Finally, the 2018 NBA playoffs are (almost) here. Before the opening of Saturday afternoon, here are 13 questions that could define the first round:
1. Are we completely convinced that Kawhi is out for the season?
Jack Maloney from CBS Sports presented this as one of his 18 reasons to be enthusiastic about the playoffs. I can not shake the thought of the San Antonio Spurs who report Kawhi Leonard in the first round and upset the Golden State Warriors. I also like the idea of Jack of Leonard descending from the beams in the second quarter of the second game.
The funny thing: as NBA professional Haralabos Voulgaris tweeted, if Leonard is still close to being completely healthy, you’d be crazy not to choose Spurs against this version of the Warriors. Golden State seems vulnerable right now, not just against a San Antonio team without Leonard.
2. Is this the point at which the Melo trade finally pays off?
Even the most ardent supporters of Carmelo Anthony would have had difficulty sustaining that it had developed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. It has become a glorious lengthening forward (though with a 35.7 point firing rate), and opponents target it normally in defense.
Anthony deserves credit for accepting a smaller offensive role to empower his teammates, but if he is not playing a large offensive role, how is he helping exactly one team win? Unlike guys like Vince Carter and Grant Hill – the exception, not the norm for franchise players – has not turned into a handyman support player.
Still, I’m more optimistic about Playoff Melo than I thought. In this particular matchup, you may be able to be effective. The Jazz can put Anthony in the pick-and-roll, of course, but it’s not that they will change their identity, they will embrace the isolation basket and they will go hunting for matches. And on the other hand, Utah tends to give up a ton of mid-range shots, while it should be the defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert hangs from the basket. It was a fantastic game plan, but if Anthony has a rhythm, he can still do damage in that area.
3. Can Jazz earn enough points to survive?
People asked this question this time last year, but they managed to overtake the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. The difference: not only had Gordon Hayward, but veteran Joe Johnson emerged as a hero of the season. Utah plays exactly the same style this season, and will rely on the novice Donovan Mitchell to score as a star – there is not another high-use player on the roster.
To be clear, Jazz is not a bad offensive team. They ranked 15 in the offensive classification on the season and 12 since 19 January when Rudy Gobert returned from a knee injury. Their “basketball advantage” style suits their staff – is there a better marriage between player and Joe Ingles system in this crime? – and teams with multiple pick-and-roll players can be difficult to stop. It’s just that, if Oklahoma City is playing Paul George and Steven Adams 40 minutes or more every game, Utah could have something to do with a rather massive defense. Without other golfers, I’m not sure the Jazz will be able to create decent looks in close games.
4. OKC can do its thing against the best defense of the league?
Jazz-Thunder is the most intriguing series of the first round for me, so yes, I’m asking THREE questions about it. When Gobert is on the floor, Utah is not only a great defending team: it is by far the best in the NBA. When players try to go one on one against this team, it usually does not work. See where he is going.
During the regular season, the Thunder failed to establish a cohesive offensive system in which Russell Westbrook, George and Anthony are actually improving. They were a good offensive team – they finished 10th in the offensive classification – but they were not big or consistent. Their style could simply play in the hands of Jazz. Jazz hands!
5. Is LeBron still invincible in the first round?
LeBron James won 21 first-round playoff games in a row. Twenty-one! The last time he lost a game in the opening round was 2011 – against the New York Knicks, of all the teams. (Funny facts about that game: Carmelo Anthony scored 41 points, New York’s defense field was Baron Davis and Landry Fields.) In James’s career, he won 40 of the 47 games in the first round.
Here’s the trick: James’s teams finished the first or second 2008-09 conference. The two times he went to the playoffs with a lower seed than that – in 2006 and 2008 with the Cavs – his team won his first series in six games and was eliminated in the second round.
This year’s Cleveland team has finished fourth in the standings, and its point differential is actually worse than its opponent: the Indiana Pacers. I seriously doubt that most people bet against James driving the Cavs beyond the Pacers, but I would be surprised if this sweeping strip continued.
6. How will Oladipo respond to the playoff pressure?
Victor Oladipo will win Most Improved Player and could also form an All-NBA team. In his fifth season, with his third franchise in three years, he moved from a regular player to a superstar that Orlando Magic dreamed of being when they brought him to the n. 2 in the 2013 draft. Oladipo is by far the biggest reason for the surprising success of the Pacers this season, and will be on top of the Cavs scouting report. Earlier this season, Indiana coach Nate McMillan told CBS Sports that Oladipo’s next big challenge will be on his new station.
“He became the number 1 option. He’s seeing the best defenders every night and he’s seeing double teams, just like some of these All-Stars are seeing,” said McMillan. “And he’s learning to play against that: it takes a year or two to be able to play that role and be productive, and the teams are now planning the match for him.”
Cleveland has not been known as a great defending team in recent seasons, but in the playoffs he was quite good at executing the game plan of coach Tyronn Lue. Cavs tend to bring teams away from situations where they are more comfortable. For Indiana, this means making life as difficult as possible for Oladipo and forcing him to give up the ball.
7. Who wins the great battle of the backcourts?
OK, let’s split it: Quinn Cook and Klay Thompson against Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray.
