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The first round of the NBA Playoffs are moving quickly with several teams already facing elimination as soon as this weekend. 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. Which young player has impressed you in the NBA playoffs?
Micah Wimmer, The Step Back: With all respect to Tyrese Maxey and Anthony Edwards, who have both been very impressive in their first few games this postseason, no young player has impressed and entranced me quite like Jordan Poole. I’m not sure that Poole has actually been better than either of them, but the degree of difficulty of the shots he’s made has put him over the top for me.
He’s leading the Warriors in points, scoring nearly 30 per game on an absolutely absurd 67/59/81 clip. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but if you’ve watched him these first three games, those numbers may still seem low – it doesn’t feel like he’s missed a single shot. Regardless of how you rank these players and which you enjoy watching the most, all three of them are absolute hoopers and I feel so lucky that I will get to watch them do this for another decade or so.
Ben Ladner, The Step Back: Jordan Poole’s continued breakout for the Warriors has been the most impressive of anyone under 24 in these playoffs, and probably the most important to the championship race. His every move against the Nuggets seems imbued with the confidence of a player who knows he can get where he wants, when he wants, no matter how focused the defense might be on him. Add in the fact that he looks infinitely more comfortable playing within Golden State’s read-and-react offense and using his passing and movement to create for others, and this is a completely different player than the one who entered the season as a wild card fourth starter.
If Poole gives Golden State reliable, efficient secondary scoring alongside Steph Curry and Klay Thompson throughout the playoffs, I’m not sure what team in either conference (save for possibly the Celtics) is particularly well-suited to slow down the Warriors’ offensive machine.
Ian Levy, The Step Back: The answer is Poole but I don’t really have anything to say about him that hasn’t been said more insightfully and more eloquently by Micah and Ben so I’ll take a few minutes to extoll the virtues of Tyrese Maxey. He’s been the absolute perfect complementary weapon to Harden and Embiid, averaging 26.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, shooting 60 percent from the field and 47.4 percent on 3-pointers. He’s also spent nearly 120 defensive possessions matched up with (an admittedly injured) Fred VanVleet, who has managed just 5 points on 2-of-15 from the field. To some degree, this is a continuation of what he showed in the regular season but watching how his skills can be applied in a postseason setting, exploiting matchups and releasing pressure, is an incredibly meaningful development.
2. With a few games under our belts, who would you pick right now as the top four contenders?
Micah Wimmer, The Step Back: Entering the postseason, I would have said that Phoenix, Golden State, Boston, and Milwaukee were my top four contenders, and I see no reason to change that. I could understand making an argument for Philadelphia, but I’m not willing to sell my stock in Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champions just because of one home loss, you know? Also, I’d like to see Harden look more like himself before saying the Sixers are truly better than Milwaukee.
The Warriors have, at points, looked unbeatable. And though I’m not sure I’d bet on that being sustainable — or them staying healthy — but that has to count for something. The Devin Booker injury does hurt the Suns a lot, but I think that they can likely stay afloat without him until he returns in a few weeks, even if his absence significantly lowers their ceiling. Meanwhile, the Celtics entered the playoffs as perhaps the hottest team in the NBA and, while taking a 2-0 lead on the Nets, have made Kevin Durant look worse than he has in a very long time. Things may certainly change between now and the end of the Finals, but these four teams have stood out to me at different points throughout the year and I have a hard time picking against any of them now.
Ben Ladner, The Step Back: Based solely on how each team has looked in the playoffs so far (an admittedly insufficient sample size) Golden State has to be at the top of the heap. Curry and Draymond Green look like themselves, and the “new Death Lineup” is firing on all cylinders. The Celtics are playing some of the best defense I’ve ever seen against a potent Nets offense, and I buy the idea that they can find just enough ways to score against tough opponents.
After that, the Suns, Bucks and Grizzlies have all shown signs of potential cracks, and I need to see more from Miami and Philadelphia to be fully convinced. If healthy, the Bucks and Suns would be straightforward choices to round out the top four, but with each team’s health in question, I’ll go with the Heat and Grizzlies.
Ian Levy, The Step Back: The injuries to Khris Middleton and Devin Booker are concerning and the kinds of things that could be impactful well beyond just games missed, lingering and hampering effectiveness even when they return. It seems wild to get so excited about the East after the season the Western Conference just had, but I’ll take the Warriors and then the 76ers, Celtics and Bucks out of the East. And then Chris Paul will go out tonight and do something to make me look like an idiot.
3. Which first-round loser is going to be heading for a dramatic offseason implosion?
Micah Wimmer, The Step Back: It has to be the Nets, right? Brooklyn entered the season as favorites to win it all, then barely snuck into the playoffs, and now finds themselves in a 2-0 hole that they are extremely unlikely to climb out of. I get that it’s easy to list reasons why this season didn’t work out as hoped, and that many of them are valid. Joe Harris suffered a season-ending injury and Durant missed a large chunk of games a few months back; Kyrie Irving was only intermittently available due to being unvaccinated; James Harden decided he no longer wanted to be in Brooklyn and was traded to Philadelphia in exchange for Ben Simmons, who has not played in an NBA game in nearly a year.
But even in light of all that, I’m still having a hard time believing things will inevitably be better next year. In theory, Brooklyn should be one of the best teams in the NBA. In practice, they look overmatched against the Celtics, and at some point, the reality of the situation has to matter more than the idea of what could be. I’m not sure the team will necessarily implode since it’s hard to imagine them parting ways with Durant, Irving, or Simmons, but there will certainly be a lot of drama and soul-searching in Brooklyn this summer.
Ben Ladner, The Step Back: I think any Jazz fans reading this may have broken into a sweat just reading this question. A first-round loss to a Luka Doncic-less Mavericks team (still far from a certainty!) would almost certainly spell the end of the Gobert-Mitchell-Snyder era, and likely the departure of a few key role players as well. Utah has had legitimate excuses for bowing out before the Conference Finals in previous seasons, but this year the same problems are resurfacing, and the Jazz still don’t seem to have solutions. That doesn’t feel like a tenable path forward.
Ian Levy, The Step Back: Micah and Ben have the best and most interesting answers but for the sake of variety I’ll say the Atlanta Hawks. They seem overmatched by the Heat and will enter the offseason with a lot of money tied up in a veteran support system for 23-year-old Trae Young that doesn’t seem ready to really break into the top tier of the Eastern Conference. Trade rumors have swirled around John Collins all year and they’ll be on the hook for nearly $100 million next season for Collins, Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter, with extension decisions looming for De’Andre Hunter and Onyeka Okongwu.
Looking at a two-season sample, it appears we have a low-to-mid level playoff team whose hopes for being something more are pinned almost entirely to Young catching fire in multiple playoff series. You don’t want to waste any of Young’s prime but he’s young enough that the Hawks might be better off taking a step back and trying to build a better core whose ages line up with better, rather than continually tweaking a veteran core that might not be up to the challenge.
Other NBA stories:
Dan Devine goes into plenty of detail about the ramifications of injuries to Devin Booker and Khris Middleton. And with a split in the first two games and Middleton out for the rest of the series, the Chicago Bulls have to be feeling good about their chances.
Why switching the pick-and-roll is increasingly the foundation of a good NBA defense.
Boston’s defense on Kevin Durant has been one of the stories of the first round of the playoffs. Michael Pina breaks down how they’re pulling it off.