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If the 2021 NBA playoffs started today (2)

AND now the wild, wild West.

With defending NBA champions Los Angeles Lakers playing minus their top two superstars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the battle for the top spot becomes even more exciting with the playoffs fast approaching.

The Utah Jazz are still sitting pretty with the league’s best record of 40-13 with still 21 games to play.

But the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets are playing their best basketball down the final stretch of the season.

The Lakers?

Last year’s champions should have no problem for an expected long playoff battles once James and Davis return to the line-up next month.

If the NBA playoffs started today…

No. 1 Utah Jazz (40-13) vs No. 8 Memphis (26-24)

Utah’s starting line-up of Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale and Rudy Gobert and top reserves Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles are doing it all.

Mitchell (25.6 ppg), Conley (16.3 ppg) and Gobert (14.6 ppg, 13.2 rpg), and Clarkson ( 17.3 ppg) and Ingles (14.8 ppg) are all having career years.

Although he was never mentiined in any MVP conversation, Mitchell is playing well enough to make fans forget Utah’s heartbreaking collapse from a 3-1 lead in a second-round playoff loss to the Denver Nuggets.

With vastly-improved games under coach Quin Snyder, the Jazz have also won all three regular season games against the Grizzlies — 117-114, 126-110 and 111-107.

One of the reasons for Utah’s sweep was Conley, who played his first 12 seasons with Memphis before coming over to Salt Lake City in 2019.

Memphis’ threat will come from Ja Morant (18.8 ppg, 7.4 apg, 3.4 rpg), Jonas Valanciunas (16.3 ppg 12.4rpg) and Dillon Brooks (16.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg).

Advantage: Jazz

No. 2 Phoenix Suns (37-15) vs No. 7 Dallas (29-22)

Phoenix swept Dallas in all three regular season games — 106-102, 111-105 and 109-108 — but the playoffs should be a lot different.

The main protagonists in this No. 2 vs No. 7 playoff series will feature such established stars as Chris Paul (16.2 ppg, 8.7 apg, 4.7 rpg) and Devin Booker (28.0 ppg, 4.5 apg) of Phoenix and Luka Doncic (28.5 ppg, 8.7 apg, 8.2 rpg) and Kristaps Porzingis (20.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg) of Dallas.

Two of the Suns’ victories came after the Mavericks blew double-digit leads, with Booker hitting a dagger 3 with 1.5 seconds left for a narrow one-point win.

Lessons have been learned in those three matches and the players should be ready for what could be a fight ti the finish.

It could be close and interesting.

Advantage: Suns

No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers (36-18) vs No. 6 Portland (31-21)

Last year”s Western Conference final was already billed as the “Battle of LA” between the Lakers and the Clippers until the Denver Nuggets came along to spoil the party.

The Lakers went on to become NBA champions by beating the Miami Heat, 4-2,

And the other LA team?

The Clippers became the league’s laughing stock after blowing a 3-1 series lead to Jamal Murray and the Nuggets.

The Clippers now hope for a different ending with new coach Tyronn Lue and several veterans additions, including former Lakers Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins.

However, the Clippers are set to meet No. 6 Portland Trailblazers and yes, Damien Lillard

Can they make it this time?

The Clippers have beaten the Blazers twice already, 128-105 and 133-116, with a third meeting coming up in Portland.

But even Kawhi Leonard and Paul George know Portland and Lillard are most dangerous during crunchtime.

An upset in the first round is not being ruled out.

Advantage: Blazers.

No. 4 Denver (34-18) vs No. 5 Los Angeles Lakers (33-20)

This rematch of last year’s memorable Western Conference showdown should provide plenty of storylines even for Holywood.

The stars will all be there: James, Davis, Andre Drummond, Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell for LA and Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter, Aaron Gordon,

Paul Milsap, Will Barton, Monte Morris and former Laker JaVale McGee.

Last year, the Lakers needed only five games to dispatch the Nuggets, with both James and Davis producing huge numbers on both sides of the floor.

This year, the two teams split their first two matches with the Lakers drawing first blood, 114-93, and the Nuggest bouncing back 122-105.

Denver’s strong showing was laregely due to Jokic (26.3 ppg, 10. 9 rpg, 8.8 apg), Murray (21.3 ppg, 4.8 apg), Porter (17.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Gordon (14.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Barton (12.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg).

But as good as the Nuggets have been, the Lakers remain the big favorites.

James (25.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 7.9 apg) and Davis (22.5ppg, 8.5 rpg, 3.0 apg) remain elite players despite missing a combined 37 games so far this season.

Kuzma (12.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is doing well as the Laker’s third go-to guy.

The addition of Drummond (17.0 ppg, 13.0 rpg), Schroder (15.2 ppg , 5.3 apg) and Harrell (14.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg) should make the Lakers an even better team in the playoffs.

As James himself said: “Thunderstorm is coming.

Advantage: Lakers.

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