The Milwaukee Bucks fulfilled their task by beating the Miami Heat in four games. Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks are one win away from advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
But what will happen next in the Western Conference playoffs, however, is anyone’s guess.
Outside of the Utah Jazz vs. Memphis Grizzlies, in which the Jazz lead 3-1, the remaining three games – Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets vs. Portland Trail Blazers – tied, with critical Game 5 ahead.
What factors will decide the series? How many matches will make it into a Game 7? Can the New York Knicks come back from their series against the Atlanta Hawks?
Our experts discuss what awaits us in the rest of the first round.
1. Besides the health of Anthony Davis, what other factor will determine the winner of the Suns-Lakers series?
Tim Bontemps: The combination of Chris Paul’s health and Deandre Ayton’s game. To begin with, I thought this was a series of twists and turns. Paul’s shoulder problem caused the pendulum to tilt in Los Angeles’ favor in Games 2 and 3, while Anthony Davis’ groin injury helped bring Phoenix back in Game 4. Davis’ health will be looming over the rest of the series, but if Paul continues to play like he did in the last game and Ayton continues to be an impact player, the Suns should be the favorites to close this series. Even if Davis plays, it’s hard to imagine him 100 percent.
Andrew Lopez: Chris Paul’s right shoulder, a problem that has been bothering him since the second quarter of Game 1, when he was first injured. Paul struggled for the remainder of that victory, but was clearly hindering him in the next two games. After the Game 4 win, Paul told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that Suns coach Monty Williams would keep him out of Sunday’s game, but he protested, and went on to score 18 points, the team’s best, with nine assists and no turnovers.
Ramona Shelburne: Dennis Schroder. The point guard is supposed to be the Lakers’ third-best player. In the two Lakers victories he has shown it, averaging 22 points and shooting 52% from the field, with the Lakers plus 11 in those minutes. In the two losses, he hasn’t been a factor, averaging 11 points on 40% shooting, with the Lakers minus 8.
Brian Windhorst: If the Lakers can score. These guys are elite defenders, almost no matter what adversity they face. But this aspect is vital, because his offense just isn’t consistent on a day-to-day basis. They rely heavily on the greatness of their superstars and the occasional 3-point streak. (In last season’s bubble, they had tremendous outside shots and that eased the burden on LeBron James.) With Anthony Davis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit, hitting 3-pointers consistently would be a huge boost. But they’ve had a lot of open shots in this series that haven’t missed, so the defending champs just need better execution.
Royce Young: Chris Paul’s right shoulder. The point guard looked much more like himself in Game 4, even declaring, “I’m back,” after hitting with his proprietary mid-range pitches. But his control of the offense is critical to Phoenix’s execution, particularly closing games. Devin Booker is sensational, but Paul’s stability at the decisive moment – he was sixth in the league this season in key points – could be what the series decides.
2. What appearance will determine the Clippers-Mavs winner?
Bontemps: The Clippers defense. Can they keep up the intensity of Game 4 for the rest of the series? Yes, the Mavericks were unsustainably hot from 3-point range in the first three games of this series. But the Clippers also played with a different level of energy in the last game, led by Nicolas Batum who finished with four steals and two blocks while finishing with an over / under 27 points in 36 minutes.
Lopez: Luka Doncic’s health. The point guard acknowledged the pain in his neck and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle told reporters: “It seemed to me that I couldn’t turn and I couldn’t look to the left.” Other than that, it will be important ever how the Mavericks continue to adapt to the Clippers’ new starting lineup with Nicolas Batum in place of Ivica Zubac.
Shelburne: The Clippers deserve a lot of credit for how they played in Dallas after losing the first two games at home. But Luka Doncic was the best player on the court until he injured his neck in Game 3 and that’s saying a lot, considering how good Kawhi Leonard has been. I would like to see this series with both teams in full force, because it is a fascinating matchup. But if Doncic isn’t healthy, it’s hard to see how the Mavericks can win now that the Clips are rolling.
Windhorst: Can Doncic pass the ball? His neck injury has especially affected his game. The Mavericks crushed the Clippers defense in the first two games, shooting an outrageous 35-for-70 from 3-pointers. But with limited mobility in his arm and neck, Doncic just hasn’t been as effective in setting up the offense. The Clippers are pushing hard now, as the Mavs need Doncic with all their might.
Young: Doncic’s health. He clearly didn’t look good in Game 4 and the dribbling effect has massive implications in several areas for the Mavs. Doncic puts a lot of pressure on a defense; So if the Clippers don’t have to worry so much about him, they can block the role players who were so good in Games 1 and 2.
3. What aspect will determine the winner of the Nuggets-Blazers?
Bontemps: The poor Game 4 performance of Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic was clearly an outlier, and they will surely regain their level in Game 5. But the Nuggets simply have to get more out of Porter Jr. than they did in the last game when he scored just three points in 23 minutes. If Porter can’t provide a great offensive game alongside Jokic, this series may not return to Denver for a Game 7.
