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The NBA Play-In Tournament wraps tonight, setting the final two playoff spots, with the postseason proper beginning Saturday and Sunday. To break down some of the biggest questions in the NBA this week, I tapped in some of the best minds from The Step Back and FanSided’s NBA network.
1. For the sake of a fun hypothetical, let’s say one of the primary MVP candidates (Jokic, Giannis or Embiid) is going to get embarrassed in a first-round playoff loss? Who is most likely to suffer this indignity and how would it happen?
Jordanna Clark, Daily Knicks: I think that the Raptors have a real shot at beating Joel Embiid and the Sixers in the first round. Nick Nurse isn’t the coach that Embiid wants to be going up against and Philadelphia has far more to lose than Toronto. If there’s a pesky enough defense that’s going to stop Embiid, it’s going to be the Raptors. Embiid’s right-hand man James Harden isn’t consistent and that’s going to make things even harder on the MVP candidate. Frustrations will be high and the series is going to be an absolute physical battle (and also a lot of fun to watch).
Phillip Barnett, NBA Division Director: The easy and obvious answer here is Joel Embiid. For all of his perceived brilliance, Daryl Morey has not yet built a championship team. Despite coaching the 2008 Celtics to a title, Doc Rivers has become one of the least trusted in high-leverage postseason games and James Harden has his, ahem, history. But we’re not here for easy and obvious, right?
Maybe we should turn our attention to Nikola Jokic, who has been brilliant on the court with pretty much every single advanced metric on his side. What he does not have, however, is the kind of supporting cast needed to succeed in the postseason. Jamal Murray still hasn’t made his return this season while Michael Porter Jr is likely even further away from a return than Murray is. On the other bench, the Warriors saw Klay Thompson drop 42 in their last regular-season game, they got Draymond back from injury about a month ago and recent reports indicate that Curry is likely back for the series opener. We’re going to see the Warriors’ Big 3 play together in the postseason for the first time since the team lost to the Raptors in the NBA Finals. This might not just be a first-round loss for the Jokic and the Nuggets, but if Curry can just be 70 percent of who he was to start the season, this could get ugly and fast for the reigning MVP.
Candice Evans, Pippen Ain’t Easy: It is going to be Nikola Jokic not because of his play, but rather who he is playing. The Warriors have the experience and play style that will bother him in a seven-game series. Not to mention, Draymond Green is a literal Swiss Army knife.
2. In the first round of the NBA Playoffs last season we saw 13 40-point games, put together by eight different players. Who puts up a 40-piece in the first round this year?
Jordanna Clark, Daily Knicks: Kevin Durant. I think that the best bet is between either him or Kyrie Irving and honestly the both of them could put up 40-point games in the first round. We saw what KD did in the playoffs last year and he’s going to have to put on a similar performance for the Nets to have a shot to make it to the NBA Finals. The crazy thing about Durant is that he can do just that and make it look effortless. You won’t catch me betting against him.
Phillip Barnett, NBA Division Director: No one has my attention more than Jayson Tatum right now. Embiid led the NBA in 40-point performances, Giannis has shown that he can give you 40 on any given night and I do think that no one is going to be on more of a mission this postseason than Devin Booker. But Tatum is the guy I’d bet the house on, and for reasons that lean a bit unconventional. I think Tatum has unlocked an ability to facilitate that we haven’t seen from him at a high level with real consistency. Like we’ve seen with Luka Doncic in recent years (a guy I might have here if not injured), his ability to find open teammates has forced help defenders to stay home a little more than they’d like for a guy with Tatum’s scoring ability.
With the whole team rolling pretty much since the turn of the calendar year, Tatum is going to see a number of single coverage looks that he can take advantage of. He’s averaging 30 since the All-Star break, 31 since March, 29 against Brooklyn and closed out the season with a 31-point performance that saw him shoot 11-of-14 from the field and 6-of-8 from deep. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the other side, this is going to be a series with a few special performances, just know Tatum is absolutely going to have one of them.
Candice Evans, Pippen Ain’t Easy: Definitely Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is playing a Chicago Bulls team that is a bottom-half defensive team in the NBA. In his four games against the Bulls, he dominated them inside-out. The Bulls don’t have length on the perimeter or a shot blocker down-low. He will have a field day in the paint.
3. Which lower seed has the best chance of pulling off a first-round upset?
Jordanna Clark, Daily Knicks: The Minnesota Timberwolves. No, I’m just kidding, although I would love for them to win. The Celtics have been playing beautiful basketball as of late, but it isn’t fair that the Nets are the No. 7 seed in the East. That series is going to be a true battle and it could go in either direction, but out of the other lower seeds, Brooklyn’s the best bet to pull off the upset. That matchup is going to feel more like the Eastern Conference Finals than the first round. My guess is that the Nets are going to get the 4-2 win, but I won’t complain if it comes down to a Game 7.
Phillip Barnett, NBA Division Director: Both of the 4-5 matchups could go either way. Utah is getting Dallas without Luka Doncic (at least to start) and we’ve already talked about how pretty much everyone in the Philly organization has had issues executing in the postseason, and the matchup with Toronto isn’t exactly the easiest first-round out. Both of the 2-7 matchups are awfully interesting, as well. Brooklyn underachieved during the regular season, but it’s hard to imagine a Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving led team go down in the first round despite how well Boston is playing as a unit (and not having Robert Williams in a series against a team that struggles against size is a much bigger deal than many are letting on.
Out West, the Timberwolves are 15-8 since the All-Star break with wins over Memphis, Cleveland, Golden State, Miami, Milwaukee, Dallas and Denver. Karl-Anthony Towns, at his best, presents a problem Memphis may not have an answer for. D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards showed that they can manage scoring on the perimeter if Towns doesn’t have it going while Patrick Beverley, Malik Beasley and the rest of the cast have adapted to their supporting roles very well. Memphis isn’t going to be an easy out for anyone — especially Minnesota — but I don’t think anyone should be particularly shocked if Minnesota is a little more than the young Grizz can handle.
Candice Evans, Pippen Ain’t Easy: The only correct answer is the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets stars can beat any team on any given night. Adding Andre Drummond and Seth Curry to the mix made them clear title favorites in my eyes. The Celtics had a good regular season and have a strong roster. Any other year, they would’ve been a lock for the Eastern Conference Finals. But in a year where Kevin Durant is the seventh seed, no top teams are safe.
Other NBA stories:
Gary Payton is hopeful that Seattle will get their NBA team back sooner than later and plans to be a big part of it whenever it happens.
For much of the regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks have avoided the national spotlight. They begin their campaign for a second-consecutive championship on Sunday against the Chicago Bulls, and the numbers say they’re just as good as last year.
Every NBA MVP candidate has flaws in their resume but digging into those flaws leads down a neverending rabbit hole of arguments and counterarguments.