Teams don’t want to play LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Playoffs. That could have been assumed before, but there’s no denying it now after seeing the lengths that the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets went to in the final 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, which made it nearly impossible for them to see the Lakers before the Western Conference Finals.
Then, on Sunday, the Nuggets rested their key starters, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr., in the second half of their game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Had the Nuggets beaten the Trail Blazers, they would have played the Lakers in the first round. Instead they threw a game against the Blazers to set up a matchup with those same Blazers and drop L.A. into the play-in tournament.
Even Lakers veteran Jared Dudley couldn’t help but notice the two teams’ seeding gymnastics.
“I do think it was funny that you see a lot of teams, as you would say, managing these last couple of games to try and avoid us and stuff like that,” Dudley said on Sunday. “It’s funny to see that. But for us, it’s going to be challenging, whichever team we play, between [Nikola] Jokic, the Clippers, you have, obviously, Chris Paul, but we’re up for it, man.
“We’re the defending champs; they’ve got to worry about us. We’re getting healthy at the right time, and no one wants to see a healthy Lakers team.”
“The Clippers absolutely weren’t tanking against the bottom feeder Rockets and Thunder to avoid the Lakers in the 1st or 2nd round.” - Clippers fans and bloggers pic.twitter.com/RNBCqo5Y37— Under the Buss (@TheUndertheBuss) May 17, 2021
Dudley gets the logic behind what both teams did.
“It’s smart by Denver,” Dudley said. “You don’t want to play the champs. Let’s just be honest. It’s not avoiding: you want to wait and play the best teams later on, give yourself the best possible chance. Maybe they lose, maybe they don’t. I don’t call it avoiding; I just call it good strategy.”
Still, Dudley thinks both of them would have been better off seeing the Lakers sooner rather than later.
“If I was one of those teams, I’d actually want to play us early,” Dudley said. “I’d want to play when LeBron James is coming off of 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 worse later on, so if I was a team, I’d want to play us right away, but that’s the way I think.”
Fortunately, Tyronn Lue and Mike Malone don’t have the foresight that Coach Dudz has. Now, instead of playing the Clippers or Nuggets in the first round, the Lakers will play the Warriors in a play-in game, and if they win that game, they’ll go onto play the Phoenix Suns in the first round.
That’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 were dealt their cards; let’s see what they do with them.