NBA Western Conference playoff picks: Who will win Nuggets-Suns, Clippers-Jazz series?

Of the four teams remaining in the Western Conference playoffs, one has never made it out of the second round. Another team advanced to the conference finals four times but couldn’t get past that round. The other two teams advanced to the NBA Finals only to run into Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

This season, the path is clear for a potential first-time NBA champion from among the West semifinalists.

That adds another dimension to this season’s Western Conference semifinals when the the No. 2 Phoenix Suns and No. 3 Denver Nuggets meet Mofor Game 1 and No. 1 Utah Jazz meet the No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers for Game 1 on Tuesday.

The Clippers, and their celebrated roster, blew a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets last season and are trying to advance past the second round for the first time. The Jazz advanced to the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998 only to be denied during the Bulls’ second three-peat.

The Nuggets advanced to the ABA Finals, losing to Julius Erving and the New York Nets in 1976. They joined the NBA the next season and have never advanced to the NBA Finals. The Suns have played in the NBA Finals twice, including in 1993, when they got swept up in the Bulls’ first three-peat.

A big key to the Jazz beating the Clippers will be their ability to contain two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (2). (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports)

But there’s no juggernaut standing in the way this time around.

With that in mind, here are Western Conference semifinal predictions from USA TODAY staffers Matt Eppers, Mark Medina and Jeff Zillgitt:

Clippers vs. Jazz

ZILLGITT: Jazz in 7. This should be another fun and competitive series from the teams that had the top two net offensive and defensive efficiency ratings. Utah’s all-around versatility should send it to the conference finals for the first time since 2007.

MEDINA: Jazz in 7. The Clippers have overcome their demons with self inflicted wounds. But even if Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are at their best, it's not enough to beat the Jazz. Utah has a top-five ranked offense and defense because of All-Star talent (Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley), secondary scoring (Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles) and superior coaching (Quin Snyder).

EPPERS: Clippers in 6. Kawhi Leonard and company finally found some resilience in overcoming a 3-2 deficit in the first round to advance. With Leonard as the focal point, the Clippers have the lineup versatility to neutralize Rudy Gobert's impact in the middle of the Jazz defense. And on the other end, Leonard remains the ultimate stopper to deploy against Utah's wing scorers when Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic or Jordan Clarkson gets hot.

Nuggets vs. Suns

ZILLGITT: Suns in 6. Would have loved to seen Jamal Murray (out with a knee injury) in this series. Even without Murray, the Nuggets have options. Just not as many as Phoenix with Chris Paul, Devin Booker and depth.

MEDINA: Nuggets in 7. Denver has continued to defy expectations even without their star point guard (Jamal Murray). So what should stop them now? MVP candidate Nikola Jokic has been consistently reliable both with his play and his health. And that should become a huge variable given Chris Paul's fluctuating health with his right shoulder.

EPPERS: Suns in 7. Phoenix will do what it can to slow Nikola Jokic, but he's the presumptive MVP for a reason and has still been dominant despite Denver's injuries. The Suns can take advantage around Jokic, especially against a depleted Nuggets backcourt. Devin Booker should be able to find plenty of room to score, and Chris Paul will have mismatches to exploit with the Nuggets short on perimeter defenders.

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