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West playoff matchups set: Lakers vs. Pelicans play-in winner gets Nuggets

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Pelicans

Apr 14, 2024; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) and New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) fight for position during the second half at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Two absolute blowouts on Sunday afternoon will be rematches later in the week.

The Los Angeles Lakers turned back the clock to the In-Season Tournament and played one of their better games of the season, blowing out the Pelicans (like they did in the IST) 123-108 behind a 28-point, 17-assist, 11-rebound triple-double from LeBron James.

That sets up a rematch in two days: The No. 8 seed Lakers at the No. 7 seed Pelicans in the first play-in game. The twist: The winner gets No. 2 seed Denver in the first round. Would the Lakers or Pelicans dare tempt fate and lose the first play-in game so they could win the second and face No. 1 seed Oklahoma City? There’s
two fundamental problems with that idea: 1) The team coming out of the 9/10 game, whether the Warriors or Kings, is very good and could beat the Lakers/Pelicans; 2) Stop assuming OKC is a pushover, this is a 57-win team with a legitimate MVP candidate in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Phoenix Suns crushed the Minnesota Timberwolves 125-106, setting the teams up for a 3 vs. 6 first-round matchup. Phoenix led by 22 after a quarter in a game that was never in doubt after that, behind 36 from Bradley Beal and 23 from Devin Booker. Can Minnesota flush this game from their mind by next weekend, play like they did most of the season and make this a series? You know Kevin Durant and Booker will bring it.

Let’s break it down (the dates and times for the playoff series have not yet been finalized).

Western Conference first-round playoff matchups

1. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 8. Play-in team (Lakers, Pelicans, Kings, Warriors)
2. Denver Nuggets vs. 7. Play-in team (Lakers, Pelicans)
3. Minnesota Timberwolves vs. 6. Phoenix Suns
4. Los Angeles Clippers vs. 5. Dallas Mavericks

Western Conference Play-in games

Tuesday, April 16
• 7/8 Game: Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Pelicans
• 9/10 Game: Golden State Warriors at Sacramento Kings
Friday, April 19
• Winner of 9/10 at loser of 7/8

Some initial thoughts on the matchups:

• Oklahoma City is the No. 1 seed for the first time since 2013, when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were on the team.

• The Thunder are the youngest team in NBA history (23.9 years) to secure a No. 1 seed.

• That is an intense and deep group of four play-in teams in the West. Look at it this way: The No. 7 Pelicans would have been tied with the Bucks for the No. 3 seed in the East.

• Mavericks vs. Clippers is the best first-round matchup, regardless of conference. As long as Kawhi Leonard is back healthy, this series could go either way (Leonard will have had 21 days off for his sore knee by the time Game 1 rolls around next weekend).

• The Lakers’ Anthony Davis limped off the court near the end of the win over the Pelicans. Later, AD said his back locked up on him after a shove from Larry Nance Jr. Davis also said he would play on Tuesday.