By the end of the night, the NBA’s postseason second round will be officially set — first from 30 teams to 16 and soon just nine shall remain. Throughout the regular season — and for much of the last two years, actually — the biggest, most important question has been repeatedly asked ad nauseam: Can the Golden State Warriors be beaten? Thanks to Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and two other likely Hall of Famers, the Warriors have become basketball’s behemoth, with each playoff opponent desperately trying to hang on for one more game.
Well, most of the time.
The Houston Rockets found themselves a win away from dethroning the Warriors in last year’s Western Conference Finals and could’ve done so if not for Chris Paul’s pesky hamstring. Entering the second round, the Rockets will get their long-awaited chance at revenge — but for the entire Eastern Conference bracket, they’re just looking to get one step closer. In Milwaukee, Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia, this postseason offers the ability for a deep run without the constant threat of LeBron James lurking around every corner.
But in order to reach new heights, they’ll need an x-factor to tip the scales in their favor — both new and old — in the ever-closer conference battles.
Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Postseason: 12 PPG, 5.3 REB, 3.5 BLK, 1.5 3PG
When Lopez signed with Milwaukee on a one-year prove-it deal last offseason, it struck many as an absolute steal for the potential-laden Bucks. Lead by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and a cast of superb supporting characters, Lopez was brought on to provide a steady veteran presence at a position the franchise had struggled to fill over the years. Instead, it turns out, Lopez was just what this team needed.
The 7-footer had dabbled from behind the arc in recent seasons, but his coming out party in Milwaukee has been borderline remarkable. With the Bucks, Lopez averaged 2.3 three-pointers per game at a 36.3 percent clip, all while seamlessly unclogging the paint for the transcendental Antetokounmpo.
By the season’s midway point, Lopez was nonchalantly dribbling into three-pointers and making it look easy too — but with the stakes higher than ever, can he make Boston suffer? The Raptors boast a scary defensive unit, one that held Indiana to just 33.6 percent from deep over their four-game series. Eric Bledsoe and the aforementioned Middleton will have their hands full defending Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum, so Lopez must be able to stretch the floor and drag the perennially-underrated Al Horford away from the rim.
Additionally, Horford will do the same exact thing to Lopez on the opposite end, making for the Eastern Conference’s most intriguing chess match headed into the second round. During the regular season, Horford tore Milwaukee up — 19.5 points, 11 rebounds and 6.5 assists over the two games — so the pressure is on Lopez to consistently defend well where he’s least comfortable
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Postseason: 22.6 PPG, 8.4 REB, 1.6 3PG
Long story short: The likely frontrunner for Most Improved Player of the Year is a multi-faceted Swiss Army knife that will have his breakout campaign tested against the drive-dependant 76ers. But for as incredible as Siakam’s regular season was — 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game — the 25-year-old quickly hit another gear against Orlando. Whether he’s showing off some calculated post moves or bombing away from deep, Siakam was simply unguardable in round one.
Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons provide an intriguing defensive hurdle for Siakam and Kawhi Leonard, a switch-laden challenge that’ll constantly test the budding superstar in a long, grueling series. On the flip side, however, the 76ers don’t have a clear answer to Siakam on the offensive side either — so he must keep his hot-streak going at all costs.
Should the Raptors do away with their Atlantic Division rivals, they’ll need some inspired efforts on both sides of the ball. Versatile as they come, the 76ers will throw a bunch of schemes at Siakam and how he adapts may be this series’ ultimate turning point.
Bonus: Although these teams haven’t played since the trade deadline — hello, Tobias Harris and Marc Gasol — Toronto went 3-1 against Philadelphia this season, a sterling record that includes a 26-point beauty from Siakam back in December.
Marcus Morris, Boston Celtics
Postseason: 12.3 PPG, 6.5 REB, 1.8 3PG
It’s no secret that the Celtics have existed as a complete enigma at times this season — a few days on, a few days off. Between Kyrie Irving’s effortless ability to control a game or Gordon Hayward’s potential to impact the series off the bench, Morris might seem like an odd selection for x-factor consideration. Hell, even Marcus Smart — currently recovering from a partial tear to his left oblique — and an unexpected boost might make sense here too. In any case, there’s something about an on-fire Morris that just makes Boston unmistakenly electric.
In Game 1 against Indiana, Morris’ 20-point scorcher single-handedly willed the Celtics through an anxious opener. A week later, Morris went plus-18 — a team- and game-high — during Boston’s series-ender, notching 18 points and eight rebounds over 30 minutes. When Morris gets going, so do the Celtics. Once even hailed as a LeBron-stopped, Morris always provides well-timed veteran savviness for the Celtics, a toughness and palpable energy that his teammates even seem to thrive off of. Additionally, Morris will be part of the team tasked with slowing down Antetokounmpo — a nearly-impossible feat. But if Morris can make life just slightly more irritating for the MVP-worthy candidate, the Celtics will like their chances to push this heavyweight series to the brink.
Furthermore, when Morris scored 19 points or more during the regular season, the Celtics recorded an outstanding 12-3 record. Unsurprisingly, Boston went just 6-9 in contests in which he was held to eight points or less. So, even on a team stacked to the gills with superstar-worthy talent, Morris looks like a potential x-factor worth paying attention to.
J.J. Redick, Philadelphia 76ers
Postseason: 13.6 PPG, 2.8 3PG, 42.4 3P%
This one is pretty simple: The 76ers need J.J. Redick to be elite again.
Philadelphia got away with a couple of poor shooting nights from Redick against the Nets simply because Embiid was too much for Jarrett Allen and company to handle — and yet, even tougher competition awaits. Still, much like Morris, this team relies on Redick to knock down the open shots with consistency — when he does, they’re difficult to beat.
As a stunning subplot in Brooklyn’s Game 1 victory, Redick shot just 2-for-7 in defeat. Games 2 and 3 saw Redick go 7-for-12 and 7-for-17, respectively, and the 76ers won those contests by 22 and 16 points apiece. Later on, during Game 4, Redick managed just 27.3 percent from the floor and Philadelphia barely hung on thanks to a go-ahead bucket from Mike Scott with 20 seconds left. Even during the regular season, the 76ers were 9-4 when Redick hit five or more three-pointers — so rocket science, this is not.
The 76ers may be elite perimeter defenders but their glaring weak spot certainly remains the three-point line on offense. Through the opening round, Philadelphia made just nine three-pointers per game — or, conversely, the 15th-worst mark this postseason. Just below them ranks San Antonio and above them, consecutively, are the seven already-eliminated franchises plus Denver.
It’s an Achilles heel that will absolutely catch up to the 76ers before long, if not by a Toronto team that made the fifth-most three-pointers per game in the regular season. So if Philadelphia wants to be considered a truly elite conference threat, they need to hit more three-pointers, a focus that starts and ends with Redick filling it up on a consistent basis.
Since the trade deadline brought in some serious reinforcements, this potential second round has always seemed like the most likely destination. Without elite defenses and superstar performances abound, all four teams have a strong case to make the Eastern Conference Finals. In a battle of heady wills and adapt head coaching, these two matchups could hinge on an unexpected x-factor making a crucial difference.
Whether that’s from behind the arc on the block, Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia all need their supporting casts to step up and turn the tide — but who will do it?