In a year when California's four National Basketball Association (NBA) teams reached the play-offs in the same season for the first time, the Western Conference post-season is arguably the most competitive it has ever been.
The Kings moved to Sacramento from Kansas City in 1985, and after an NBA-record play-off drought of 16 years, they join the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers in the post-season — previously, the most California teams to ever make the play-offs in the same season was three.
Interestingly, the three most intriguing first-round play-off matchups involve all four California teams — Kings vs Warriors, Lakers vs Memphis Grizzlies and Clippers vs Phoenix Suns.
The Warriors qualified for the play-offs as one of the worst road teams in the NBA this season (11–30), despite having a better record at home (33–8) than last season (31–10). They started this series last Saturday knowing that they needed at least one win in Sacramento if they had any hope of advancing out of the first round, but Game 1 ended in a 123-126 road loss.
They entered Game 2 last Monday with ambitions of avoiding a 0-2 hole for the first time in the Steve Kerr/Steph Curry era, and things appeared to be on course until the last seven minutes of the game when Draymond Green got ejected for a flagrant two foul on Domantas Sabonis. The Warriors were down 87-91 at the time, though they managed to tie the game at 93 a minute later with just about six minutes left. But from that point on, they were outscored to close out a 114–106 Sacramento win. The Kings scored eight points in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter but racked up 23 points over the final seven minutes with Green in the locker room.
Green was subsequently suspended for Game 3, and the Warriors left short-handed, but their Achilles heel has been terrible defence on the road — allowing 10.8 more points per game than at home — and the Kings have led the league in scoring this season, averaging 120.7 points per game. It is quite possible that the defending champions can right the ship in San Francisco as they have enough firepower, but it won't matter if they can't figure out their road woes in the possible two remaining games in Sacramento.
As for the Kings, Game 2 was not as impressive as Game 1 as they didn't play their best offensive basketball. They made just nine of 38 three-point attempts (23.7 per cent) but managed some timely buckets down the stretch. They have been beating the Warriors at their own game and have looked the more consistent doing so, maybe due to their Head Coach Mike Brown having intimate knowledge of the opponents, having orchestrated their defence last season. Whatever the result between these two, this series will be a feature of the first round.
The Lakers took the long road to the post-season and looked no worse for the wear against the youthful, second-seeded Grizzlies last Sunday afternoon in Game 1 of their series, earning a 129-112 upset victory. To think they almost missed the play-offs entirely, save for a few trade deadline signings that triggered a 10-5 run to close the regular season. And, on a team starring LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the standouts that featured significantly in the opening game of the series were Rui Hachimura (29 points, six rebounds, and one assist on 11-of-14 shooting from the field and 5-of-6 from three-point land) — his 29 points tied Mychal Thompson's record for the most points off the bench in Lakers play-off history — and Austin Reaves (23 points, three rebounds, and 4 assists on 8-of-13 from the floor, including 3-of-5 from deep). Reaves was particularly lethal in the fourth quarter, scoring 14 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting from the floor (including 2-of-2 from deep) and 2-of-2 from the free throw line.
The Grizzlies surrendered homecourt advantage but, more importantly, lost standout Ja Morant to a hand injury, with 5:48 left in the game and Memphis trailing Los Angeles 105-101. Truth be told, Morant did not look his normal self throughout the game, but the psychological let-down of seeing their leader heading early to the dressing room made the final score have the appearance of a blow-out. Memphis had a 10-8 record without Morant this season, so there will be no surrender, but if the injury keeps him out for a lengthy period, the Lakers will be more than happy. A long series is anticipated, and the Lakers will need to maintain outstanding all-round play to get past the grit of these Grizzlies.
The 2017 Western Conference finals promised a showdown between two 60-win teams, the San Antonio Spurs and the Warriors, with a mouthwatering matchup — Kawhi Leonard versus Kevin Durant — but Leonard sprained his ankle in the first half of Game 1 and Golden State went on to win the NBA championship. Two years later, another potential clash was denied when Durant suffered a torn Achilles tendon early in the only game he played in during the NBA Finals in 2019, when the Warriors were facing Leonard's Toronto Raptors, the eventual champions.
Fast-forward to 2023 and Game 1 between the fourth-seeded Suns and the fifth-seeded Clippers finally provided the long-awaited matchup. The two future Hall of Famers, who have four Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards between them, stood face-to-face during an epic fourth quarter in the Clippers' 115-110 victory. The game was tied at 81 all to start the fourth. Leonard was guarding Durant; Durant was guarding Leonard. No words, no eye contact, just raw and stoic gazes.Durant finished with 27 points (including 10 in the fourth) but took just a single shot in the final six minutes as the Clippers pulled out an impressive win, with Leonard contributing a masterful 38 points.
Durant had now lost his last seven play-off games, and nine of his last 10. And with home court advantage wrestled away, Game 2 on Tuesday night promised to be spectacular. Anchored by 38 points from Devin Booker, Durant upped the intensity with 25 points of his own to level the series — a 123-109 Phoenix victory. Leonard dropped a competitive 31 points and Durant's former teammate at the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook, who has approached this series like a man possessed, had 28 points for the Clippers. No one knows how the West will be won, and the Suns are JustBet favourites but it will take a mighty effort to get past these Clippers.
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NBA CHAMPION 2023
Los Angeles Lakers11.00
Golden State Warriors13.00
Los Angeles Clippers40.00
*Only Top 10 odds shown (see website for full list)
Note: Odds are subject to change
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