Western Conference, NBA Finals predictions: Is another title coming to Los Angeles?

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The NBA season tips-off tonight night, which leaves us time for one last thing:

Our Western Conference and NBA Finals predictions.

We’ve run through some postseason awards — MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year — and yesterday we laid out who we thought would win the East. Today we stick our neck out and make our predictions on how the Western Conference will shake out.

As a disclaimer, we get it: making NBA preseason awards predictions is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. We’ll be wrong. But it’s fun, so the NBA staff here at NBC is making our picks.

THE WESTERN CONFERENCE

Kurt Helin
1. Denver
2. Utah
3. L.A. Clippers
4. Houston
5. L.A.Lakers
6. Portland
7. Golden State
8. San Antonio
Western Conference Finals: L.A. Clippers over L.A. Lakers.
NBA Finals: L.A. Clippers over Philadelphia

I’ve never gone into a season less confident in my predictions. For example, I think Dallas has a very good shot at the eight seed (maybe Sacramento, too), but I simply cannot pick against the Spurs. The order of these teams could easily shift, the West will be so close that just losing a star for a few weeks to a sprained ankle could dramatically change a team’s seeding. I’m comfortable that systems and continuity will keep Denver and Utah at the top of the regular season standings, but the playoffs will feel completely different. The Los Angeles teams are better built for the postseason than anyone else (although I think Utah has a chance to crash the party). I trust the depth and the wing defense of the Clippers more than the Lakers, so Doc Rivers will get back to playing in June. For the Finals, I’ll take the Clippers over the Sixers, but I don’t say that with a lot of confidence.

Dan Feldman:

1. Houston
2. Denver
3. L.A. Clippers
4. L.A. Lakers
5. Utah
6. Portland
7. Golden State
8. Dallas
Western Conference Finals: L.A. Clippers over L.A. Lakers.
NBA Finals: L.A. Clippers over Milwaukee

There’s a rare divergence between teams prepared for the regular season and teams prepared for the playoffs, which makes this prediction difficult enough. Adding to the complications: The West is so deep, leaving few postseason locks. For some teams, a few moderate breaks in either direction could make the difference between making the Western Conference finals and missing the playoffs entirely.

The last playoff spot was an extremely tough call between the Mavericks and Spurs. The Kings weren’t that far behind, either. Kawhi Leonard just showed an ability to get through the regular season and bring elite production to a deep postseason run. LeBron James has done it the previous several years. That’s why the Clippers and Lakers get so much benefit of the doubt. The Lakers’ Anthony Davis is a better second star than the Clippers’ Paul George, but I have more trust in the Clippers’ depth — from the front office to the coaching staff to other players.

Dane Delgado:
Western Conference Finals: L.A. Clippers over L.A. Lakers.

Everyone is picking the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference, and for good reason. This is not just a team that lumped together several superstars trying to make a playoff push. This time around, it’s a bit different. Los Angeles was already a solid team before both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George arrived and their most important players from last year — Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley — are all back. Doc Rivers, whose reputation as a coach was in question heading into last season, has solidified is legacy simply by what he could squeeze out of this the Clippers team last season. If L.A. can make it to the Western Conference Finals this year, it would not surprise anyone. The real question will be health. Leonard has shown he is willing to battle through various ailments to perform on the highest stage, but George’s shoulders are a real concern. Still, if you were placing bets on the best team in the west, it makes sense to go with the team that’s been able to stay intact while at the same time adding to generational superstars. It may be a bridge too far to pick the Clippers to win the NBA championship in 2020, but it’d be a safe move at this juncture to slot them in as the West champs.

With 17 straight points fourth quarter, Zion flashes what could be for New Orleans

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Everyone came for the dunks.

Zion Williamson showed he can be so much more than that — he even has a little Stephen Curry in him.

After sitting through his slow start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got what they came to see during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:

Zion absolutely dominated a five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

Williamson — a rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.

Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.

It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.

Williamson spent the first half looking like a rookie who had not played much ane was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers.

Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.

It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche. 

But this could be the start of an amazing meal.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

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NEW YORK — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA games still not on China’s state run television

Yanshan Zhang/Getty Images
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In the wake of the backlash from China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted out support for the protestors in Hong Kong — the kind of political statement the NBA takes in stride domestically but found it stirred a hornets’ nest in this case — Chinese state television stopped showing NBA games.

That is still the case today, according to Nets’ owner Joeseph Tsai.

Tsai — one of the co-founders of the Alibaba Group, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Amazon — is a billionaire with his feet in both the United States and China. He spoke to Bloomberg News recently about where things stand now in the NBA/China relationship (hat tip Nets Daily).

Tsai is eager to see NBA games back on [state run] CCTV. Although [streaming service] Tencent has begun showing them again, the state-owned broadcaster has yet to budge. A person familiar with the matter says the league is optimistic the network will relent, beginning with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16—there’s no ready replacement, after all, for LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Once you are on the air,” Tsai says, “everything will come back.”

For now.

The NBA, like any American group doing business in China, is caught up in geopolitical forces well beyond its control, from trade wars to protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s Tweet touched on what Tsai called a “third rail of Chinese politics” but he spoke of the Hong Kong protestors as separatists when they would argue they simply want what was promised them in the agreement that transferred control of the city from Brittish to Chinese rule. (And that last sentence itself is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation.)

NBA games likely will end up back on Chinese television soon (although it will be longer for Rockets’ games), and the business of the NBA in China will continue. Both sides want to make money (and in China, keep a younger generation happy with a sport they have grown to love). However, the underlying issues that caused the last flare-up are not going away — things may be just simmering on the back burner, but the flames are not turned off.

When things do flare up again, Tsai will end up fight back in the middle of it.