2021 NBA Western Conference Semifinals Preview

By Saransh Sharma, Anish Dhondi, & Nikhil Pradeep

The Utah Jazz breezed through Round 1 as the #1-seed in the Western Conference as expected, as they downed the very exciting and young Memphis Grizzlies team in 5 games. The Phoenix Suns pulled off a historic First Round victory over LeBron & the Los Angeles Lakers, albeit injuries and whatnot, have to give credit where credit is due. The Denver Nuggets overcame Damian Lillard’s insane series to beat Portland in 6 games. The Los Angeles Clippers, after falling 0-2 down and later having their backs against the walls down 2-3 going to Dallas, pulled off the series win in 7 games and overcame the transcendent brilliance from Luka Doncic. With no LeBron James to lead the way in his conference, and the first Finals set to come without him or Stephen Curry since 2010, the NBA is seeing a new opportunity in 2021, a glimpse of what the future without the NBA’s two best players currently, could look like. Here are our predictions for the Western Conference Semifinals:

Saransh’s Predictions

  • #1 Utah Jazz vs. #4 Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers finally look like the team we have been waiting for them to be. Since last season, this team has been very underwhelming compared to their high expectations, which, with players like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on your roster, it makes sense. This season seemed to be even worse than last, as they were staring down a First Round exit twice, but through some adjustments from Head Coach Tyronn Lue and incredible play from Kawhi and PG, the Clippers prevailed in 7 games. 

Utah, on the other hand, shut doubters up after dominating the Grizzlies in the First Round, showing their variety as a team, whether it be with their elite 3-point shooting, their stifling defense, or their incredible depth. Donovan Mitchell has been getting foreshadowed throughout these Playoffs, as people are constantly talking about Trae Young, Luka Doncic, and Devin Booker being the rising superstars in the NBA, but Mitchell has to be in that conversation. Donovan Mitchell was exquisite against Memphis, and he will cause major problems for the Clippers and got consistent help from Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson, and Rudy Gobert on both ends of the floor once he returned to action in Game 2. It was easy for the Clippers to beat the Mavericks due to Luka not having much help offensively despite his great playmaking, and yet they still struggled to finish off LAC in 7 games. Utah will be a whole different team compared to the Clippers, as Utah is the deepest team in the NBA this season. Jazz in 6.

  • #2 Phoenix Suns vs. #3 Denver Nuggets

It took 18 seasons, at 36 years of age, for LeBron James to be eliminated in the First Round of the NBA Playoffs. It took 10 Playoff appearances in the past 11 seasons for LeBron to be halted from making the NBA Finals. That is how gritty this Suns team is, and all credit to them. Devin Booker showed he is a superstar in this league and will continue to be for years to come, Chris Paul showed his value even while playing through injury (let us not take away too much from Booker, however. He is the biggest reason they got past the Lakers, not Paul, as many think), and the rest of this young core of players, along with Head Coach Monty Williams, showed why they are a force to be reckoned with. Denver, without Jamal Murray, and a rather limited rotation, got past Portland in 6 games, and Nikola Jokic showed that he is the best Center in the NBA. This Suns team now comes into this series being the favorites and with even higher expectations. This series seems to be in their favor on paper, but despite being shorthanded, 

DeAndre Ayton, a big part of the Suns’ series win, struggled for the most part against Anthony Davis, and it does not get easier against Jokic. Not only will he have to guard Jokic in the post and on the perimeter, but he may need to have a larger scoring role to keep up with Jokic and the high-scoring Nuggets, and he has little to no chance at that. Denver presents the coaching advantage, as well as the scoring option advantages, and the CP3 injury and his erratic play at the moment have me favoring Denver. Worrying about Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, and Facu Campazzo all as consistent scoring options, and having to stop the selfless play and ball movement of this team is much different from what the Suns saw against the Lakers. For this young team, it could prove to be too much. Nuggets in 6. 

Anish’s Predictions

  • #1 Utah Jazz vs. #4 Los Angeles Clippers

After the Clippers barely slip away and make it past the Mavericks in Game 7 despite Luka’s heroics, they will now be facing the best regular-season team in the league. The Jazz beat the Grizzlies easily, and we did not expect anything less, but how they will stack up against a good team like the Clippers will be interesting. People underrate the Jazz despite having the best record in the league because they do not have any flashy, big-name superstars. This team is led by Donovan Mitchell offensively and Rudy Gobert defensively. But what makes this team dangerous is not their star power, but their ability for any given player to score 10+ points a night. This makes it harder for opposing defenses to defend because this team does not rely on one superstar. However, when it gets down to it, Donovan Mitchell can step up to take that role. The Jazz are a very well-constructed team with one of the best defenses intimidating offenses with Gobert right in the middle of it. Even with all this, the Clippers have Kawhi Leonard who will not go down without a fight. Kawhi will get his points but I think this series is defined by who performs better between Donovan Mitchell and Paul George. Based on the recent series’, I do not have full confidence in Paul George’s playoff performances and will trust Mitchell to perform better. The series will be close but I believe the Jazz will come up top because of their depth and defense in which the Clippers rely on a big performance from Kawhi to win. This game will stretch out to a Game 7 but the well-rested Jazz team will be able to come out on top while the Clippers run out of energy after fighting past the Mavericks just recently. Jazz in 7.

