As the Phoenix Suns now wait after landing an impressive sweep over MVP Nikola Jokic and his Denver Nuggets, six teams continue to battle for the remaining three spots in the NBA conference finals.
No matchup has more stories than the series between the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks, which is tied 2-2 going into Game 5. Should the Nets still be considered NBA title contenders after Kyrie Irving sprained ankle? added to Brooklyn’s injury problems?
The Atlanta Hawks held Joel Embiid under control to tie their series 2-2 with the Philadelphia 76ers. Can they continue to limit the big (and discomforting) man from the Sixers for the rest of the series?
The Utah Jazz lost to the LA Clippers in Game 4 and now their series is tied 2-2 no matter how long Donovan Mitchell continues to rack up points. Are you playing the best basketball of all the shooting guards left in the playoffs?
Our panel of NBA experts is looking at the biggest trends we’re seeing so far in the conference semifinals.
Are the chances of the Nets winning the title after Kyrie Irving’s injury real?
THEY ARE NOT REAL. An essential part of any path to an NBA championship is luck. Sometimes it is presented in a favorable light, while at other times it simply means that a team avoids encountering a premature injury in the course of trying to win 16 postseason games.
The Nets, sadly, have been out of luck. They spent the entire year dealing with injuries to their three greats: James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Including the playoffs, they have only played 15 games together.
And with Harden suffering a relapse of the hamstring injury that cost him virtually every last few weeks of the regular season (he was only on the court for 47 seconds in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Milwaukee), and Irving suffering a sprained right ankle on Sunday, both have been ruled out for Game 5 in Brooklyn, they may not play together again this season.
The beauty of having three stars of this caliber on a team is that an injury to one of them is not enough to bring your team down. Brooklyn proved that by gutting Milwaukee without Harden in the first two meetings. But even for Durant, arguably the best scorer this game has ever seen, trying to beat Milwaukee in two of the next 3 games without his two teammates is a very difficult task.
PJ Tucker is unlikely to be able to remain as physical as he was protecting Durant in Games 3 and 4, when Durant fired an unusual 20 of 53 shots from the range. But even if that normalizes going forward, replacing Harden and Irving with a combination of Mike James, Landry Shamet, and Bruce Brown just isn’t going to cut it.
Now, if Harden or Irving, or both, can return before this series is over, the Nets will suddenly be a legitimate title threat again. Although if Durant remains alone against the Bucks for the remainder of this series, what seemed like a clear path to the NBA Finals a few days ago could turn into a quick exit from the postseason.
– Tim Bontemps
Is it real to consider the Suns as favorites to conquer the West?
REAL. Although only for now. The biggest advantage Phoenix has is that it has already secured a spot in the Western Conference finals, while the Clippers and Jazz will fight for the other side, at least until Game 6. Meanwhile, the Suns rest at home.
The other advantage for Phoenix is one that was crucial in the sweep against the Nuggets: health. No player in his rotation has missed a game due to injury in the playoffs, making them an outlier in a postseason defined by injuries to key contributors.
Paul was limited by a shoulder concussion in the first round, but he looked as good as ever against the Nuggets, averaging 25.5 PPP and 10.3 APJ. His 63% shooting from the floor was his best in any playoff series and the 8.2 assists-loss ratio was the best he had in a series since 2008.
Meanwhile, Utah still doesn’t have starting point guard Mike Conley due to a hamstring strain and teammate Mitchell is playing with an ankle injury. For their part, the Clippers only lack center Serge Ibaka, but their stars are recording many minutes; Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have already played more than any Phoenix player has ever played entering the conference finals.
At the same time, we must be careful not to read too much about the Suns’ dominance over Denver. The Nuggets were ill-equipped to deal with Phoenix’s extended pick-and-roll tactics detailed last week by ESPN’s Zach Lowe, while the absence of point guard Jamal Murray made it difficult for Denver to stay on the offensive. Either the Jazz or the Clippers should be better able to challenge the elbow jumpers that Paul partied with against the Nuggets. Both Jazz and Clippers are more complete offensively.
A matchup with Utah would be interesting, because they were the strongest team over the course of the regular season and would have home-court advantage, but the Suns won all three head-to-head matches. Phoenix was less successful against the Clippers, losing the first two games before winning on April 28 with Kawhi out of the game.
I’m still not sure who I would pick depending on the conference final showdown, but before it sets in, Phoenix is the team most likely to win the West.
