The Second Round's Key Questions
Something to watch for in every series
We’re here! The second round of the playoffs is often the most enjoyable. The weak have been eliminated, the drama is heightened, and there are still multiple basketball games almost every night. Every remaining team fancies itself a championship contender.
This year’s second round features four fascinating matches. What should you be looking for in each?
Golden State vs. Memphis (GS up 1-0)
Key Question: Which big men will step up in this series?
The Warriors helped make small-ball a household phrase with their Draymond-at-center lineups. They have experimented with going even smaller than those squads in these playoffs — most interestingly by playing Gary Payton II, who’s a 6’3” nominal guard, instead of Kevon Looney for a few minutes in Game 1.
Both these teams have star guards and are comfortable playing small, which makes the defensive role of the big man more challenging. Payton is basically a center on offense, where he screens, cuts, and generally hovers around the hoop waiting for dump-offs while defenses focus on Steph, Klay, and Jordan Poole. Defensively, he’s arguably the best point-of-attack defender in all of basketball, and he hounded Ja Morant all game:
Looney, Golden State’s only traditional center, played 19 minutes in Game 1. He is an underrated defender but still a slow-ish big, so his ability to hold up against a driving Morant will be a fun watch (he looked solid in Game 1). If Looney can’t stay on the court, Golden State becomes more vulnerable to Memphis’ voracious offensive rebounding.
Andrew Wiggins will play a good amount of power forward, and his all-around game is crucial against a team like Memphis with many multi-talented players. He has held up well defensively against most of Memphis’ critical players throughout the year and figures to be a massive part of Golden State’s defensive gameplan.
Otto Porter Jr. has played the role of stretch big for Golden State this year. Coach Steve Kerr likes having his switchability and shooting out there, particularly when Draymond Green is off the floor (like he was after getting ejected in the second quarter of Game 1 for a flagrant foul). His minutes may be threatened when Andre Iguodala returns from a neck injury in Game 3, although Porter might be the better option at this point in their respective careers (especially if he keeps rebounding this well).
Iguodala can be a backup point guard on offense, but his defense has fallen off some. Jordan Poole’s rise means Kerr has another, more threatening ball handler. I’m not sure if Iguodala will receive consistent minutes even when he does return.
Jonathan Kuminga is the prototypical X-factor. He’s much bigger and more athletic than anyone else on the Warriors, but he’s a rookie who can get lost on defense. He’ll have a few “wow” moments and should be an important mid-game minutes-eater while Draymond and/or Looney rests.
For the Grizzlies, the question is more complicated. Giant center Steven Adams was mothballed against the perimeter-oriented Timberwolves. With Golden State’s trio of sharpshooters, that trend seems likely to continue even after he returns from his COVID protocols. Adams would have a massive target on his back for any of Poole, Thompson, or Curry. His best offensive ability, screening for Ja Morant, doesn’t matter as much when Golden State actively allowed Morant to get as many open threes as he wanted (Morant went 4-11 in Game 1, a reasonable percentage, but he clanked some bad ones at the end).
Brandon Clarke was a breakout star against the Timberwolves, playing well defensively, diving hard to the rim, hitting floaters, and abusing the Wolves on the glass. His energy on both sides of the ball was a bright spot once again in Game 1, and he will continue to serve a heavy minutes load.
Jaren Jackson Jr. had his best game of the playoffs by a metric mile in Game 1 - he miraculously committed just three fouls after averaging 5.2 in Round 1. His ability to stretch the floor (6-9 from three) will be crucial as Ja Morant struggled to find daylight in the Warriors’ defense. If he keeps drilling open threes, the Warriors will need to stretch to cover him a little more. Jackson also picked up four offensive rebounds and ten boards overall, a pleasant surprise that Memphis will need more of for an upset. Most surprisingly, Jackson aggressively attacked the rim, something he’s not always keen to do.
Xavier Tillman is a shorter, thicker big without any jump shooting ability. He was helpful guarding Karl Anthony-Towns for stretches in Round 1, but his comparable quickness isn’t enough against the Warriors’ motion-heavy attack. Although he played 13 minutes, I’d expect that number to decline, as he doesn’t match up well on either end of the floor.
Kyle Anderson played 19 ineffectual minutes in Game 1. Although lanky and a solid positional defender, he didn’t look particularly useful against the Warriors. If Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins wants more shooting on the floor, his minutes may take a hit. The Warriors are unlikely to respect his jumper, so he must make them pay in other ways.
The Grizzlies and Warriors will have some exciting substitution patterns, as both teams contain many situational players but not many guys who always fit. The Grizzlies, in particular, will struggle if Jaren Jackson gets into consistent foul trouble, as he and Clarke are by far the best options for Memphis.
Phoenix - Dallas
Can anyone other than Doncic score for the Mavericks?
