The semifinals of the NBA conference are in full swing. The Milwaukee Bucks just saved their postseason with a nerve-wracking game 3 win against the Brooklyn Nets. Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz have just put the LA Clippers in another 2-0 hole.
In Friday night’s matchups, the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks will battle it out for command of their streak in Game 3, while the Phoenix Suns seek a confident 3-0 lead against 2021 MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.
How much do the Nets need James Harden, who is still sidelined with hamstring tension? What’s the most impressive part of the Suns 2-0 lead? Which player or which attitude will decide the Jazz Clippers series? Which potential final matchup would deliver the juiciest storylines?
Our panel of experts answers some of the biggest questions of the playoffs ahead of two massive Game 3s.
MORE: Matchups, Dates, and News for each series
Fact or Fiction: The Nets should be favorites for the NBA title even if James Harden is no longer playing this postseason.
Tim MacMahon: Fiction. Kevin Durant looks like arguably the best player in the world once again, and Kyrie Irving is a seasoned championship-caliber buddy, but my gut feeling is that the Nets are going to need Harden to get past the 76s and / or whoever out of the West is coming. Nets GM Sean Marks obviously had this in mind when he pulled the trigger on the picks-laden deal to get Harden to Brooklyn.
Kevin Pelton: Fiction. Harden’s absence puts Brooklyn’s other stars under pressure to play huge minutes. After playing 44:35 in Game 1, Irving was on the court for 44:57 in Game 3. Durant played 40:06 and 42:52 in these two games, respectively. That may not be sustainable over three full rounds – especially given your own battles with injuries during the regular season.
Jorge Sedano: Fact. Despite all of their line-up, the Nets had a top offensive rating of 117.3 in the league this season. Interestingly, when Durant and Irving stood on the court together without Harden, that number elevated until June 120 Combine that with Blake Griffin’s reappearance and Joe Harris’ steady shooting and it’s not absurd to think that they can win anything without Hardening.
Brian Windhorst: It’s a fact. But it’s not a great fact. The Nets were basically a 500-man team this season when Harden wasn’t playing. They are very talented and their role players have been strong so far, but they are hard to bet on.
Royce Young: Fact. The reason is pretty simple: even with a number of talented superstar players in the postseason, Durant is in a class of its own. He’s the best player to play right now, a complete matchup nightmare that affects both ends of the floor. Temper or not harden, Durant will dominate games efficiently.
What was most impressive about the Suns’ 2-0 lead over the Nuggets?
MacMahon: Chris Paul is completely in control of the series so far, but he has dominated the playoff series before, despite never progressing to the finals. How Deandre Ayton would handle his matchup with MVP Nikola Jokic was the Suns’ biggest question on the series. Ayton, 22, has more than asserted himself. He averaged 17.5 points and 10.0 rebounds, while shooting 65.2% off the ground on the two wins. More importantly, Ayton made life difficult for Jokic, who is down 11 out of 26 with just four assists, according to the NBA Advanced Stats, despite Ayton being the main defender.
Limousine: It’s Paul. Let’s face it, there weren’t many out there who didn’t feel like they had been bitten by a snake again after being injured on the first round. He fought his way through and regained his form to take a confident 2-0 lead over Denver. His performance in Game 2 was masterful. His night with 17 points, 15 assists and zero turnover was the first playoff game with 15 plus points, 15 plus assists and no turnover since 2014. The player who accomplished this feat in 2014? Chris Paul. The last time before 2014 was 2008 … by Chris Paul.
Young: The attitude of the young suns. Paul is a weighted blanket for the rest of the squad, giving the suns the security they need in tight situations. But as stable as he was – 26 assists for a turnover are absurd – the rest of the Suns youngsters played their part wonderfully. Ayton is up to the challenge against Jokic. Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson seem comfortable in their roles. And Devin Booker seems made for every moment of the postseason that gets thrown in his way.
Pelton: Ayton’s defense against Jokic. Despite early foul issues in Game 2, Ayton nearly hit the MVP minute by minute (Jokic played four minutes on the bench with Ayton, according to NBA Advanced Stats) and deserves most of the credit for keeping Jokic at bay, as both a goalscorer (23 PPG at 47.5% shooting) and distributor (4.5 APG).
Windhorst: Phoenix depth. Paul was unearthly during the Sun’s five-game winning streak, and he’s had an incredible 53: 4 assists-to-revenue ratio during that time. But in both games in the series, the Suns had five players in the double digits. Ayton plays the best ball of his life, Cameron Payne plays from the bench and the Jae Crowder / Bridges 3-and-D combo was perfect.
What has been the biggest surprise at 76ers Hawks so far?
MacMahon: How dominant Joel Embiid was despite the torn meniscus in his right knee. It’s impressive to have averaged 39.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the conference semifinals under all circumstances. It is absolutely amazing to do so despite a knee injury that challenged Embiid’s availability until just before the Game 1 starting lineups were announced. And he does it against one of the best defensive big men in the NBA in Atlanta’s Clint Capela.
