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Utah Jazz-LA Clippers is the best series in the second round and other takeaways from the NBA playoffs

The Jazz defeated the Clippers in a thrilling Game 1, by far the best game of the second round thus far.

Fans react as the Utah Jazz score on the LA Clippers during Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals in Salt Lake City.
Fans react as the Utah Jazz score on the LA Clippers during Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 8, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

What a game.

The Utah Jazz defeated the LA Clippers 112-109 Tuesday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal, a game that can only be described as a thriller.

It had everything, from large deficits to electric comebacks, a superstar turn by Donovan Mitchell and the quiet excellence of Kawhi Leonard. Luke Kennard looked like an All-Star at times, while Jordan Clarkson was a flamethrower.

It took the block of a Marcus Morris Sr. shot by Rudy Gobert — there is probably already a mural in the works for Vivint Arena — for the Jazz to walk away with the win and a 1-0 series lead.

There are things from Game 1 that probably won’t be replicated again any time soon, such as the Jazz’s incredibly poor shooting in the first quarter, or Paul George’s overall struggles, but the overall feel of the game was that of a slugfest, and that feeling is likely to continue throughout the series.

The Clippers are largely considered the most talented team remaining in the Western Conference playoffs, while the Jazz were the NBA’s best team in the regular season. Nine of 16 ESPN writers picked the Clippers to win the series, while seven picked the Jazz.

Given the split nature of those predictions, plus the fact Game 1 was the best and closest game of any second-round series thus far, every indication is the Jazz-Clippers series will be the best of the conference semifinals. It has everything a great series needs.

Who will win? That will likely come down to the play of Leonard, George and Mitchell — plus the health of Mike Conley — and Mitchell won that battle in Game 1.

Time for Brooklyn to bring out the brooms?

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) reacts toward the crowd after making a shot during the first half of Game 2 of an NBA second-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Monday, June 7, 2021, in New York.
Kathy Willens, Associated Press

Entering the second round, the generally expected best series — the one many national media believed to be the “real” NBA Finals — was the Eastern Conference semifinal between the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks.

The idea was that Brooklyn’s superstar-heavy team, featuring Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, might meet its match in the form of two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and his supporting cast, including All-Stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.

On the Hoop Collective podcast, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst described the series as a bellwether for the future of team building in the NBA. If the Nets won, teams would skew offense-heavy and superstar trios would remain in vogue. If the Bucks won, though, defense would retain its importance and maybe, just maybe, super teams would give way to more parity.

After two games, the “real” NBA Finals have been an absolute dud. The Nets dominated both games — at one point in the latter they led by 50 points — and hold a 2-0 series lead.

Historically, 2-0 leads are a pretty good indicator of which team will advance to the next round. There are exceptions, like the LA Clippers in the first round this year against the Dallas Mavericks, but generally speaking when teams go up 2-0 on an opponent they win the series.

The way the Nets have been playing, though, that seems a near guarantee. In fact, a sweep appears to be a real possibility, even with Harden nursing a hamstring injury that kept him out of both games.

Are the Suns the new favorite in the West?

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, front, drives as Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon defends during the second half of Game 1 of an NBA second-round playoff series, Monday, June 7, 2021, in Phoenix.
Matt York, Associated Press

The Phoenix Suns are rolling right now.

In the first round, the Suns made quick work of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, and in the first game of their semifinals series against Denver and league MVP Nikola Jokic, Phoenix was as good as ever, thrashing the Nuggets 122-105.

Despite being injured, Chris Paul has been as good and consistent as ever. Devin Booker, meanwhile, has made a strong case to be considered one of the top three shooting guards in the NBA, a debate that includes Harden, Mitchell and Klay Thompson, among others. Then there is Deandre Ayton, the former No. 1 overall pick, who seems to be reaching a level the Suns hoped for when they selected him out of Arizona in 2018.

The Suns’ supporting cast has been great as well, whether it be Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson or Cam Payne, with a little Torrey Craig thrown in.

No team in the NBA was hotter than the Suns entering the playoffs, not even the Jazz, and Phoenix has maintained that momentum in the postseason. With the Jazz and Clippers appearing to be in for a slugfest, it might be time to declare the Suns the favorite to get out of the Western Conference side of the playoff bracket, particularly if Phoenix can defeat Denver again on Wednesday night.

Trae Young is a superstar

Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young plays during Game 2 in a second-round NBA playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers, Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Philadelphia.
Matt Slocum, Associated Press

Even before he entered the NBA, Atlanta guard Trae Young captivated fans and media alike. As a star for the Oklahoma Sooners, Young drew comparisons to Golden State’s Steph Curry, a two-time MVP, and they didn’t seem absurd.

Since entering the league, Young has been excellent, if overshadowed by Dallas’ Luka Doncic — the two will forever be compared to each other after Atlanta swapped picks with Dallas, picks that became Doncic and Young.

After two games against the Philadelphia 76ers, though, Young has been thrust into the limelight all on his own and for good reason. Thanks to his play in Game 1, the No. 5-seeded Hawks stole a game from the No. 1 seed 76ers. Young finished with a game-high 35 points and 10 assists and almost seemed to get stronger and better the louder Philadelphia fans jeered him.

He took a slight step back in Game 2 of the series — he led Atlanta with 21 points and 11 assists — but the Hawks return to Atlanta with the series knotted at one game apiece.

Atlanta has been more an afterthought than anything over the years, even when it had the best team in the regular season for multiple seasons in the early 2010s, but with Young the Hawks appeared primed to contend in the East for years to come and these are his first NBA playoffs.