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The Boston Celtics evened their series against the Miami Heat with a big Game 2 win, while the Golden State Warriors will be looking to keep the pressure on the Mavericks and go up 2-0. With the Conference Finals rolling on, I tapped in some of the best minds from The Step Back and FanSided’s NBA network to break down some of the biggest lingering questions.
1. Which role player left in the NBA Playoffs is most important to his team’s championship aspirations — Andrew Wiggins, Reggie Bullock, Al Horford, or P.J. Tucker?
Ben Ladner, The Step Back: Given how important he is to the Warriors’ ability to slow down wings like Luka Doncic, Jimmy Butler or Jayson Tatum, I think the answer is Wiggins. Bullock’s 3-point shooting is a bellwether for Dallas’ offense, Horford’s defense and connective playmaking helps tie Boston together on both ends and Tucker’s defensive versatility unlocks Miami’s best lineups, but Wiggins is the most central of the group because of his on-ball defense and how few other options Golden State has in that stopper role. Add in the fact that his shooting and slashing are crucial to making opponents pay for overloading on Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, and Wiggins will likely have the greatest impact of this group in the Conference Finals.
Jack Simone, Hoops Habit: Al Horford. I am admittedly biased, being a Celtics fan, but with how he’s played for Boston this postseason, he’s surpassed the concept of a role player. He’s a top-four player on the team with the ability to be the most important on any given night. His defense, playmaking, and floor-spacing make him the perfect fit in their lineup.
Ian Levy, The Step Back: I have to go with Wiggins as well for many of the reasons listed above, although I think Ben left out a key component. Wiggins looks so damn happy. I’m a sucker for joy and I think it’s one of the most underrated components of a successful basketball team. After toiling in soul-crushing conditions (many of his own making) in Minnesota and carrying the expectations that come with being a No. 1 pick and having an absurdly large contract, Wiggins could be made miserable by the pressure. But playing for the Warriors has helped him unleash his joy and we’re all better for it (except Mavs’ fans).
2. Rank these metaphysical qualities from most to least powerful — Jimmy Butler’s belief in himself, Steph Curry’s sense of the moment, Draymond Green’s appetite for destruction, Luka Doncic’s force of will, Al Horford’s deep and abiding wisdom.
Ben Ladner, The Step Back: How does one draw distinctions between five equally powerful forces? If forced to choose, I’ll put Green at the top of the list because of his ability to completely wreck opposing offenses’ best-laid plans. His ability to anticipate where the action is going and cover the requisite ground to snuff it out never ceases to amaze me, and he’s one of the few defenders who can actually dictate the terms of a possession rather than just react to what the offense does. Horford has become the quintessential Veteran Presence™ at this point in his career, so he goes second, followed by Butler, Doncic and Curry, in some arbitrary order.
Jack Simone, Hoops Habit: 1) Jimmy Butler’s belief in himself — that guy may very well be the most confident player we’ve seen since Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. 2) Draymond Green’s appetite for destruction — Green is a force of nature and he never fails to cause chaos. 3) Al Horford’s deep and abiding wisdom — Celtics without Al Horford, .500 basketball team. Celtics with Al Horford, ECF. Enough said. 4) Stephen Curry’s sense of the moment — His ability to do exactly what the Warriors need at exactly the right time is nothing short of uncanny. 5) Luka Doncic’s force of will: The only reason this isn’t ranked higher is that Luka Doncic is still so young. By the end of his career, his legacy may be greater than anybody else’s on this list.
Ian Levy, The Step Back: I’ll start with Butler. The vision of himself he’s constructed in his head may be the greatest and most fascinating player in NBA history. And he’s still able to manifest it just often enough that he doesn’t really have to engage with reality. Next, let’s go with Green. It’s an all-consuming hunger. He doesn’t just want to beat teams, he wants to destroy them, to embarrass them in front of their kids and their families. To take their basketball egos apart piece by piece. It’s like the hoops equivalent of Verbal Kint explaining how Keyser Soze destroys his enemies. Third, I’ll go with Curry. I have seen him lose. I have seen the Warriors fail in the biggest moments. But I still never doubt, even for a moment, that he’ll be able to conjure some magic to push things in his favor. I’ll finish with Horford and Doncic in a tie, powerful though they are, I don’t find their superhero characters quite as compelling as Butler, Green or Curry.
3. With the caveat that none of us are draft experts, which possible pairing of NBA Draft prospect and team do you find most interesting?
Ben Ladner, The Step Back: Shaedon Sharpe, because we know so little about him at this point. Having reclassified to leave high school early and not played for Kentucky last season, he is the ultimate mystery box, but it seems as though his upside might be worth gambling a top-five pick on. Star wings who can create offense and defend multiple positions are in short supply in the NBA, and Sharpe has the chance to grow into that kind of player eventually. Taking a player you have almost no information on in the top half of the lottery is a massive risk, but so is letting a player with so much promise fall past your draft slot.
Jack Simone, Hoops Habit: Chet Holmgren and the Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC was already an EXTREMELY underrated defensive squad last season. With Holmgren at the five, my hot take is that they are a top-ten defense next season. Keep an eye out for that team. They’re going to make some noise very, very soon.
Ian Levy, The Step Back: I want to see Keegan Murray on the Pacers. It probably won’t happen — I had him going No. 7 to the Trail Blazers in my last mock draft and even if he is available the Pacers may have other archetypes or even players in a similar mold they prefer. But I’m just captivated by his two-way potential, the balance and versatility in his game and the way his aesthetic and temperament seem like they would mesh so well with Tyrese Haliburton. Give me those two guys as the building blocks of the next great Pacers’ almost-dynasty.
Other NBA stories:
This week on Above the Break, we’re looking at the struggling New York Liberty, the Sun playing big, how the Lynx turned it around and more.
Patrick Baldwin Jr. is a prospect with an interesting package of size and skill. But he certainly didn’t do himself any favors at the NBA Draft Combine athletic testing. Meanwhile, Jalen Williams may have launched himself into the lottery with some unexpectedly strong measurements.
The Rockets fell to No. 3 in the draft and are already talking publicly about listening to trade offers for the pick. This has to be smoke and mirrors, right?
Marcus Smart is more than just his defense and he certainly proved it in Game 2.