NBA Staff Picks: Will Kawhi be Too Much for the Jazz?

NBA Staff Picks: Will Kawhi be Too Much for the Jazz?

Round 2 of the NBA Playoffs tips off Saturday night with Game 1 between the Bucks and Nets in Brooklyn. While seven teams have already punched their tickets to the Conference Semifinals, the Mavs and Clippers will play Game 7 on Sunday to determine which team faces the top-seeded Jazz.

For now, we'll take a look at the three series that are set in stone. Here is how the RotoWire NBA staff predicts the second round of the postseason will play out: 

(1) Phoenix Suns vs. (3) Denver Nuggets

Alex Barutha: Suns in 5.

I'm impressed with the Jamal Murray-less Nuggets defeating the Blazers in six games, but I wonder if that's just as much of an indictment on Portland as it is a statement on Nikola Jokic's greatness. Portland was the second-worst defensive team in the league this season. Conversely, Phoenix ranked sixth in defense during the regular season and showed real confidence against the Lakers. I can't imagine the Suns letting the Nuggets embarrass them with a bare-bones roster outside of Jokic and Michael Porter Jr.

Ken Crites: Suns in 6.

This might sound crazy, by I don't think Denver has an answer for Mikal Bridges. His inside-out game is fantastic. Denver's Aaron Gordon will probably be stuck on help guarding Devin Booker.  Ayton's maturity in these playoffs has been fantastic. His length will bother Jokic. Plus, even at 80%, Chris Paul will dominate Denver's point guards.

James Anderson: Suns in 6.

I'm very confident that the Suns will win this series, but I think there will be one or two games where Nikola Jokic is undeniable and Deandre Ayton struggles with foul trouble. Devin Booker and Chris Paul will be able to do whatever they want offensively, especially with the Nuggets needing to rely on drop coverage.

Nick Whalen: Suns in 5.

Phoenix is rightfully playing with a ton of confidence, and the Suns should shoot the ball much more efficiently against a Nuggets defense that falls well short of the challenge even a hobbled version of the Lakers presented. As Chris Paul's shoulder gets healthier and healthier, I expect Phoenix to remind the league why they were arguably the best team in the Western Conference wire-to-wire.

Jeff Edgerton: Suns in 5.

Since the beginning of the season I've predicted a Suns/Nets Finals, and I see no need to deviate here.

Jacob Lebowitz: Suns in 6.

In their three regular-season matchups, the Suns were only able to win once, but they lost the two other games in overtime and double-overtime. The three matchups occurred early in the season and honestly don't mean much as the Nuggets' roster has changed quite a bit since then, especially with the loss of Jamal Murray. The Suns have a good mix of young players and veterans that most championship-contending teams have. I believe the Nuggets will struggle with guarding Devin Booker – just as the Lakers did – and if the Suns are able to somehow slow down Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets will crumble since they don't have another consistent scorer. 

(1) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks

Barutha: Hawks in 6.

This is a pick based mostly on Joel Embiid being hobbled due to a meniscus tear, and it's not even clear if he'll play in Game 1. The Sixers play like a .500 team when he's off the court, and Atlanta is obviously better than a .500 team. I do have some concerns about Ben Simmons locking down Trae Young, as he's done in the past, but if the Sixers are down Embiid, I'm not sure that will matter. The Hawks have enough secondary playmaking to score consistently.

Crites: Hawks in 6.

Joel Embiid's potential absence will expose Ben Simmons' poor shooting at another level. Clint Capela might be the most underrated player in these playoffs. And I still hold out hope the John Collins has a breakout performance.

Anderson: Hawks in 6.

I thought the Hawks could be sneaky in this series even if Philly was at full strength, but this Embiid injury has me spooked on the Sixers. Given the long-term ramifications and the fact he'll be eligible for a max extension this offseason, I could see him trying to play through this but eventually shutting it down if he's not 100%. Trae Young should be able to eat in this series and the Hawks arguably have a deeper roster than the Sixers, at least in terms of players you have to respect on the offensive end of the court.

Whalen: Hawks in 7.

It's really difficult to make an informed prediction when we don't know Joel Embiid's condition, but he's basically No. 1 on the list of players you wouldn't want to be playing through any sort of lower-body injury. At the end of the day, Philly still has enough to make this a competitive series, but the pessimist in me doubts that Embiid will look like himself. 

Edgerton: Sixers in 5.

The Hawks may be able to grab one from Philly, but by then it will be too late. I expect an early 2-0 lead. The only variable could be Joel Embiid's overall health, but I think the Sixers take this series either way.

Lebowitz: 76ers in 7.

To be completely honest, I can see this series going in a number of different ways and it's all contingent on the health of Joel Embiid. If Embiid is fully healthy, I would expect the 76ers to win in five games, but since his status is still unknown I'm going to have to take the safer route and say the 76ers lose two of the first four games with Embiid not fully healthy. The 76ers are a great defensive team and even without Embiid, they should be able to slow down Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins and Co.

(2) Brooklyn Nets vs. (3) Milwaukee Bucks

Barutha: Nets in 7. 

I think these teams are built to counter each other. The Bucks struggle containing jump shooters, and the Nets struggle to defend on the inside. The Bucks' best chance is probably to switch more on defense and play Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo more like big men, as they did in the series against the Heat. However, even if they do that effectively, I just think the Nets' talent is too overwhelming with their Big 3 plus quality role players.

Crites: Bucks in 7. 