  • #2 Phoenix Suns vs. #3 Denver Nuggets

Phoenix has been fantastic in these playoffs led by Devin Booker and defeated the injury-ridden Lakers knocking LeBron out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time in his career. This Suns team will be tough to beat and matchup up against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets will be good. For the Nuggets vs. Blazers series, the Nuggets won primarily because Portland had no one on the floor who could guard Jokic without getting into foul trouble, thanks to Jusuf Nurkic. I believe Jokic will still get his 30 points a night because he is the league’s MVP. However, the Suns will be able to contain him late game much better having Ayton and can even limit MPJ with Crowder’s defense. In the end, the Suns’ offense is just too hard to stop as Devin Booker has been cooking, and if the Nuggets try to completely trap him after the first couple of games as they did to Dame, the Suns have much better support to step up and take this series. Chris Paul looks healthy again and DeAndre Ayton has been the best big man in the Lakers series so this team can be scary even aside from Booker. The Nuggets will put up a fight and even without Jamal Murray the bench players have stepped up, but in the end, the Suns are the better team and have a good shot at going to the NBA Finals. Suns in 6.

Nikhil’s Predictions

  • #1 Utah Jazz vs. #4 Los Angeles Clippers

I think it is time we give the Jazz the respect this team deserves. Now that LeBron James and the Lakers are out of the conversation, the entire Western Conference opens up hugely for any team to take the now vacant throne. The Utah Jazz have 3 All-Stars on their roster and a deep bench that allows them to stick with pretty much any team they want. And in their last series with the Grizzlies, they handily took care of business after an off-color performance in Game 1, the only game they conceded in the series. Donovan Mitchell has fully grown into his role as a leader on this team, Rudy Gobert is a defensive force, and Mike Conley provides veteran savvy. To top it all off, the team still has 6th Man of the Year nominee Joe Ingles and 6th Man of the Year winner Jordan Clarkson. Now, all that being said, it is NOT going to be easy. The Clippers are an established team that we know the limits and potentials of, and it is very clear that Kawhi Leanord is the key to their success. If he gets shut down or at the very least slowed down during each game in the series, there is immense room for failure, given the rest of the team’s inability to make up for lack of offensive production. You have to give credit to Utah for their counter-offensive proficiency. Paul George is the hit-or-miss factor in this series as well, and him being either All-Star PG13 or Playoff P impacts the Clippers’ chances in this series. It is also worth keeping in mind that the organization barely beat the Dallas Mavericks in 7 games to a team that only had Luka Doncic doing all of the scoring for them. When matched up against a much better all-around team, I do not see the Clippers breaking their streak of disappointing finishes to seasons, and I predict the Utah Jazz moving on. Jazz in 7.

  • #2 Phoenix Suns vs. #3 Denver Nuggets

This matchup is a rather odd one because there is no LeBron or Steph to catch the media’s eye. For Phoenix, it is clear that Devin Booker is the key piece to the puzzle, and stopping him slows down the entire Suns’ offense. But that is much easier said than done, as was proven in their 6-game series win versus the Los Angeles Lakers. Couple this with the mastermind that is Chris Paul, even with an apparent shoulder injury, and you get a team that has the pieces to contend. The issue lies outside of those two players. Deandre Ayton is a force near the basket at both ends, but he is not the Rudy Gobert-type of dominant the Suns may require. Jae Crowder is streaky and cannot be depended on for a bucket at crucial points in games. The rest of the supporting cast is young and unproven, but still, they do have the skills necessary to stick with it and stay in games as they did pretty much all season. On the flip side, Denver looks like a more complete team, even with the loss of Jamal Murray. Nikola Jokic has picked up the slack and added to his already crazy MVP case, and the rest of the team is stepping up. The mid-season addition of Aaron Gordon has proven very useful, as he provides spacing as well as energy to a now lacking Denver attack (again due to Jamal Murray’s injury). Michael Porter Jr. is very much living up to his draft hype, providing that spark whenever he is in the game. Monte Morris is putting up career numbers when they matter most, and Austin Rivers has proven to be a pivotal late-season signing as well. Denver looks like what Phoenix can be with a couple more free-agent signings and trades. The Suns are too unproven and young for me to pick them winning this series, and for that reason, I have the Nuggets in 6.

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