As a competitive Round One of the NBA Playoffs wraps up, we preview the Round Two matchups by asking one question about each team. These are all title-caliber defensive teams, which means there will be some tough, physical basketball to come, and scoring will be at a premium.
Are the Heat Contenders or Overachievers? Despite earning the 1-seed in the East, people don’t seem to put a lot of respect on their name. Their infamous clipboard feud in the last week of the season made them look like a team in disarray. They had just enough daylight in the standings, and Brooklyn looming as a play-in obstacle, that the other East contenders rested down the stretch, proving they had little fear of coming to Miami in the Conference Finals. Before Game 1 of the playoffs many books gave them the fifth best odds in the East. But this is a team just two years removed from a Finals appearance. Butler and Lowry (when healthy) have been here before and play consistently, so their young support players (mostly Herro and Robinson) will determine if they can put up enough points to make it back.
Is James Harden still a Top-10 player in the league? Sixers fans breathed a huge sigh of relief when they put away the Raptors in Game 6 and avoided conversations about losing a 3-0 lead. News broke late that when Embiid took an elbow to the face, he suffered a concussion and broke an orbital bone. Joel just wrapped a second season where he will finish Top-2 in the MVP voting, and there is no timetable set for his return. All eyes turn to Harden, who has gone long stretches where it feels like he lost a step and just can’t get to the basket at an elite level. Then he bounces back with 22 and 15 on 40% from 3. He wants one last contract where he is paid like an MVP-caliber player, and that is what this Philly team needs him to be. Miami has a stingy defense behind a good coach, and they will throw young wings at him much like Toronto did. They will hunt him on the other end to get easier points and wear him out. If he leaks points on one end or goes 2-11 again, the max contract he will demand this offseason is not going to look all that palatable.
Will the Boston defense hold up against Giannis and the Bucks? The book on Kevin Durant has been that he will get his, but you need players that make him work for it. Boston did the unthinkable and actually shut him down. Can the C’s defense have the same impact on Giannis? If Rob Williams can get back to full strength, it will bolster a frontcourt that has lots of switchable big men. Their backcourt has really clamped down, and I expect we will see them send defenders to double Giannis as a rule. Boston had historic advanced metrics after the calendar turned to the new year. Now it will be asked to shut down a second MVP-caliber player to prove it was not a fluke.
Will the Bucks regret giving Boston the 2-seed? Everyone believes that as the playoff picture emerged, the Bucks took their foot off the gas to avoid a potential rematch with the Nets in the 2/7 matchup. Well the Nets fizzled out, and Milwaukee cruised past the flagging Bulls. Now the Bucks, who lost some role players that wanted to get paid after getting their ring, head to Boston to continue their title defense. They looked at times this year like they might be coasting a little bit, waiting for the playoffs to flip the switch. With Middleton looking more and more likely to miss this entire series, are the Bucks going to find themselves wishing they had home court advantage for crucial Games 5 and 7?
Is Booker’s hamstring going to approach 100%? The Suns’ ceiling was title favorite, but the Booker injury, and dropping a few games to the feisty Pelicans, brought them back down to the pack. Booker was surprisingly able to play way ahead of schedule in a Game 6 return, and he had decent numbers while playing on a minutes restriction. But it seems like the hamstring is one of those injuries that gets setbacks very frequently. Dallas no doubt plans to make him work on the defensive end, behind the arc where they did the most damage to the Jazz in their matchup. At their best, the Mavs had a suffocating defense this year. Booker’s scoring will mean the difference between moving one step closer to another Finals appearance, or going home early and making some hard decisions about this roster.
Will Jalen Brunson come back down to Earth? When it looked like Luka Doncic was going to miss the series, everyone wondered if the rest of the team would step up. Brunson carved up the Utah defense, scoring about 28 ppg (he averaged 16 ppg during the regular season). But his percentages in the series are in line with his normal numbers; he managed to keep his same efficiency while getting a bigger usage. When Doncic returned, Brunson kept contributing, dishing out assists and keeping turnovers to a minimum. Because he was a second round draft pick, he is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. He made himself quite a bit of money this season with his improvement, and shouldering the load against the Jazz definitely didn’t hurt. A strong series against the 1-seed Suns could propel him into a max contract this summer.
Is this young team ready to make some playoff noise? It is not lost on me that this Memphis team is going up against the Warriors, who found themselves in a similar position in 2014. One year after making the second round, they went up against a veteran Clippers team and lost in 7. Conventional wisdom is that young teams have to take their lumps in the playoffs to elevate to that elite level and join the real contenders. These Grizzlies are not afraid of anyone, as Ja Morant’s monster jams and their 20-point comebacks have proved. Going up against the second coming of the Golden State dynasty, they have an opportunity to stake their claim as a serious contender, but even if they lose they are getting the kind of playoff experience that can prepare young teams for greatness.
Golden State Warriors
Should the Warriors be considered the title favorites? When Steph Curry went down with a lower leg injury late in the season, it seemed like this team was never going to get everyone on the court at the same time. Draymond missed an extended period after the new year, and their Big Three did not get much time together this year. As they dropped out of the second place in the West and were even threatened by Dallas for the 3 seed, speculation started about who could be moved to bolster their stars. But this is a team that has so much experience, they returned to top form immediately. Jordan Poole’s emergence is a great story, and it gives Steve Kerr the flexibility to bring Curry off the bench as maybe the best sixth man ever. They dispatched a Denver squad that was very thin outside of Jokic. Memphis has so many more weapons, and will provide a much tougher test of Golden State.