- What would the NBA playoffs look like without Stephen Curry? Is this the real Nikola Mirotic? And can the NBA playoffs get any better? The Crossover breaks down seven playoff storylines.
We are through another week of playoff basketball, and the second week was even wilder than the first. The Thunder were buried by the Jazz only to rise from the grave and produce the greatest comeback of the playoffs. The Sixers look unstoppable in the East. The Rockets offense woke up against the Wolves. The Cavs are looking increasingly vulnerable, but LeBron is having MJ moments. The Wizards and Raptors are trading punches, while the Bucks and Celtics are heading for a Game 7.
This year's first round has already been better than the entirety of last year's playoffs. With that in mind, here a few talking points to consider as we head into the weekend.
1. Life without Steph Curry and a playoff thought experiment. Earlier this week someone asked me whether these playoffs have been better because Steph Curry is on the sidelines and the Warriors are momentarily vulnerable. The answer there is no. Correlation is not causation, and the momentary Warriors mortality is not what's producing LeBron game-winners and Westbrook religious experiences.
The better question is: Would the league be more entertaining if Curry missed the entire playoffs? And on that point, the answer might be yes. I love Steph Curry, but removing him or Kevin Durant from the Warriors' nucleus would take us from a playoff field with one overwhelming favorite to a field with at least six teams that could win. Houston, Utah, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and a shorthanded Golden State team—it would be a royal rumble full of imperfect rosters and the biggest stars in the sport.
Even now, the Pelicans–Warriors series is twice as dramatic with Curry likely to miss at least a portion of this series. A subsequent Warriors matchup with Utah, Oklahoma City, or Houston could be every bit as riveting. And what if the Sixers make it out of the East? Philly probably isn't beating a healthy Warriors team. We know this. But if Golden State is shorthanded, anything is possible.
And here is where I need to make it very clear that I'm rooting for Curry to return at full strength. The alternate reality above is fun to debate, but it's never a good thing to have an entire playoff field defined by an asterisk. Likewise, Steph is one of the three best players of this generation. I love his game. The healthier he is both this year and beyond, the better off the entire league will be.
Imagining the next two months without Curry is really just a thought experiment, and it's useful for two reasons. First, even in the midst of first–round delirium, Curry is still the most important player in the playoffs, and maybe the league itself. If he returns on schedule, the past two weeks will be a footnote and it probably won't be long before the entire sport orbits around the Warriors again. Curry and Durant are like Kobe and Shaq for the small–ball era, and with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson riding shotgun, they've got two of the most overqualified role players in NBA history. There's only so much anyone else can do.
But imagining the drama without Curry is also a reminder of just how entertaining the rest of the league has become. Beyond Golden State, there are established superstars all over the landscape, new stars are emerging, and there are a number of teams that would be good enough to challenge for a title in almost any other era.
Curry will return soon, but between injuries and contracts and chemistry, Golden State's reign may not last more than another year or two. Dynasties never last as long as we expect. Which is to say, the NBA's popularity is expanding even as the ultimate outcome of these playoffs isn't really in doubt. When one-and-a-half title contenders becomes a group of four or five? This could get wild.
2. The rule of Russell Westbrook. There has always been a specific rhythm to Russell Westbrook's career. Every time it looks like he's about to be consumed by his flaws and validate a decade's worth of criticism, he will bounce back with some of the best basketball of his life, making every critic look ridiculous. Then, once it looks like he might put it all together, he will combust all over again and bring us back to square one.
I've written about this in the past, so I won't belabor the point here, except to say that this week's performances against the Jazz were perhaps the most extreme example yet. The criticism has never been louder than it was this week. Westbrook's lows have never been darker than Mitt Romney taunting him mid-blowout, and his response in the second half of Game 5 might have been the most spectacular stretch of basketball he's ever played. I still can't believe he pulled it off. But then, it's Westbrook. This is what he does. None of us should be surprised at this point.
Of course, even after Game 5, plenty of fans and journalists and league executives might see the rules of Westbrook engagement and conclude that building a contender around the most radioactive superstar in the sport is not a winning strategy. That's fine. Probably true.
But I'm glad Westbrook had the game he did on Wednesday night. Even if OKC ultimately loses this series, Game 5 will leave a mark. Westbrook looked like he was about to explode, he threw his body all over the floor, and with the basketball world patiently waiting to second-guess his entire career, he saved the Thunder's season. All of it was a reminder that Russ has never been the cheap stereotype of a stat-chasing gunner that his critics are selling. He's also not the superhero alpha that believers are pushing on everyone. Like most things people argue about on Twitter with absolute certainty, the truth is in the middle.
I probably wouldn't want him on my team. As his $200 million contract kicks in, Westbrook's athleticism has to decline at some point. Couple that reality with the lack of flexibility in Oklahoma City, and the future could be bleak. But team-building hand-wringing aside, the NBA is more interesting with people like Russell Westbrook at the center of the league. Not every player has to be Kevin Durant or James Harden, and not every question has to be settled with stats—either triple doubles or efficiency. The magic of basketball is that there are certain answers that will always be unknowable, and certain arguments that will never end. For a second it looked like the decade-long Westbrook argument was going to be settled on Wednesday night, but then, of course that's not how it went. It wouldn't be Russ if any of this were easy.
3. The other rule of Russell Westbrook. I should also add that, strictly from a strategic standpoint, the Russ conversation is sometimes simpler than it appears. He's the best athlete in the NBA, he plays incredibly hard, and he's a domineering personality who's going to be shooting on 30% of his team's possessions. But he also can't really shoot. Not like Harden, not like Curry. Westbrook is streakier.
