If the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are heavy favourites in their series, these two remaining Western Conference matchups are anything but clear cut.
New Orleans Pelicans @ Portland Trail Blazers
This is going to be a compelling series with potentially major consequences. Either Anthony Davis or Damian Lillard is heading for a first round exit and a summer of questions. Before we get to that, we should see a highly competitive matchup with a seven-game feel.
The Blazers’ momentum tailed off during the final week of the season, but Lillard and CJ McCollum can catch fire from deep in an instant. And they only need the slightest amount of airspace to get their shots off. That said, New Orleans is well constructed to challenge that duo, with Jrue Holiday and E’twaun Moore both solid perimeter defenders. Holiday has quietly put together an excellent year and will have a big role to play on both ends of the floor.
Portland also have to figure out a game plan for containing Davis. Jusuf Nurkic will get the first crack at subduing him, but Davis should dominate that matchup. Terry Stotts may find more success by putting Al-Farouq Aminu on him. Either way, Davis is good enough to take this series away from the Blazers if he is assertive from the start.
Home court advantage redresses the balance somewhat for the Blazers, but there is every chance that this series swings back and forth several times. In the end, it could come down to some of the more peripheral characters like Portland’s Evan Turner and New Orleans’ Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic. Moe Harkless’ knee injury did not get a lot of attention at the time but the Blazers desperately need him to return at some point in this series.
Utah Jazz @ Oklahoma City Thunder
Again, this series is not likely to be over quickly. These teams are evenly matched despite their different playing styles.
The Thunder need the best version of Russell Westbrook here – aggressive but under control while trusting his team-mates to make shots. The threat of Rudy Gobert may deter some of his drives but he cannot settle for mid-range jumpers. With some tense fourth quarters ahead, Westbrook has to share the ball and let Paul George shine as his sidekick.
And what can we expect from Carmelo Anthony? The last remaining hope is that Anthony has been saving himself for the postseason. Oklahoma City need him to be a reliable, efficient third option. The Steven Adams-Gobert battle will be a fiery duel within the duel.
Utah have faced adversity all season. They have crafted an elite defense and will not be daunted by the Thunder’s star power. After all, they won 29 of their last 35 regular season games. Despite an outstanding regular season, Donovan Mitchell is a rookie and will have to prove he can handle the playoff intensity. If he wobbles, scoring may become a challenge for the Jazz.
Oklahoma City may have the superior top level talent but Utah get more balanced contributions across the roster. Joe Ingles, one of many Jazz players who fits perfectly in Quin Snyder’s system, will need to keep up his hot shooting from three-point range.