People need to believe in Jrue Holiday. The Bucks should assign Holiday to James Harden, and force Kyrie Irving to beat them. I do wish Milwaukee still had Donte DiVincenzo to throw at Irving, but if Bryn Forbes stays hot from three (39% 3PT in Round 1), the Bucks can survive with his sub-par defense.

Anderson: Bucks in 6.

This could easily be Nets in 6 or either team in 7. If I'm picking the road team I'm gonna pick it in 6, but this is super close and should be one of the better playoff series we've seen in years. The Bucks can bludgeon the Nets with strength and size and I don't think the Nets can make Milwaukee take Brook Lopez off the court, at least as long as Jeff Green is sidelined. Whether Milwaukee puts Jrue Holiday on Kyrie Irving or James Harden should be fascinating. Giannis on Kevin Durant will be great theatre, and the Nets obviously don't have anyone to match up with Giannis.

Whalen: Nets in 6.

The Bucks' roster is about as qualified to guard the Nets' stars as any team can be, but at times it feels like we've lost sight of the fact that Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving play for the same team. As long as that trio is healthy, I won't be picking against Brooklyn.

Edgerton: Nets in 6.

The Giannis vs. Durant showdown will be the Nets' biggest test, but I am sticking with my Finals pick in what should be a hard-fought matchup.

Lebowitz: Nets in 6.

While the Bucks did win the season series with the Nets, the Bucks never saw the full "Big Three" in action. Kevin Durant appeared unstoppable against the Bucks all year, as he averaged almost 35 points and 10 rebounds per game. James Harden dominated as well, logging a 34-point 12-assist performance in his only matchup. It's as simple as this: With three superstars on one team, I don't see the Bucks being able to slow down all three in more than two games. The Bucks also have a history of struggling in the conference semifinals the past couple of years. 

(4) Utah Jazz vs. (4) LA Clippers

Barutha: Jazz in 7.

After the Clippers nearly lost to a Mavericks team whose second-best player was Tim Hardaway Jr., I just don't have faith in them to beat the Jazz. While Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have the potential to be the two best players in the series, the supplementary pieces are inconsistent, and it can lead to LA being desperately reliant on Kawhi Hero Ball. It's worked so far, but I'm not sure it will hold up against the Jazz. Utah is one of the best well-rounded teams in the NBA. It's tough to get a Top 6 more balanced than what they have. I don't think any one player is the key for the Jazz in this series, although Rudy Gobert has a chance to dominate the inside with Nicolas Batum getting center minutes.

Crites: Jazz in 6. 

The Clippers' bench is a problem and will get exposed by Utah's depth. It will to be tempting to bet the over on Jordan Clarkson's point totals. I'm betting that Mike Conley's hamstring issues aren't a series-long issue. And Rudy Gobert is going to expose the donut hole in the middle of the Clippers' lineup.

Anderson: Clippers in 6.

If I trusted the Clippers to keep their foot on the gas I'd pick them in 5, but they seem to only be capable of squeaking by even when they've got a major talent advantage. They've already moved to a small-ball lineup and that small lineup is tailor made for mitigating Rudy Gobert's strengths on defense. The Mavs didn't have anyone to guard Kawhi, and the Jazz may have even worse options for him. It's basically impossible for me to imagine a scenario where Kawhi isn't the best player in this series.

Whalen: Clippers in 6.

After what happened in Round 1, I can't trust the Clippers to bring it every single game of this series, but I'm not picking against the Kawhi Leonard we saw in Games 6 and 7. The Clippers won't have as much leeway against Utah as they did against Dallas, but the Jazz don't have great options to throw at Leonard, defensively. The Jazz also need Mike Conley to reach their peak, so if he ends up missing multiple games, that will be too big a loss to overcome.

 Lebowitz: Clippers in 7.

Despite a slow start to the playoffs for the Clippers, they seemed to finally have found their rhythm again in Game 7 against the Mavericks. The Clippers will be playing a Jazz team that's heavily reliant on three-point shooting which shouldn't be too difficult for L.A. as they're one of the top teams at defending the deep ball. The one problem I can see for the Clippers is at the center position, as they'll be matching up with one of the best centers in the game in Rudy Gobert. L.A. played plenty of small ball against the Mavericks and will likely need a healthy Serge Ibaka or a productive Ivica Zubac if they want to slow down Gobert. I expect this series to go to Game 7 and I see the Clippers pulling out a narrow victory.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
James Anderson
James Anderson is RotoWire's Lead Prospect Analyst, Assistant Baseball Editor, and co-host of Farm Fridays on Sirius/XM radio and the RotoWire Prospect Podcast.
Alex Barutha
Alex is RotoWire's NBA Assistant Editor. He writes articles about daily fantasy, year-long fantasy and sports betting. You can hear him on the RotoWire NBA Podcast, Sirius XM, DraftKings Live and other platforms. Vince Carter and Alex both first dunked during their respective sophomore years of high school.
Ken
An early RotoWire contributor from the 90's, K-Train returns with the grace of Gheorghe Muresan and the wisdom of Joe Gibbs. Tweet @KenCrites or e-mail at ken@rotowire.com. Ken won the FSWA 2014 Humor Article Of The Year award. He's also the 2016 Champion of the prestigious RW NBA Keeper League and the 2019 Champion of the RW NFL Ottonue Keeper League. Ken still owns a RotoNews shirt.
Jacob Lebowitz
Jacob writes about fantasy sports and sports betting for RotoWire. He's always doing something sports-related whether that's playing NBA 2K, watching a football game or playing a game of pickup basketball.
Nick Whalen
RotoWire's NBA Editor and host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Nick was awarded the FSWA Best Podcast -- All Sports award in 2017 and 2018. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.
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