– Kevin Pelton
Real or Not: Atlanta has a chance to control Joel Embiid for the rest of the series
REAL. It has to be real, because the Hawks were the opponent when Embiid had one of the worst halves in recent playoff history. At the defining moment of Game 4 on Monday, when a layup could have put his team ahead in the closing seconds, Embiid admitted he didn’t have enough momentum. It was obvious when you saw that his shots were falling short on more than one occasion.
Because Embiid hasn’t missed a game in this series, it’s easy to forget the severity of the injury he’s dealing with. Playing through a minor meniscus injury is not an impossible thing, but for a player with Embiid’s injury history and the type of game he plays, it is truly remarkable. It tends to fall repeatedly, and while there may be some simulation on its part at times, there is a natural inclination to wonder if it will get up each time it falls.
During Game 4, Embiid went to the locker room before halftime. No one was willing to publicly admit what was going on, but the results of the second half, when Embiid went 0-for-12 from the court, spoke volumes.
With games every other day for the remainder of the series, exploiting Embiid’s leg ailments is probably more important than any defensive scheme the Hawks can implement. Embiid’s level of activity during Games 1 and 2, when he routinely beat double tagging and Clint Capela even when the Atlanta center was in a great defensive position, was difficult to understand considering that Embiid had just been diagnosed with an injury. of that type. Reality seems to hit him now.
The problem is, the 76ers will have a hard time reducing their load. Knowing that Embiid was working and with Seth Curry and Tobias Harris having good offensive games and a recent history of being a good pick-and-roll tandem, coach Doc Rivers still relied on his center for the final shot.
The play worked and the Hawks couldn’t handle it, but Embiid couldn’t finish. That was a microcosm of Game 4, and it could end up being that way for the rest of this series.
– Brian Windhorst
Real or Not: Reggie Jackson is the Clippers’ third choice
IT’S NOT REAL. Jackson saved the Clippers in the first round against Dallas. But this team was built with Marcus Morris Sr. as the No. 3 option behind Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and the Clippers are at their best when Morris plays at that level. Morris is known for his toughness and play in the frontcourt, but this year he was fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage (45.1). When he’s on pace, defenders must respect his shot from behind the arc, which completely opens up the space for the rest of the offense.
Everything Jackson has given the Clippers in these playoffs has been a bonus. He was one of the last guys added to the roster and wasn’t even promised a spot in the rotation. But now he’s healthy, comfortable in his role and has always had a predilection for big games in the postseason. Assistant coach Chauncey Billups has been working with Jackson on his game this season, saying he has “completely reinvented himself.”
Jackson always had the talent. He just hasn’t been healthy enough or on a team as good as this one. It’s fun to see veteran players fit in so well. But Morris needs to be the Clippers’ No. 3 option if they’re going to live up to the high expectations set for this team.
– Ramona Shelburne
Real or Not: Donovan Mitchell is the best shooting guard in the conference semifinals
IT’S NOT REAL. We can stop the debate on whether Mitchell deserves to be considered a superstar. He has eliminated any doubts, proving once again that he is capable of frequently taking over playoff games. Mitchell is averaging an efficient 32.9 PPP this postseason, causing the Clippers to scramble for sketchy solutions despite being packed with guards and wings with reputations for defensive plugs.
But the best point guard / guard who continues to play in these playoffs has already concluded his Western Conference semifinal series. He’s resting his 36-year-old body, waiting for the Jazz-Clippers winner. Chris Paul simply reminded the world how great he still is, running a point guard clinic in the Suns’ sweep of the Nuggets.
Paul, whose arrival in Phoenix turned the Suns (a bubble success story with a promising young core) into a true contender, controlled that series from start to finish. He averaged 25.5 points in shooting splits (.627 / .750 / 1,000) which are absolutely ridiculous. He had 10.3 assists per game and committed a total of just five turnovers in the series.
That 8.2 assist-loss ratio is the second-best in a series since turnovers became an official statistic, behind only Paul’s 10.0 ratio in his first playoff series in 2008, according to ESPN research. Data.
And that’s not even the most impressive CP3 stat of the series. Take a look at his numbers from the four fourths: 43 points, 10 assists, zero turnovers with 84% shooting from the floor.
Devin Booker, the 24-year-old co-star, also belongs in this conversation. He has certainly muted any talk about his lack of playoff experience, scoring a total of 81 points in his first two closing games, a pretty solid test of killer instinct.
But Booker rode a shotgun in this series, with Paul leading the Suns to the conference finals, a destination Mitchell and the Jazz are still trying to achieve.
– Tim MacMahon