NBA Western Conference playoffs burning questions: Can Thunder make a run?

The wild, wild west is set in terms of its matchups and taking a second to process what we’re about to witness, you realize quickly that things are about to get even wilder.

What was the West Finals last year is now a first-round matchup as the Nuggets square off against the Lakers, there’s a star-studded battle of big threes between Minnesota and Phoenix, while Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving squaring off against Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and James Harden is nothing to sneeze at, either. The biggest treat for basketball fans in Canada is having the chance to bask in the glory of MVP-calibre Shai Gilgeous-Alexander featuring in playoff games.

The eight West teams will be telling themselves this is their year, but the way these teams have lined up, there’s weaknesses that could be exposed early that prove a fatal blow down the line.

Here is one burning question for each playoff team in the West:

(1) Thunder vs. (8) Pelicans

Can New Orleans beat up Oklahoma City inside?

One potential area for the Pelicans to exploit against the Thunder is rebounding. Despite holding the best record in the West, Oklahoma City finished with the fourth–worst defensive rebounding rate in the league.

While Zion Williamson’s physicality would certainly have been useful in this regard, how effective Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance Jr., and forwards like Trey Murphy III, Naji Marshall, and Herbert Jones can be in attacking the offensive glass could play a huge role in giving New Orleans a puncher’s chance in this series.

In general, the Pelicans will need to dominate in terms of physicality, as the Thunder went all-in on skill-ball this season with Chet Holmgren at the five, and so that cat and mouse between whether his offensive and defensive versatility can win out against Valanciunas’ more traditional, bruising style will be interesting to watch.

Can Oklahoma City live up to its top-seed billing?

It’s worth remembering that with how stacked the West is, this is not your typical 1-8 matchup. New Orleans finished one win shy of 50 wins which means it finished the season eight wins behind Oklahoma City.

Led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder dispatching the Pelicans in five games or fewer would be a very serious statement that they may be young but they can very much be about their business.

If the Warriors or Lakers found a way to the eighth seed, inexperience would have been a convenient excuse in a potential series defeat for the Thunder. Gilgeous-Alexander has played just 13 playoff games in his career and zero since 2020, Holmgren is a rookie, while their third banana Jalen Williams hasn’t tasted the playoffs yet either. Well, the Pelicans have played just one playoff series in the past five series and so experience is no excuse here.

Winning the series will be one thing, but doing so convincingly will lay down a marker even in the absence of Williamson.

(2) Nuggets vs. (7) Lakers

How much of a loss was Bruce Brown and Jeff Green, really?

You have to squint to poke holes at the reigning champions but one thing worth wondering is how well the young bench tandem of Christian Braun and Peyton Watson can contribute to this team in the playoffs.

Bruce Brown was a very impactful player during the Nuggets’ championship run last season and particularly so against the Lakers. Jeff Green had his moments too. Nikola Jokic is the rising tide that raises all boats but one thing that has been true of Denver during his time as the fulcrum is how much the team struggles when he’s on the bench.

These are the margins opponents will have to capitalize on while also finding a way to compete with Denver’s elite starting five.

Can the Lakers validate “competitive sweep” claims?

After the Nuggets swept the Lakers in the West Finals last playoffs, some were of the opinion that each of the four games were very competitive. The Lakers trailed by just three with under two minutes remaining in Game 1, led after three quarters in Game 2, trailed by two heading into the fourth quarter of Game 3, and led by 15 at halftime in Game 4.

If the Lakers want to validate those claims and disprove that it wasn’t just a case of the Nuggets doing no more than was required in each of those games then that starts with these series.

Confidence should be sky-high for the Lakers. Including the win over the Pelicans in the Play-In, the team has now won 12 of its last 15 games and boasts the third-best offence since the trade deadline. Denver out-executed L.A. in the final three games of last year’s series but the Lakers have been very good in the clutch this season, finishing with the best clutch record (games within five points or fewer with five minutes remaining) in the league at 24-9.

The roster will require recalibration in the summer anyway, but the extent of that recalibration could well be determined by how much of a gap there is between the Lakers and Nuggets this time around.

(3) Timberwolves vs. (6) Suns

Can the Wolves make the “best player in the series” belief irrelevant?

Anthony Edwards is absolutely incredible and one of the future faces of the league but Kevin Durant is the best player in this series. Some might even argue that Devin Booker is a better player than Edwards. The long-held belief in the NBA is that having the best player in the series presents a huge advantage in a series and the Suns potentially having the two best players in the series could be a fatal blow.

Minnesota will argue the path to accomplishing that is stifling defence that negates the powers of Booker and Durant. The Wolves had the best defence in the league for the majority of the season and the second-best defence since the trade deadline. Rudy Gobert may be in line for his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award but it will be fascinating to see how he copes if dragged into pick-and-roll actions involving Booker and Durant.

Karl-Anthony Towns returning in time for this series is huge for the Wolves and he’ll be the X-Factor in terms of balancing out the top-end talent between the two teams.

Can the Suns make continuity irrelevant?

While Phoenix has the edge in terms of elite talent, it certainly lags behind in terms of continuity. Minnesota went through its growing pains of working in Gobert next to Edwards and Towns last season and have been excellent this season.

The Suns are an impressive 30-15 over its last 45 games but injuries for both Bradley Beal and Devin Booker have resulted in the Suns’ big three of Durant, Booker, and Beal playing just 40 games together.

Little details can make a big difference in execution in the playoffs and this series is tight enough where Phoenix will have to ensure those 40 games and the talent advantage is enough. It was in the regular season as the Suns won all three meetings between the two teams.

(4) Clippers vs. (5) Mavericks

Are the Clippers on the verge of a Harden-esque flameout?

It’s looking like the same old story for the Clippers as Kawhi Leonard is questionable for Game 1 of this series due to inflammation in his knee.

The bigger concern, though, is that the team has been in a semi-tailspin for the last couple of months. After starting the season 3-7 and enduring some growing pains due to the acquisition of James Harden, the Clippers won 31 of the next 39 games. Leonard was playing MVP-level basketball, Harden was orchestrating the offence, and Paul George was complementing them perfectly.

Since then, though, L.A. has gone just 17-16 with the 18th-best offence and even more alarmingly, the eighth-worst defence. The team hasn’t won more than two in a row since early February, highlighting just how inconsistent this team has become with its habits. Harden’s best defence the last two months came when he jokingly contested a Leonard jump shot. The Clippers have flamed out of the post-season miserably in the past, but this one may just take the cake.

How good will the Mavericks playoff defence be?

When a team has both Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, scoring points is not going to be an issue. What has been a problem is surrounding Doncic – and Irving more recently – with enough good defence to negate their deficiencies on the other end of the floor.

Since the Mavs acquired Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington, this has been a transformed team on that end of the floor. Dallas finished with the seventh-best defence after the trade deadline, and having rim runners and protectors in Dereck Lively II and Daniel Gafford at the five along with Washington’s defence has fundamentally changed the fit of this roster for the better.

If the Mavericks can carry over that defence into the post-season, a conference finals appearance is within reach.

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