No matchup has more storylines than Brooklyn Nets vs. Milwaukee Bucks, who is suspended with 2-2 in Game 5 on Tuesday. Should the Nets still be considered NBA title contenders after the game? Kyrie Irving‘s ankle sprain added to Brooklyn’s injury problems?
The Utah Jazz fell on the LA Clippers in game 4 to tie their streak 2-2, however Donovan Mitchell continues to collect points. Does he play the best basketball of all the Guardians remaining in the playoffs?
Our NBA panel of experts breaks down the biggest trends we see so far in the conference semifinals.
Real or not: The Nets’ title chances after Kyrie Irving’s ankle injury
NOT REALLY. An integral part of any road to an NBA championship is luck. Sometimes it comes in the form of a cheap jump; Sometimes it simply means a team avoiding premature injury while trying to win 16 games in the postseason.
Unfortunately, the nets were unlucky. They spent all year dealing with injuries to their Big Three James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Including the playoffs, they only played 15 games together.
And since Harden sustained another hamstring injury that cost him practically all of the final weeks of the regular season, just 47 seconds into the Eastern Conference semifinals against Milwaukee and Irving sprained his right ankle on Sunday in Brooklyn – Irving is out for the game 5, but Harden has been upgraded to questionable – maybe they won’t play together again this season.
Kendrick Perkins says Kevin Durant needs to show he’s the best player in the world for the Nets to beat the Bucks without James Harden or Kyrie Irving.
The beauty of having three stars of this caliber on a team is that injuring either of them is not enough to sink your team. Brooklyn demonstrated this by gutting Milwaukee in Games 1 and 2 without hardening. But even for Durant, arguably the greatest goalscorer this game has ever seen, he tried to beat Milwaukee two out of three times without his two fellow runners is a very big task.
It is unlikely that P. J. Tucker will be able to remain as physical as he was guarding Durant in Games 3 and 4 when Durant shot an uncharacteristic 20v53 off the field. But even if that normalizes in the future, replace Harden and Irving with a combination of Mike James, Landry Shamet and Bruce Brown just won’t cut it.
Now, if either Harden or Irving – or both – can return before this series is over, the Nets will suddenly be a legitimate title threat again. But if Durant is left alone against the Bucks for the rest of this series, what seemed like a clear path to the NBA finals a few days ago could instead be a quick departure from the postseason.
– Tim Bontemps
Real or not: The suns as the favorite to win in the west
REAL. At least for now. The biggest advantage of Phoenix is that it has already secured a place in the final of the Western Conference while the Clippers and Jazz fight for the other – at least until game 6 – while the suns settle down at home.
The other benefit for Phoenix is one that has proven to be crucial in a second round of the nuggets: health. No Suns rotation player has missed a game due to injuries in the playoffs, making them an outlier in a postseason defined by key player injuries.
Chris Paul and Devin Booker collectively score 71 points to help the Suns advance to the Western Conference finals for the first time in 11 years.
Paul was constrained by a shoulder bruise on the first round but looked as good as ever against the nuggets and lit them for 25.5 PPG and 10.3 APG. Paul’s 63% shoot was his best in any playoff series and his assist turnover ratio of 8.2 was his best in any series since 2008.
Meanwhile, Utah is still without Startpoint Guard Mike Conley due to an Achilles tendon strain and played Mitchell, the All-Star Security Guard, through an ankle injury. And during the clippers only the middle is missing Serge Ibaka, their stars record huge minutes; Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have played more than any Phoenix player who entered the conference finals.
At the same time, we should be careful not to read also much in the dominance of the suns over Denver. The nuggets were ill-equipped to deal with Phoenix’s pick-and-roll tactics. detailed last week by ESPN’s Zach Lowe, and the lack of guards Jamal Murray made it hard for Denver to keep up offensively. Either the Jazz or the Clippers should be better able to challenge the elbow jumpers Paul feasted on against the Nuggets, and both teams are more offensively more complete.
A duel with Utah would be interesting, because the Jazz were the stronger team in the course of the regular season and had a home advantage, but the Suns won all three direct duels. Phoenix had less success against the Clippers, losing their first two games before winning on April 28, with Kawhi paused.
I’m not sure yet who I would pick depending on the Conference Finals match, but before that is certain, Phoenix is the most likely team to win the West.
– Kevin Pelton
Real or not, Atlanta’s chances of slowing Joel Embiid down for the rest of the series
REAL. It has to be real because the Hawks were opposed when Embiid was facing one of the worst halves in recent playoff history. At the crucial moment of Monday’s fourth game, when a layup could have led his team in the final seconds, Embiid admitted he was didn’t have enough buoyancy. It was obvious watching him keep clinking sweaters on the front of the rim.