Making fun of. The Raptors-Wizards series is fascinating for a lot of reasons, but first of all because of the star guards on the floor. DeMar DeRozan is a better director than Bradley Beal, but Beal is the top shooter and could catch fire. John Wall against Kyle Lowry could do a lot to determine the series – Wall, who has just returned from a knee injury last week, has the opportunity to send a message to those who say he is overpaid and does not make his teammates better. Lowry, playing a bearish role this season but still the Toronto musician, has the opportunity to send a message to those who say they can not count on the playoffs.
In 2015, the Wizards got the best of the Raptors, but it was a long time ago. (The Atlanta Hawks won 60 games and the Brooklyn Nets made the playoffs that season!) Washington has a new coach and has developed some young players. Toronto has a new offensive philosophy and an off-road fleet that has destroyed everyone throughout the season. The question is not just about the security guards who will present the best numbers; it is also about which team has created an environment to help their stars succeed. The backcour battle will reflect the way these organizations built their lists around them.
8. Can Raptors’ roleplayers make a hit?
If the wizards essentially ignore O.G. Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam on the perimeter will be a surprise for anyone. The book on Toronto in the last post was to try to beat anyone except Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The “set-up” of the much-discussed discussion of the Raptors is about enabling those players to do exactly that.
“We want them to be more comedies,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse told CBS Sports earlier this season. “We want our main guys to trust them to create plays and I think we’re seeing it, it’s really the most important thing.”
Regardless of how well it worked in the regular season, Nurse said that it all comes down to “the real test” of the postseason, when the offense of each team is discovered to death. This time the Raptors should be less predictable, but there is no guarantee that the shots will fall.
“We created a lot of good shots in the playoffs before we did not,” said the nurse. “Once again, making our boys get used to and ready to do those in the playoffs, we’ll have to see about it.”
9. What the hell do the Blazers do at The Brow?
Do the Portland Trail Blazers have anyone on the roster that can properly protect Anthony Davis? Do they launch double teams against him? Triple-teams? Would it be better to just let him score 40 and focus on stopping Jrue Holiday and the rest of the Pelicans? I certainly do not have the answer, but I am excited to see Davis return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015 (when he scored 31.5 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks against any Golden State Warriors champion).
10. Can wolves win a game? Just a game?
It seems that the Minnesota Timberwolves are in a deep and profound problem against the Houston Rockets. Their defense was only marginally better than last season, despite the addition of old friends of Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, and their attack – though very efficient – does not have the juice that Houston does. It would be impressive if the Minnesota could only annoy the old-fashioned Thibodeau style series, and make the Rockets work for their victories.
11. Can Simmons continue like this?
The average of Ben Simmons’ post-All-Star breaks – 14.5 points, 9.8 assists, 8.9 rebounds, 58.9% of footage – make me laugh like an idiot. Also significant is the fact that the Sixers have overcome the opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions with the rookie marker from 6 feet and 10 in the field in the same arc. Simmons is already somehow among the elite of the game, and this seasonal run could be a sort of coronation for Philadelphia.
On the other hand, the Miami Heat roster is full of versatile athletic defenders. They can change pick-and-roll and let Justise Winslow, James Johnson and Josh Richardson alternate as Simmons’ first defender. Erik Spoelstra is a brilliant tactician and Miami will do everything possible to take away Simmons’ driving and passing lanes. Continuing to dominate will be a challenge.
12. How will Playoff Wade appear?
Did you see that Spoelstra sued Toby Keith in SB Nation’s Seerat Sohi? It’s a perfect way to think of Dwyane Wade as he enters the playoffs: “I’m not as good as it used to be, but I’m good once, as I’ve always been, I really believe Dwyane is all he used to be in those iconic seasons, those moments could be a bit ‘more compact. ”
Spoelstra added that “he will go to my grave with the ball in the hands of Dwyane Wade with the game on the line”. The heat enthusiasts understand it, after seeing it take hold of the games and hit the biggest shots in countless high pressure situations. Wade only turned 40.9 percent on his return to Miami, though, and only made 22 percent of his 3-pointers.
All this adds a strange dynamic. Wade is at the same time a franchise player and a role player. It has an average of 22.2 minutes with Heat in the regular season and that number may not rise in the playoffs. If it’s time for the crisis, though, and they need a bucket to put away the Sixers, it’s obvious that Spoelstra trusts.
13. How much will you evaluate the stellar power in Celtics-Bucks?
No series provides a window on the value of the star’s power in the postseason like this. Conventional wisdom dictates that if you have the best player in a series, you have the chance to win. Theoretically, scouting and defense at the playoff level means that pretty, egalitarian and movement-oriented crimes are magnified, and that’s when a traditional star – someone who can create something from scratch, even against a high quality defense – is something between precious and essential.
The Celtics, without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, do not have a player like that. Al Horford is a star, but of a completely different kind. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown could be stars one day, but that day probably will not be in the next few weeks. Boston coach Brad Stevens will not ask anyone – no, not even Terry Rozier – to be a hero here. This team will have to do things in a different way, with a creative game, a suffocating defense and an opportunistic score.
The Bucks, meanwhile, employ Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Eight bonus questions: remember Malcolm Brogdon? How bluntly will the 3-point differential in the Houston-Minnesota series be? Kelly Oubre is the X factor that should have been? How important is Miami’s deep bench? Can Jusuf Nurkic stay on the floor? Will Myles Turner get back into the unicorn universe? Corey Brewer is really healthy (and can you believe how important this question is for Oklahoma City)? Will the Warriors clean up their rotation problem?
2018 NBA Playoff Bracket