Daily News The Audible: What’s better than playoff time in L.A.? (Maybe free chicken?)

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Jim Alexander: Before we get into what really is the best time of the year in this town – three playoff series going pretty much concurrently – one last charming NBA regular-season moment courtesy of the People’s Choice, Boban Marjanovic.

It was last weekend’s Clippers-Houston season finale. The game was pretty much decided, the season was pretty much in the books (Clippers destined for Dallas, the Rockets headed home), and Boban went to the line for two free throws late in the game. The Clippers and Chick-Fil-A have a promotion where everybody in the building gets a chicken sandwich on the house when a visiting player misses two free throws.

Boban played here, so I suspect he knew the drill. And when he missed the first one, he pointed at the fans, saying “I got you” – and if I’m lipreading right he might have added, “Save one for me” – and then he missed the second one on purpose. Any wonder why he’s a fan favorite everywhere he goes in this league? (It probably helped, from his standpoint, that the Rockets were about to win anyway.

Boban.

Man of the people.
🍗
pic.twitter.com/PRq6xIXxIW

— NBA (@NBA) April 15, 2024


One last bit of levity before the serious hoops gets underway, right?

Mirjam Swanson: Only Boban could make me like that promotion a little. A little.

But, yes, let’s get serious – we’re talkin’ about the playoffs!

Where do we start? Lakers in a first-round rematch of last year’s Western Conference finals, again facing the Denver Nuggets, last year’s NBA champions?

The week started with some pundits – from ESPN’s Mike Greenberg to my pal Harrison Faigen – suggesting that the Lakers “throw their play-in vs. the Pelicans to avoid the Nuggets,” because the task of beating Denver will be so insurmountable.

Thankfully, the Lakers didn’t take their advice and didn’t mess around and find out what insurmountable embarrassment might’ve come their way had they actually considered punting on a play-in game.

Now they have Denver, which … yeah, that’s the toughest first-round draw in the NBA this season, I think. But I think the Lakers are going to make it a series. It doesn’t count, but last season’s sweep in the conference final was about as close a sweep as someone could conjure up: They lost those games by a total of 24 points. And even Game 3 – which Denver won 119-108 – featured a Lakers lead in the fourth quarter.

And none of the Lakers’ three losses (in three tries) against the Nuggets this regular season were blowouts, but games decided by eight to 12 points.

I think the Lakers even have an outside shot – if they can cool off Jamal Murray. That guy loves the playoffs, whether he’s dropping multiple 50-point first-round games against Utah or killing the Clippers with a closeout 40-point effort or averaging 32.5 points per game on 53% shooting against the Lakers … he lives for this. Solve him and the Lakers have a shot. An outside shot. Way outside. But a shot.

Jim: And that shot might be delivered by D’Angelo Russell. Clearly, DLo has something to prove after last year’s Denver series, and the way the Nuggets went at him on defense and basically took him out of the action. His reference earlier this year to “public humiliation,” and how it has motivated him? A large part of that goes back to last year’s series. He’s motivated, he’s hot, and let’s see how this matchup develops.

Mainly, though, the Lakers have to figure out a way to slow down the Nuggets in the fourth quarter. Denver’s an excellent end-of-game team anyway, and as I noted in print a couple of days ago, all of their last seven victories over the Lakers – the four last spring and the three this season – were achieved thanks to a late-game run. Stop those, or at least blunt those, and they have a chance. In short, beating Denver would qualify as an upset, but this is not the blowout everyone thinks it will be.

According to The Ringer’s “Hater’s Guide to the 2024 NBA Playoffs’ First Round,” Lakers-Nuggets is a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 on the “Hate and Toxicity Evidence Ratio Index (or the H.A.T.E.R. Index for short).” Clippers-Mavericks is a 9, but that series, which starts Sunday, has it all: history, frustration (on the part of the Mavs), star power, motivation (cue the “Can Luka Doncic Win A Title?” stories) and plenty of interpersonal grudges. I suspect you’re going to have great fun with this one.

Mirjam: I will if Kawhi plays!