Lopez: Si Nikola Jokic cheers on his teammates. Portland’s game plan of letting Jokic score while controlling the rest has worked. Jokic has 12 assists in the series and an average of just 7.8 potential assists per game, according to statistics from NBA.com. That is behind Facundo Campazzo (10.8) and Monte Morris (8.3). In the regular season, when he averaged 8.3 assists per game, Jokic averaged 13.8 potential assists per game.
Shelburne: Norman Powell. He was incredible on both sides of the ball in Game 4, leading the Blazers with 29 points (11 of 15 shooting) and a strong defense against Michael Porter Jr. The Blazers shooting guard limited MPJ to just three shots in Game 4 . Three! Portland has never been known as a great defensive team, but if they can keep throwing different looks at Denver, they have a chance to surprise.
Windhorst: Michael Porter Jr. The forward played at an All-NBA level for much of the season, elevating his performance after Jamal Murray tore his ACL and became the kind of weapon the Nuggets believe will lead them to a title someday. But the Blazers have challenged him, pressuring Nikola Jokic and his ability to create offense because they’re betting Porter won’t step up. Porter has shot just 41% from the field in the last three games, taking only three shots in Game 4. If this continues, Portland will likely win the series.
Young: If Denver role players produce. The Blazers have made a bet since Game 1 that the Nuggets’ role players would not be able to produce consistently throughout the series. They have tried to make Jokic one-dimensional, making him a center that scores first. Denver received a response in the form of Austin Rivers in Game 3, but no one appeared in Game 4. Bottom line: The Nuggets need two big games from Michael Porter Jr.
4. What can the Knicks do to win Game 5?
Bontemps: A good Julius Randle game would be a start. To have any chance of extending this series to a sixth game, the Knicks will need more of the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2021, who has shot 20 of 73 from the field, including an abysmal 13 of 49 in doubles through the first few. four games.
Lopez: Win the minutes that Trae Young is on the bench. In their regular-season sweep over Atlanta, the Knicks were plus 42 when Young sat down and minus 16 when the point guard returned to the court. In Game 2, the Knicks had plus14 when Young was on the bench and minus 5 otherwise. In the Knicks’ losses, the Hawks won the battle when Young wasn’t there, even though he was even in Game 4 due to junk time stats. (Atlanta had 9 plus before the benches were cleared with 3:05 left.)
Shelburne: Reggie Bullock. He’s been expending so much energy defending Trae Young, it’s hard for him to do a lot of things on offense. Normally, that’s a trade the Knicks would make. But with Julius Randle also struggling to catch up, they need to reset Bullock as a 3-point threat to create space and make Young have to work defensively.
Windhorst: Shoot with greater consistency. The Knicks are defending well enough to win, but their offense, mainly because Julius Randle is in the middle of a losing streak (27.4% shooting for the series), is not viable. The Hawks have improved defensively on Nate McMillan, but the Knicks’ shooting deficiencies are being broadcast for the world to see. Only the Heat, who were swept, have been worse offensively in the playoffs than New York.
Young: Wear Trae Young. The Knicks need more from Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, but they also have to find a way to slow down Atlanta’s explosive offense. That starts with Young attrition and not just catching. They need to attack him on the defensive side, taking him off the screens and isolating him. The Knicks must go after Young and take advantage of the mismatches.
5. How many first round series will go to seven games?
Bontemps: I’ll take a chance and say none. The East series still running should end in Game 5. In the West, the teams that won Game 4 in series 2-2 (Suns, Blazers and Clippers) appear to be well positioned (in the case of Phoenix due to Davis’ injury and the remainder due to successful trades made in Game 4) to close them out at six games. However, I will be the first to say that I hope I am wrong. I would have no problem having a weekend full of Game 7 7s.
Lopez: Two. I don’t think the Knicks-Hawks will make it to seven, but I could certainly see the three West series that are tied at 2-2 going there. However, I will only choose two of them: Suns-Lakers and Blazers-Nuggets. The winner between Phoenix and Los Angeles will come down to health, but on the court, it’s been a good series. For Portland and Denver, the battle between Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard looks like it should go to the end.
Shelburne: Two. Lakers-Suns, Mavericks-Clippers, Knicks-Hawks and Blazers-Nuggets feel like the kind of series that can last seven games, due to injuries to the stars or adjustments that are made game-by-game by the respective coaches. I will say that two of the four really go the distance.
Windhorst: Two: Lakers-Suns and Clippers-Mavs. Injuries play an important role in this series. Uncertainty and recovery will define them and will likely continue to stretch them.
Young: Three. Clippers and Mavs seem destined for seven, especially if Doncic improves physically. Suns and Lakers are excellent teams and health factors are opening doors to extend it. While the Nuggets and Blazers seem contractually bound to play seven games in the playoffs. Everything else should be wrapped in five or six.