Windhorst: How good Embiid was despite a moderate knee injury. The idea that he would play in game 2, let alone 40, seemed wild just a few days ago. However, the way the Hawks played in the first half of Game 1 was quite surprising and deserves a special mention.
Young: Embiid. Obviously, it’s no surprise that Embiid would play great in a playoff series. But under the circumstances, his health was the biggest question on the show. It seemed admirable that he would try to play through a meniscus tear, but how limited it might be or what challenges it might face was a key act. Instead, after two games, Embiid just wonders how on earth the Hawks are going to stop him.
Limousine: How bad the Sixers’ bank played. Philly has been a midfield scoring unit this season, but it has been downright bad on that series. (And the numbers would look a lot worse if Shake Milton hadn’t given the Sixers a huge boost in the second half of Game 2.) Their bankers all had negative plus-minus in Game 1 and zero in the first half of Game Score game 2 before Milton sets the tone. That is not a sustainable recipe for success.
Pelton: Aside from Atlanta stealing Game 1 on the street, I’d say Kevin Huerter’s performance from the bench. Huerter has done more than half of his 3-pointers (6-of-11) and is a perfect 8-of-8 within the arc, a big reason the Hawks Plus-12 are on the court with him and minus- 24 with him on the bench through two games.
What will most determine the winner of jazz clippers?
MacMahon: Can the Clippers find a way to cool Donovan Mitchell down? LA has no chance in this series if Mitchell scores efficiently even in the 30s or 40s. The Jazz aren’t as dependent on Mitchell as the Mavs are on Luka Doncic – and Utah is a much better defensive team than Dallas – so the Clippers won’t survive this series if they never find a sustainable solution for the opponent’s point of contact.
Limousine: Mitchell’s success – or lack of it – will determine who wins this series. Most importantly, how effective it is at pick and roll. For the Clippers to be successful, they need to contain the perimeter with a combination of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Nicolas Batum, or Terance Mann. Luke Kennard certainly helps them on the offensive, but he was targeted by Mitchell. If Mitchell is allowed to feast, jazz wins the series.
Pelton: The ability to get out of dribbling. The assumption was that this would favor the Clippers, but I think Utah’s ability to achieve custom buckets is grossly underestimated. In fact, Jazz’s 50.3% effective field goal percentage for shots with more than two seconds of contact time – sixth in the league during the regular season, per second of the spectrum – was actually better than the Clippers’ 49.4% mark (11). Playing against the Clippers’ Junk Defenses, Utah only had 15 assists on 40 field goals in Game 2 but won anyway, thanks in large part to Mitchell’s creation.
Windhorst: The jazz in the fourth quarter. They lost some leaders (don’t ask about last year) but, whoa, looked like a championship team in the fourth quarter during that six-game playoff winning streak. Games 3 and 4 of the Memphis series and Games 1 and 2 against the Clippers were all wide open in the fourth and the mix of active defense, great shooting and Mitchell has repeatedly secured 50/50 games. It’s a championship thing.
Young: George. The secret of Playoff P’s story is that it is pretty similar to regular P season. George’s entire story as a star player is the ability to reach a top level comparable to the absolute best in the world, but then with an enigmatic, wandering performance two nights later. The Clippers only need the best version of George four times, and when they get it they can hit the jazz.
The finals matchup with the best storyline is …
Young: Suns against hawks. After leaving all of the wrestling in the big market behind us, the focus could shift to the reality that the league would have the opportunity to feature two stars who could be featured as players for the next decade. Giving Trae Young and Booker the big stage could pay off for the NBA in the long run. And I’m a big sucker too when it comes to weathering long title droughts or winning your first title, and seeing Paul in the NBA finals just seems long overdue.
Pelton: I like Brooklyn’s Big Three vs. Utah’s native core as a plot, but I think the answer has to be Nets vs. Clippers to have the chance to see Durant vs. Leonard in a fight where both play at a high level. Kawhi wasn’t quite there in 2016 when Durant’s Thunder upset Leonards Spurs, and we were denied that matchup in the 2019 NBA final due to Durant’s injuries. This would be a fitting climax for KD’s incredible comeback.
Limousine: It’s every show that Paul has in it. His résumé is only missing one appearance in the final and then a championship. Especially when the nets were the opponent. CP3 vs. Kyrie? A dream point guard matchup. Not to mention that he may face his old teammate in Harden. Having him and this young, fun group of Suns facing a Nets team that looks like a juggernaut would be a must see on TV.
MacMahon: Suns vs. nets. Don’t count on Paul and Harden to go out to dinner between games when they face each other in the finals a few years after their two-year tenure as Rockets teammates. Harden wasn’t the only one in Houston who wanted to trade Paul and a bunch of picks for Russell Westbrook, but the deal wouldn’t have come off if Harden hadn’t pushed for it. Paul has proven beyond a doubt that it was a bad move, and it would be the sweetest revenge to piss the suns over Harden’s super team. (Another storyline: Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni try to finally win a title at the expense of the suns.)
Windhorst: Suns vs. Nets with Harden and Paul healthy. The Rockets can cry in the corner.