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NBA Playoffs 2019: Four bounces, four teams, and four questions that could decide the Conference Finals

Kawhi Leonard takes a shot at the buzzer. Joel Embiid guards him. The buzzer sounds. Regulation time in the 2019 NBA Second Round is over.

There are four bounces.

 NBA Playoffs 2019: Four bounces, four teams, and four questions that could decide the Conference Finals

Toronto Raptors' Kawhi Leonard (2) reacts with teammates after making a shot to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers. The Canadian Press via AP

One.

The young-but-talented Bucks lose Game 1 of the second round. Some people in the world overreact, predicting that the savvy Celtics will expose the young ones, that MVP-favourite Giannis Antetokounmpo will show his inexperience, that Kyrie Irving and Co — undefeated in the Playoffs so far — will continue their run to the Conference Finals.

But no, the Celtics don’t get the bounce. Instead, Antetokounmpo’s team shows maturity beyond their years. They win at home and they win in Boston. Antetokounmpo is everywhere, averaging 28.4 points on over 53 percent shooting to go with 10.8 rebounds. Irving has probably the most miserable Playoff series of his career. Milwaukee win four in a row, and the best regular-season team in the league rushes into the next round.

Two.

Golden State win two at home. Houston win two at home. The games are close. The atmosphere is testy and well-contested. Kevin Durant is great. James Harden is great. Steph Curry not-so-much. Chris Paul comes and goes. And then, midway through the third quarter in Game 5, Durant feels something on his heel, an invisible pain. He leaves the game, leaving Golden State without arguably the most-unstoppable force in the Playoffs so far.

The Rockets now have a golden opportunity: a game to win in front of them, a home game awaiting in Game 6, and, if-needed, a Game 7 where Golden State would be playing without KD and with Curry in the midst of an abhorrent shooting stretch. The ‘overdogs’ Warriors became the underdogs.

But the Rockets don’t get the bounce, either. Curry reminds the world why he is a two-time former MVP, why he has the heart of a champion. Curry outscores Harden 16-2 after Durant’s exit to help Golden State take a 3-2 series lead. In Houston two days later, Klay Thompson keeps the Warriors afloat till halftime while Curry is scoreless and in foul trouble. He gets the bounces in the second half, exploding for 33 points, including the “best 18 minutes” of his career, to make the underdogs into the overdogs again. For the fifth-consecutive year, the Warriors are in the Conference Finals.

Three.

Back and forth they go. Nuggets and the Trail Blazers split the first two games in Denver. Then both teams split the next two games in Portland. Denver win Game 5 at home in a blowout. Portland return the honours in Game 6 in their home court. There are triple-doubles, breath-taking three-pointers, unsung young heroes. There is Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard. There is CJ McCollum and Jamal Murray. At one point, there were four overtimes.

In the crucial Game 7 at home, the Nuggets take a 48-39 lead in the first half. A round ago, they had defeated the experienced Spurs in a similar Game 7 at home. With Jokic huffing and puffing, they feel they could do it again.

But Portland get this bounce. In the series-closing finale against Oklahoma City, it was Lillard who had come up big for the Trail Blazers with his series-winning shot. This time, it’s McCollum, who is everywhere, ending the game with 37 points, nine rebounds, tonnes of big threes, and one helluva chase-down block that stole the momentum and the game. Portland complete a rare feat, a Game 7 win on the road and qualify to the next round.

Four.

Kawhi Leonard is a force of nature, a one-man wrecking crew, an offensive-defensive maestro that emerges as first and last option for Toronto. But, after boasting one of the deepest rotations in the league, the Raptors provide little help to Leonard. Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and the rest come and go. Inconsistency haunts their opponents, too: the Philadelphia 76ers play a banged-up Joel Embiid, who never gets his full footing into the series. Ben Simmons is hit-and-miss. The bench is here-and-there. Jimmy Butler is sometimes the only ‘adult in the room’.

Once again, there’s a Game 7. Leonard does Leonard things. The Raptors take the lead. The 76ers play strong defence. JJ Redick hits some big threes. Embiid, Simmons, Butler, and Tobias Harris make their contributions. Butler makes a game-tying layup. With four seconds left, Leonard has the ball and the chance to win the series. He drags it to the corner and takes a difficult, falling, contested three over Embiid.

The buzzer sounds. Regulation in the entire second round is over. The ball hits the rim and bounces… once, twice, thrice, four-times… And then, basket. Raptors win.

And then, there were four.

The Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, reigning champs Golden State Warriors, and Portland Trail Blazers are the last teams standing, all looking at the daunting task ahead to win the 2019 NBA title. To preview the chances of each team, I will ask four questions, and the answer of each could determine their destiny.

# Q1. Will Giannis make his perimeter shots?

Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were among the best teams in offensive and defensive efficiency all season, and then kept up the same energy all through the Playoffs. It’s no surprise that they held the league’s best record in the regular season and have the least amount of losses (one!) of any remaining team. Much of their success is credit to the fact that coach Mike Budenholzer has insulated his superstar’s one glaring weakness (outside shooting) with a roster of good shooting players (Kris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Nikola Mirotic).