I hope he does, because I want these teams at their full powers to go at it again. The previous two series between Kawhi’s Clippers and Luka Doncic’s Mavs have been wild and crazy and all sorts of dramatic fun. Buzzer beaters and buzz saws and bizarro results, with both teams only winning on their opponents’ home court until the Clippers closed it out in Game 7 at the Crypt in 2021.

But we don’t know if Kawhi will be a go, because the Clippers insist they don’t know. It’s that kind of thing, this stubborn right knee inflammation he’s been experiencing the past few weeks. And without him, it won’t be half the series it could be.

Mainly because the Mavs’ defense will have a much more difficult task if they have to figure out how to guard James Harden, Paul George AND Kawhi. Just two of those three, and the equation changes.

Also, it’s great theater – and a great cheat code for the Clippers – to have a guy capable of going 18 for 25 for 45 points in a do-or-die game.

Fingers crossed, Jim!

Jim: I’m kind of amused at the way Clippers personnel bristle at any query about Kawhi’s health (and I guess Ty Lue even apologized to reporters for acting so frustrated any time the subject came up). But what do they expect?

In 2021, after Kawhi hurt his right knee in Game 4 of the second round against Utah, he told a TNT interviewer, “I’m good,” for Game 5, then said “next question” when it was brought up in the presser afterward. The Clippers kept teasing that he might somehow return, but he didn’t play again in those playoffs, underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL after the season and missed all of the 2021-22 season, And again last spring, in the first round against Phoenix, he suffered a torn meniscus in Game 2 and didn’t play again … but if I remember correctly – and correct me if I’m wrong – the team would not let on how serious the injury was.

In short, they don’t have a whole lot of credibility when it comes to Kawhi’s health. You can debate whether it’s the team trying to create doubt in the minds of its opponents or Kawhi and his people insisting on secrecy. Bottom line: You tell enough fibs, people stop believing you even if you are telling the truth.

There is, of course, one more playoff series taking place in this town, and it’s another rematch. I will understand if you don’t feel compelled to weigh in on Kings-Oilers, but it’s a similar storyline to Lakers-Nuggets. Edmonton has knocked out L.A. the last two springs, and there’s no reason to think Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Co. aren’t capable of brushing aside the Kings again. And yet … the Kings have been sneaky good most of the time since changing coaches at midseason, and while there were a couple of hiccups in the past week – and in the third period Thursday night against Chicago – they did what they had to do to assure themselves another rematch.

Put it this way: The Kings entered Thursday night’s season finale one standings point behind Vegas and looking instead at a wild-card spot and a first-round matchup with Dallas, which finished the regular season with 113 points, best in the West and one behind the New York Rangers for the President’s Trophy.

Vegas, the defending champ, had equal motivation to avoid the Stars but instead dropped a 3-1 decision at home to the Ducks, who ended another dreary season by doing a favor for their freeway rivals. The Kings could have packed it in after allowing three third-period goals to the Blackhawks, but rallied to win in overtime 5-4, with Viktor Arvidsson tying it with 1:21 left in regulation and Adrian Kempe’s goal six seconds into OT deciding it.

So the Kings got their rematch. I’m not sure they’re in any better spot against the Oilers than they’ve been the last two springs, but the drama continues!

Mirjam: Wow, was that a wild conclusion to a wild regular season for the Kings – fitting, really, and following much the same arc: good start, shaky middle, and a finish with dramatic flair.

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I was going to say Kings-Edmonton reminds me of Clippers-Dallas – or what the Clippers aspire for Clippers-Dallas to become. They’ve been on a collision course with the Mavericks whenever both teams have reached the NBA playoffs the past few years.

So far, in this era of postseason matchups, the Clips are 2-0. Meanwhile, as Kings fans know, they’re 2-7 in nine playoff series with the Oilers. And as you point out, Jim it doesn’t seem incredibly likely that the Kings will be able to change that narrative this playoffs.

But considering the dramatic way this season has unfolded so far – why not? A long shot is still a shot?

Jim: And in the words of noted philosopher Wayne Gretzky – former Oiler, former King, and in fact member of the last Kings team to win a playoff series from the Oilers, in 1989 – you miss all of the shots you don’t take.

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