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Home Sports These N.B.A. Contenders Just Got Better

These N.B.A. Contenders Just Got Better

Credit…Darren Abate/Associated Press

Why They’ll Win the Finals: The Clippers faced questions after their meltdown in the bubble. (You’ll recall that they blew a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets in the conference semifinals.) Paul George absorbed much of the criticism for his poor play. He has had his ups and downs this season — who hasn’t? — but appears to be in better form. The Clippers are contenders because of Kawhi Leonard, but George’s postseason play will determine if they are actually capable of winning it all.

Why They Won’t: The Clippers hope that Rajon Rondo, whom they acquired at the trade deadline, can provide the sort of leadership they were missing last season. But they still lack depth at the point, and the team has been terrible in clutch situations, dating to last season’s bubble implosion. Championship teams are adept at closing out games. The Clippers are not.

Why They’ll Win the Finals: LeBron James and Anthony Davis showed the damage they could do together last season when they rolled through the playoffs in leading the Lakers to their first championship since 2010. It was a resurgent season for James, in particular, and it proved (if anyone needed proof) that a team with two of the top players on the planet is a pretty safe bet to make a championship run, no matter the complementary pieces. James and Davis, of course, are back this season — and if they are healthy for the playoffs, look out.

Why They Won’t: James (ankle) and Davis (calf) are not healthy, and that is an enormous problem — for now, if not forever. Davis has not played since Feb. 14, and Coach Frank Vogel said recently that Davis was “still a ways away.” The Lakers were already struggling without him when James sprained his ankle on March 20. He could be sidelined for at least another month. At the same time, a host of lesser Lakers have labored with their shooting strokes: Markieff Morris, Alex Caruso, Wesley Matthews, Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol. Take your pick. Is it windy?

Why They’ll Win the Finals: In hindsight, the Suns’ nifty footwork in acquiring Chris Paul in the off-season was one of the best moves an up-and-coming team could have made. He brought experience, toughness and defense to a team that was making big leaps — the Suns closed out the 2019-20 regular season by going undefeated in the bubble — and he has allowed Devin Booker to play off the ball. The window is closing for Paul, an 11-time All-Star who, at 35, has never played in an N.B.A. finals. In this topsy-turvy, anything-goes season, perhaps this is the moment when he finally makes it happen.

Why They Won’t: Inexperience. Booker, the team’s best player, has yet to get a taste of the postseason. The reality is that it’s asking a lot of a young group of players to make a very deep push in its first run through the playoffs, even if Paul is guiding the group.

Why They’ll Win the Finals: Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray continue to evolve and improve, and the time is now for the team to capitalize. The Nuggets’ front office signaled as much at the trade deadline when it acquired Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee, veterans who should help improve the team’s middling defense. Gordon also gives the Nuggets another scoring option.

Why They Won’t: The Nuggets have been wildly inconsistent this season, and it didn’t help that they lost Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee — two valuable role players — in free agency. Michael Porter Jr., who has surfaced as the team’s third scorer, has huge potential but has missed a lot of time and is still developing.

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