With Embiid not missing any games in this series, it’s easy to forget how severe his injury is. It’s not uncommon to survive a minor meniscal injury, but for a player with Embiid’s injury history and type of game, it’s truly remarkable. The guy hits the deck a number of times in the game, and even if he’s guilty of a few embellishments, there’s a natural tendency to wonder if he gets up every time.
During Game 4, Embiid went to the locker room with coaches before halftime. Nobody was ready to publicly admit what was going on, but the results in the second half – when Embiid went 0v12 off the floor – spoke enough.
Trae Young does it again when he recorded a 25-point double-double with 18 assists to lead the Hawks to a 103-100 win in Game 4 against the 76ers to tie the series 2-2.
With the rest of the series set every other day, spring in Embiid’s legs is likely more important than any defense scheme the Hawks can deploy. Embiid’s level of activity during Games 1 and 2 – when he routinely defeated doubles teams and Clint Capela even when Atlantas Center was in a great defensive position – was hard to understand considering that Embiid had just been diagnosed with such an injury. Reality seems to bite.
The problem is, the 76s will have a hard time reducing its load. Knowing that Embiid worked, and with Seth Curry and Tobias Harris With good offensive play and a recent history of being a good pick and roll tandem, Philly coach Doc Rivers still walked into his midst for the final shot.
The piece worked, the Hawks couldn’t, but Embiid couldn’t do it. That was a microcosm of Game 4, and so could the rest of the series.
– Brian Windhorst
Real or not: Reggie Jackson as No. 3 for the Clippers
NOT REALLY. Jackson saved the Clippers in the first round against the Mavericks. But this team was constructed with Marcus morris sr. as the No. 3 option behind Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and the Clippers are best when Morris plays at this level. Morris is known for his toughness and front-court play, but this year he finished fourth in the NBA with 3 points (45.1). If he rolls, the defenders must respect his shot from behind, and he fully opens the gap for the rest of the offense.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both score 31 points to promote the Clippers to their second straight win over Jazz.
Everything Jackson gave the Clippers in those playoffs was a bonus. He was one of the last guys to be added to the roster and wasn’t even promised a spot on the rotation. But he is now healthy and at ease in his role, and he has always had a thing for big postseason games. Assistant coach Chauncey Billups has been working with Jackson on his game this season, and Billups said he was “completely reinventing himself”.
Jackson has always had the talent for such a run. He just wasn’t healthy enough or on a team as good as this. It’s fun to see how seasoned players like this fit in so well. But Morris has to be the number 3 clippers if they are to meet the high expectations of this team.
– Ramona Shelburne
Real or not, Donovan Mitchell is the best guard in the conference semifinals
NOT REALLY. We can Stop the debate about whether Mitchell deserves to be considered a superstar. He has eliminated any doubt and proven once again that he is capable of taking on playoff games frequently. Mitchell scores an average efficient 32.9 PPG this postseason, leading the Clippers to scramble to come up with schematic solutions despite being armed with guards and wings that are considered defensive stoppers.
But the best Guardian still playing in these playoffs – and available – has already completed its Western Conference semifinal series. He rests his 36-year-old body and waits for the Jazz Clippers winner. And Chris Paul just reminded the world how great he still is when he ran a point guard clinic in the nuggets of the suns.
Patrick Beverley and Donovan Mitchell do not want to give up the loose ball and have to be separated from referees.
Paul, whose arrival in Phoenix turned the Suns from a bubble success story with a promising young core to a real competitor, controlled this streak from start to finish. He averaged 25.5 points on shooting splits (.627 / .750 / 1,000), which are absolutely ridiculous. He made 10.3 assists per game and only recorded five ball losses in the series.
That assist turnover ratio of 8.2 is the second-best in a streak since sales became an official statistic, behind Paul’s 10.0 ratio from his first playoff streak in 2008, according to ESPN Stats & Information Research.
And that’s not even the most impressive CP3 statistic in the series. Take a look at his numbers from the four fourths: 43 points, 10 assists, zero turnover with 84% shots from the ground.
Devin BookerShe, Paul’s 24-year-old co-star, also belongs in this conversation. He has certainly silenced any talk of his lack of playoff experience, scoring a total of 81 points in his first two final games – pretty solid evidence of the killer instinct.
But Booker drove shotgun on that series, with Paul steering the Suns into the conference finals, a goal Mitchell and Jazz are still trying to achieve.
– Tim MacMahon