SALT LAKE CITY – True to form, the top four seeds in the Western Conference each advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs.
Move along, nothing to see there. To put it another way, none of these teams accomplished anything beyond the expected.
The only possible exception is the second-seeded Phoenix Suns, who eliminated the defending champion and injury-hampered Los Angeles Lakers. The Denver Nuggets deserve a little nod for beating the perpetually playoff-disappointing Portland Trail Blazers without second-leading scorer Jamal Murray.
For the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, the first round was dog bites man. The only way each series would have been newsworthy is if one or both lost, which didn’t happen, although surprisingly the Clippers needed seven games to handle the Dallas Mavericks.
On the whole, barring an improbable last-second heroic play in the final game, no top-four seed celebrates winning a first-round series beyond the customary handshakes. This rings especially true for teams with legitimate championship aspirations, knowing the playoffs are a two-month process.
As the top seed, a designation bestowed upon them for having the conference’s best record, the Jazz had the easiest route to the second round by dispatching the Memphis Grizzlies in five games. With the ninth-best record over the 72-game regular season, the Grizzlies beat the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors in the play-in tournament to qualify for the playoffs.
As impressive as the first-round win was, the Jazz won’t get much credit for beating a team that was clearly overmatched. Even Memphis’s only win was considered somewhat of a fluke with extenuating circumstances by virtue of Donovan Mitchell unable to play with an ankle injury. With Mitchell back, the Jazz won four consecutive games and rarely trailed in any of them.
If the Jazz seek widespread respect, they have got to beat the fourth-seeded Clippers in the upcoming best-of-seven series. It is proving time, when the Jazz can live up to the expectation that invariably comes with having the conference’s best record and, in this case, the overall best mark in the NBA.
Put up or shut up, it’s here for the Jazz over the next two weeks.
No excuses now, unless a rash of injuries decimates the roster. Not even missing guard Mike Conley, who is listed as day-to-day with a mild hamstring strain, is enough to justify the favored Jazz blowing this series.
To many NBA experts, the Clippers have the best roster in the West capable of finally overcoming years of frustrating and pathetic play. The all-important championship pedigree is there with two-time winner Kawhi Leonard and Tyronn Lue, who won one as the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016.
This Jazz roster has experienced little success beyond the first round, with a nucleus that has lost twice in the second round since making the playoffs in Quin Snyder’s third year as the coach. Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson each saw limited duty with the Washington Wizards and Cavaliers, respectively, on Eastern Conference teams that advanced to the second round.
And don’t be deceived by the standings, which showed the Clippers finishing five games behind the Jazz. The Clippers orchestrated finishing in fourth place, as Leonard and fellow all-star Paul George combined to sit out 38 games.
The prevailing thought was the Clippers wanted no part of the Lakers, preferring to play their crosstown rivals only if both teams made the Western Conference finals. Whether they admitted it or not, the Clippers believed the easiest path to get there was through the Dallas Mavericks and then the Jazz.
The Clippers got what they wanted, facing a top seed that many critics question. Now it’s up to the Jazz to silence the doubters.