- The NBA playoffs' second round is underway, but there are still questions to be answered, and they will go a long way in determining who wins and who goes home.
The second round of the NBA playoffs are underway, with seven of the top eight teams in the league currently playing in the conference semifinals. Who will advance to the next round for an opportunity to play in the Finals? Here are five burning questions that will go a long way in determining who wins and who goes home.
Will LaMarcus Aldridge step up?
The Spurs had a disastrous Game 1 against the Rockets, losing decisively at home under a barrage of three pointers. The Rockets likely won’t shoot that well again, but for San Antonio to mount a fight, Gregg Popovich will need much more from LaMarcus Aldridge. If the Spurs are committed to playing two bigs against the Rockets’ shooting heavy lineups, Aldridge has to make Houston pay inside. Aldridge was matched up against Ryan Anderson numerous times in Game 1, and he still couldn’t find ways to score in the post. Credit to Anderson for battling on defense, but that’s a matchup Aldridge has to dominate.
It’s unclear how long San Antonio can survive while playing slow-footed bigs like Pau Gasol and David Lee. If Aldridge is playing alongside one of those two, he should be able to find favorable looks on offense. If Popovich decides to play more one-big lineups, Dwayne Dedmon’s defensive energy could ultimately make him more valuable than a struggling-to-score Aldridge.
Will the Raptors commit to playing small?
Toronto found success in the first round by removing Jonas Valanciunas from the starting lineup and replacing him with Norm Powell, which made it a bit of a surprise when Dwane Casey went back to Valanciunas as a starter against Cleveland. The Cavs blew out the Raptors in Game 1, and Toronto now has plenty of evidence that playing Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka together doesn’t really work.
Powell has been a huge plus for Toronto throughout the playoffs, and he should absolutely be in the starting lineup and playing heavy minutes. P.J. Tucker should also get a look as a starter, as he’s Toronto’s best LeBron deterrent. At this point, Casey knows that DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are going to go through wild swings in their performance, but the coach can help his team by committing to a style of play. Reducing DeMarre Carroll and Valanciunas’s minutes and giving more time to Ibaka at center, Powell and Patrick Patterson will likely be the Raptors’ best bet at keeping up with the Cavaliers offensively.
How often will we see the Death Lineup?
Thanks in large part to an injury to Kevin Durant, the Warriors played their small-ball lineup of Durant, Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green for a grand total of only six minutes against the Blazers. With Durant still working his way back into form after a calf injury—as well as the emergence of Javale McGee—Mike Brown may not have to lean as heavily on the Death Lineup to pull away from the Jazz.
Like every other team in the league, however, Utah would have no answer for that group. Would Rudy Gobert stay on the court or chase Green all over the perimeter? Who would guard Durant?
The Warriors are going to be heavy favorites in this series no matter which combination of guys they play, and Golden State has also proven they can adapt to injuries to key players. But even after their destruction of Portland in Game 4, it feels like the Warriors have one last gear they can get to if need be. We haven’t seen the Durant-led Death Lineup play to its full potential in a while. Getting that group going ahead of the Finals could make the postseason even more of a cakewalk for the Dubs.
How will Washington deal with Markieff Morris?
The Wizards’ conference finals hopes took a blow when Markieff Morris badly sprained his ankle in Game 1 against the Celtics. Moving forward, whether Morris is out of the lineup or limited in his abilities, the Wizards will have to find a way to deal with the injury. Morris is the key to Washington’s small-ball units, and those groups are necessary against the Celtics, who play best when the play small. Washington’s bench has been a huge drain on the team all season long, and whoever steps up in place of Morris—whether it’s all or some of his minutes—will be a huge downgrade for the Wiz.
Scott Brooks will have to be creative in how he deals with the injury. Kelly Oubre could get more minutes, but he’ll have to tighten up his off-ball defense and become more comfortable handling the ball on offense to have an impact. Bojan Bogdanovic could see some more time thanks to his shooting, but he remains a liability on the defensive end. Asking players to improve their game overnight in the playoffs isn’t exactly a great strategy, but Brooks also doesn’t have many options.
Who will win the podium?
The postgame press conferences have been a consistent highlight of the 2017 playoffs, and the theatrics have continued in the second round. Popovich basically unleashed a comedy routine on a bunch of scared reporters after the Spurs’ blowout loss to the Rockets. Mike D’Antoni made a nice callback to the infamous 2007 Spurs-Suns series when asked about a skirmish between Nene and Dedmon. And LeBron James was casually discussing his alcoholic beverage preferences after dismantling the Raptors.
We have a lot of strong candidates here, though I’m particularly excited for some trash talk to come out during the Celtics-Wizards series. Hopefully players and coaches keep saving their best material for the podium.