So while everyone enjoys the inquiries into Westbrook's soul, this isn't necessarily that deep. When Westbrook isn't shooting well, or he's playing a defense that successfully takes away his lanes to the rim, he can't adapt. He becomes a liability. When Westbrook gets himself in a rhythm as a shooter—12 of 20 from the floor in the Wednesday's second half—he becomes as unstoppable as any player in the league, and possibly more captivating than anyone. There are multitudes to consider with any good Westbrook argument, but on a fundamental level, it's always been about the jumper.
4. Is this the real Nikola Mirotic? I can't tell whether this will make me feel like an idiot in a few weeks, but right now, I think the Pelicans can really push this Warriors team. Anthony Davis will be dominant on both ends of the floor, Jrue Holiday is great, Playoff Rondo is real. Of course, the Warriors are still the Warriors, and that's why I'm worried about looking like an idiot.
I think the series will come down to Nikola Mirotic. If he can continue to hold up defensively (he was solid against the Blazers) while stretching the floor on offense, New Orleans is legitimately dangerous here. Mirotic has been one of the streakiest players in the league through most of his career, but all year long—ever since returning from the Bobby Portis punch—he's been hitting a career–high clip from the field. He went from shooting 41% from the field (34% 3FG) a year to 44.7% (37% 3FG) this year. Against the Blazers, he shot 57% from the floor and 46% from three.
Maybe this is real? Mirotic never found a comfort zone with the Bulls, and it's possible that this year's version of his game is closer to what he can actually do in the NBA. In any case, Mirotic could be the biggest X-factor in the series. He will be dealing with much better defense—some combination of Draymond, Iguodala, and Durant—and New Orleans will need his contributions in every game. And, one other factor to consider: the longer Mirotic continues to play well as a floor-spacing four, the more interesting New Orleans's decision on Boogie Cousins will become.
5. The Sixers are built for war. There will be plenty of time for extended discussions on the Sixers. For now, after they vaporized the Heat this week, I think the single best reason to take them seriously as a Finals contender is their ability to win in multiple ways. It's one thing to have a high upside as a team—the Process Sixers have always had upside—but the most successful teams in the playoffs are the ones with the greatest margin for error. With a combination of versatility, depth, athleticism, and skill, the best teams can beat you with any number of styles. That's what has emerged over the past two months in Philadelphia.
For the first half of this year, the Sixers were a fringe playoff team built around Embiid's gifts on both ends. Then Colangelo recruited some buyout reinforcements, Embiid got hurt, Ben Simmons came into his own and began to look like a future Hall of Famer, and a juggernaut emerged. Now they are a nightly threat to drop 130 on someone, or, if things get close, they have one of the best defenses in the league. They are equally comfortable playing either style, and they toggle back and forth every quarter. It's insane.
6. Win or lose, Donovan Mitchell has already changed everything in Utah. Here is your periodic reminder that Donovan Mitchell is great:
Despite Westbrook's heroics Wednesday, Utah should still win this series. And because the Jazz would be a far more interesting test for the Rockets in the second round, I hope they can close Friday. But whatever happens, in what he's done thus far in these playoffs, everyone should be prepared for Mitchell to be a full–blown superstar.
He's already craftier than 90% of the guards in the NBA, he adapts to whatever the defense throws at him, and he's got a knack for hitting big shots. If he can improve his shooting over the next few years, he'll be a perennial All-Star. Something like Damian Lillard in Portland. Couple that version of Mitchell with the ongoing dominance of Rudy Gobert, and this Jazz team is going to be scary as hell.
7. The Raptors are still the Raptors. Are the Wizards still the Wizards? Had Utah closed out the Thunder on Wednesday night, Toronto and Washington were slated to play at 6 p.m. EST on ESPN News on Friday. It would've been perfect. The games have been too ugly for mainstream audiences. There have been stretches where it looks like both sides are competing to see who can waste the most opportunities to take control. If necessary, the NBA should schedule Game 7 for 3 a.m. Monday morning. This should be the first playoff series sponsored by mesothelioma lawyers.
The Raptors have held serve at home, so that's one good sign. They're up 3–2, and they'll likely close out their series at some point this weekend. But for all the promise that came with a 59–win season that seemed to rejuvenate the entire franchise over the past six months, the Raptors playoff experience thus far has hit all the same notes we've seen for years. The ball's not moving the way it did during the regular season. Kyle Lowry has been neutralized. The bench has been underwhelming (albeit without plus-minus god Fred VanVleet). And there still aren't many crunch time options beyond DeMar DeRozan, whose performance has been uneven. It's not that the Raptors have been bad, and again, they should win this series. The problem will be buying into their upside from here. Because in the year the Raptors were supposed to be different, the past week has not been encouraging.
As for Washington ... Game 2 against a dying Pacers team in 2014. Game 5 against the Hawks in 2015. Game 2 against the Celtics in 2017. Game 5 against the Raptors on Wednesday. There is a storied history of the Wizards looking like the more talented team in a playoff matchup, only to sputter away winnable games and ultimately lose the series. When that happens, it's frustrating, but nonetheless encouraging. Every offseason begins with reasonable optimism, because the stars clearly have the talent to rise beyond the middle of the East. "If they can just clean up the execution," everyone says, "And get a little bit more from the bench..." But failures to capitalize on playoff opportunities have become less a glitch in the Wizards machine and more like a feature. Whether it's the stars, the coaching, the supporting cast, or all the above, this experience is familiar. The Raptors did everything they could to open the door for Washington to take control of the series on Wednesday, and of course the Wiz fumbled away the chances.
Will that change this weekend? It's certainly possible. Wall and Beal have looked great for various stretches, and Toronto looks wobbly. If the current Wizards era is ever going to become anything the rest of the NBA respects, the next 72 hours would be a great time to get started.