeBron could go on a roll and end the series in a hurry. But I’m skeptical of the Lakers cruising against such a dynamic opponent on both ends. Expect a close series, with the Lakers' size making a difference in Game 7.
Clippers over Nuggets in five: Leonard has been a machine, and Paul George appears to have turned a corner. Since the Nuggets struggled so much against the Jazz, I don't see them getting past the Clippers. Plus, the Clippers have never made it past the second round of the playoffs in their 49-year franchise history. They're long overdue to shatter that ceiling.
Lakers over Rockets in six: I wouldn't be surprised if the Rockets dominate Game 1, again leading Charles Barkley to make a fool of himself by claiming the Lakers will be swept out of the series. (They'll be working off some rust after having five days off before Friday.) But the Lakers will win the series. LeBron and Davis have both been playing well at the same time, which spells trouble for the rest of the league. Even though the Rockets beat the Lakers twice this season, the Lakers should dominate with their versatility, while the Rockets will be living—and dying—at the three-point line.
Clippers over Nuggets in five: While the Nuggets and Jazz series came down to the wire, Denver is now stepping up in weight class. And I think the in-between defense they will face from L.A. could cause them some issues, as Murray will have to deal with the likes of Leonard and Paul George at times. On the other end, I was not impressed with the Nuggets' defense. So, overall, I think the Clippers physicality combined with them having a proven playoff performer in any round with Leonard and seemingly rounding into form at the end of their series with Dallas means trouble for Denver. I could see a lot of games where the Clippers pull away in fourth to close them out.
Lakers over Rockets in five: I just don't see how Houston can contain LeBron, whether that means he finishes the play or gets into the teeth of the defense to set up his teammates. I also expect the Lakers to get a bunch of second-chance points on the offensive glass. The only problem I could foresee is if they matchup-hunt Davis too much due to his size advantage to the point that it works to their detriment because they get out of rhythm. Overall, the Rockets' variance that comes with the three-point reliance will be their undoing against a team with the size and talent of the Lakers, and I trust one James over the other when it comes to crunch time.
Clippers over Nuggets in five: The Nuggets advanced past the Jazz in a memorable slugfest, but their challenge gets even tougher in the next round. While Denver star Jokic’s presence and production will likely force the Clippers to play slightly bigger lineups than they might otherwise, the depth of Los Angeles’s roster allows the club to play a variety of styles. Leonard and Paul George should thrive on the wings, and L.A. also has a number of players who can limit Murray. The Clippers franchise has never made it to the conference finals, but that should change this year.
Lakers over Rockets in five: Houston inched by Oklahoma City on Wednesday to set up a matchup of contrasting styles. The Rockets have the potential to shoot L.A. out of a game—or maybe two—but the Lakers should dominate the offensive and defensive glass and have the series’ two best players. Davis struggled in Game 1 against the Blazers, but was a force for the remainder of Los Angeles's series victory over Portland. He seems poised to be another force on both ends in the Western Conference semifinals, one they the Rockets have no answer for. Add in that the Lakers are well-rested, and it seems likely the Rockets’ bubble experience will end sooner than later.