But in the Playoffs, defences can theoretically challenge this strategy by attacking ‘ground zero’ of the Milwaukee offence: Antetokounmpo himself. The Greek Freak is one of the NBA’s all-time great athletes. He’s a terror at driving to the basket, and is unstoppable around the rim. The Raptors have to ensure then, that they cover Antetokounmpo’s passing lanes, defend Milwaukee’s other shooters closer, and dare Antetokounmpo to beat them from the perimeter, from where his percentages drop considerably. Particularly from the three-point line, Antetokounmpo shot just 25.6 percent during the season. In the Playoffs, he rose that number (in a small sample size) to 32.4.

In Toronto, the Bucks will face one of the best perimeter-defending teams in the league. If Antetokounmpo can continue making his outside shots, thus opening up the floor to his teammates, this series will be over early like the last two. But if Antetokounmpo’s shooting fails, his confident will fall, the ball will stop moving for Milwaukee, and the Raptors could steal the series.

# Q2. Will the Raptors ‘depth’ play like they did in the regular season… or the Playoffs?

During the regular season, Leonard averaged 26.6 points, and the Raptors as a whole got up to 114.4 per game. In their 12 Playoff games, Leonard’s production has jumped up to 31.8 points per contest. But the team as a whole is only at 103.6 ppg. Leonard missed 22 games in the season, meaning that his team had to find other ways to generation offence. But this is a huge let down: Leonard was scoring about 23.2 percent of his team’s points all season. In the Playoffs, he’s had to push up to 30.6.

The supporting cast of Lowry, Ibaka, Siakam, and Gasol has been inconsistent or invisible, and as the 76ers displayed in the second round, the Raptors can be pushed to become a one-man team, a strategy that tires Leonard and makes it easier to stop the flow of their offence. The Raptors were able to use this ‘Kawhi vs Everyone’ strategy against the inconsistent 76ers; but the Bucks are an elite team on both ends of the floor, and it will take a creative offence, beyond the Give-Kawhi-The-Ball-And-Hope-He-Saves-Us strategy to win the series.

The Raptors have to return to their regular season ways, and get more from Siakam, Lowry and Co against Milwaukee. Leonard will be switched against Antetokounmpo and Middleton on defence, and will be exhausted carrying the offensive load if he has to do it without help. If his support-cast disappoints like they did in the last round, Milwaukee will make quick work of Toronto.

# Q3. How much, if at all, will Kevin Durant play in the Conference Finals?

Before a mysterious pain in the back of his foot suddenly stopped him in his tracks in Game 5 of the second round, Durant was on a tear, playing at perhaps the highest level of anyone in the Playoffs, grabbing the mantle as the best player in the basketball world. In less than 11 games, he averaged around 34-5-5 while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. His heroics carried Golden State past the pesky Clippers in Round 1. Against the Rockets, with Curry and Thompson struggling mightily, Durant became the team’s only consistent beacon of hope.

It all looked lost for the Warriors after Durant left… before Curry woke up. Curry helped Golden State secure the Game 5 win, and both he and Thompson came up big for the Warriors to snatch Game 6 on the road. It was a vintage performance by one of the greatest backcourts the league had ever seen. In beating Houston and James Harden, Curry reminded the world that he was a champion, too, that it would take more than one injury to dismantle this rock-solid Golden State side.

But how sustainable will life be without Durant for a full series? Durant has been ruled out for Game 1 of the Conference Finals with a calf injury and will be re-evaluated later in the week. Assuming he isn’t available for the majority of this matchup, the onus will once again fall on Curry and Thompson to provide the offensive fireworks to match the high-scoring Trail Blazers. Without Durant, the Splash Bros won’t have the luxury of off-nights: they’ll have to bring their best in every game against Portland’s own high-scoring backcourt (more on this soon). Durant’s potential return will make this a short series, but even without him, the Warriors have enough star-power to survive the Trail Blazers.

# Q4. Can Portland have the better backcourt?

Call is Splash Brothers vs Diet Splash. Curry and Thompson have combined for 42.6 points 6.8 assists per game in the Playoffs, while playing the majority of their games in Durant’s indomitable shadow. Their counterparts in Portland —Lillard and McCollum — have been otherworldly, combining for 54 points 9.4 assists per contest. The Warriors backcourt is shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 38.8 percent from the three-point line. Portland’s two starting guards have the same three-point percentage but have shot at a higher volume overall, so their FG percentage is at a slightly lower 43.9.

If Durant doesn’t play in this series, the Warriors backcourt will be forced to spring into action and score more, like they did against the Rockets in Game 6 with a combined 60 points. Portland can’t match Golden State defensively, so their main option will be for Lillard and McCollum to be more unstoppable on the other end, and outscore their opponents to have a chance to win.

If, somehow the two backcourts cancel each other out, the Portland’s frontcourt of Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Harkless, Evan Turner, Enes Kanter, Rodney Hood, and more will have to be more consistent than Draymond Green and the other role players for the Warriors. Of course, Durant’s return could change everything. But with or without him, the consistency of the Diet Splash Brothers will be invaluable.

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Updated Date: May 15, 2019 00:05:32 IST