Teams don’t want to play LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA playoffs. It might have been assumed before, but it can’t be denied now after seeing the efforts of the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets in the closing days of the regular season.
With the No.3 seed up for grabs, the Clippers rested Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in their last two games against the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, the two teams with the worst records in the Western Conference. The Clippers lost both of those games, making it nearly impossible for them to see the Lakers before the Western Conference Finals.
Then on Sunday, the Nuggets rested their main starters Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. in the second half of their game against the Portland Trail Blazers. If the Nuggets had beaten the Trail Blazers, they would have faced the Lakers in the first round. Instead, they pitched a game against the Blazers to set up a game with those same Blazers and drop LA in the play-in tournament.
Even Lakers veteran Jared Dudley couldn’t help but notice the gymnastics of both teams.
“I think it was funny that you saw a lot of teams, as you would say, managing these last two games to try to avoid us and stuff like that,” Dudley said on Sunday. “It’s funny to see that. But for us, it will be difficult, whatever team we play, between [Nikola] Jokic, the Clippers, you got, obviously, Chris Paul, but we’re ready for that, man.
“We are the defending champions; they must be worried about us. We’re healthy at the right time, and no one wants to see a healthy Lakers team. “
“The Clippers were absolutely not tanking against the Rockets and Thunder, the low-feeders, to avoid the Lakers in the 1st or 2nd round.” – Clippers fans and bloggers pic.twitter.com/RNBCqo5Y37
– Under the bus (@TheUndertheBuss) May 17, 2021
Dudley understands the logic behind what both teams did.
“It’s smart by Denver,” Dudley said. “You don’t want to play champions. Let’s be honest. This is not avoidance: you want to wait and play the best teams later, give yourself the best possible chances. Maybe they lose, maybe they don’t. I don’t call it avoiding; I just call it a good strategy.
Still, Dudley believes the two would have been better to see the Lakers sooner rather than later.
“If I was one of those teams I would actually play against us early on,” Dudley said. “I would like to play when LeBron James is recovering from an ankle injury and they’re trying to find their chemistry. Do you think we’re going to be better later or better now?
“The more chemistry, the more games, the stronger we get. We’re not going to get any worse later, so if I were a team I would play against us right away, but that’s how I think.
Fortunately, Tyronn Lue and Mike Malone don’t have the foresight of Coach Dudz. Now, instead of playing the Clippers or the Nuggets in the first round, the Lakers will play the Warriors in a play-in game, and if they win that game, they will play the Phoenix Suns in the first round.
It’s still not an easy path to the NBA Finals but, given the circumstances of the season and the competitive nature of the Western Conference, it could have been a lot worse. The Lakers have received their cards; let’s see what they do with it.
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