Well, so much for Phoenix looking vulnerable. They easily handled the Mavericks in Game 1 and finally looked like the juggernaut we expected to see.
Phoenix had the second-best defense in the regular season and the second-best half-court defense. They were a little more vulnerable in transition (about league average), but Dallas never runs (29th in transition frequency), so that’s not going to matter much.
Doncic was his usual spectacular self Monday night, scoring 45 points, gathering 12 rebounds, and dishing eight assists. He shot 50% from the field and went 4-11 from three. It didn’t matter, and this game was never in doubt despite a deceptively close seven-point margin of victory.
Phoenix had 27 assists compared to Dallas’ paltry 16. Phoenix was willing to let Doncic eat while choking off Dallas’ secondary scorers. Spencer Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson combined for 21 points on 9-24 shooting from the field, and Brunson could not comfortably attack a still-healing Devin Booker.
Both players have struggled in the past with lengthy defenders, and the Suns, unfortunately, are full of them. Phoenix wasn’t collapsing on Doncic enough to give Dinwiddie and Brunson space to get a clean catch and attack off the dribble, where both are best.
Dallas forwards Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith performed well on offense, dropping 19 and 15 points, respectively, on excellent shooting (particularly from Kleber). But neither of those guys have the offensive ceiling to compensate for the lack of guard play Dallas received, and the team did best at the end of the game when Kleber was off the floor and Finney-Smith was the center in a small lineup. Kleber can’t stay with Paul or Booker when they try to get to their spots in the mid-range, but he was Dallas’ second-best offensive player by far in Game 1, so balancing his minutes will be crucial for coach Jason Kidd.
Doncic continually sought out Jae Crowder on defense, and the Suns were happy to oblige since it meant they could stay home on the other players. They switched almost everything against Doncic to force him into iso ball. The Suns used the length of wings Crowder, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson to help on drives without giving Doncic clear passing lanes to easily set up teammates. Even centers JaVale McGee and DeAndre Ayton were allowed to guard Doncic one-on-one. Doncic certainly scored, but it was rarely easy, and he couldn’t get his other guards going.
Dallas got buckets in Round 1 by passing around the perimeter to any of their capable dribble-drive threats, getting Utah in help rotations, and then blowing by them for easy layups or kick-outs. Phoenix has no weak links in their starting rotation except for maybe an aging Chris Paul, who’s a 9x All-Defensive-Team player. I thought Dallas’ offense was stagnant for too much of the game, and players began just watching while Doncic drove into the teeth of the defense again and again.
Getting out in transition more and attacking the Suns before they can get into their set half-court defense would be best, but Dallas isn’t a running team. Brunson or Dinwiddie could try to bring the ball up a little more and use some off-ball actions for Doncic. This might open up the offense and get the other guys involved more, something an exhausted Doncic would likely welcome.
If Dallas can’t get Brunson or Dinwiddie going, this could be a shorter series than many expected.
Which team’s defense blinks first?
Boston’s defense wasn’t quite as airtight against the Nets as the media would lead you to believe, as the Nets shot an excellent 50% from the field. But that wasn’t the real goal. Boston discombobulated Kevin Durant and completely turned off Kyrie Irving’s water after an explosive Game 1, and they were disruptive enough to pull off the sweep.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee had one of the best defenses in playoff history in 2021 and is repeating that with a dominant defensive performance in Round 1 against an overmatched and ailing Bulls team.
This series was expected to be a rock fight, but Game 1 was held in a quarry. The Bucks won 101-89; Milwaukee shot 41%, and Boston shot a putrid 33%.
Boston has a set of players who are all pretty good on offense at lots of things, but outside shooting might be their biggest problem.
Only one of their top seven rotation players shot above 36% from deep — Grant Williams, who only takes 3.4 threes per game. Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Jaylen Brown all have inconsistent track records from range.
This matters because the Bucks doubled down on their typical no-layups policy in Game 1 by starting a mammoth lineup. Without Khris Middleton (more on him in a second), they began the game with three guys 6’10” or taller in Bobby Portis, Giannis, and Brook Lopez. That army of limbs completely and totally shut off the paint. The Celtics made only ten two-pointers in the game, second-fewest in NBA playoff history, and shot 50 three-pointers (they made 18). Beat one giant off the dribble, and another would materialize from nowhere to contest the shot:
Boston has a lot of guys capable of dribble penetration, but they got lost in the forest. Milwaukee’s entire defense is predicated on walling off the rim and giving up threes to mediocre outside shooters, which is exactly what happened in Game 1.
On the other side of the ball, Boston did a great job defensively against Milwaukee, too. It just wasn’t enough.
Without Khris Middleton, Milwaukee’s best perimeter scorer, inconsistent point guard Jrue Holiday needed to step up. He did so in a big way, with 25 points on 20 shots. That’s not a perfect stat line by any means, but this Celtics’ defense is filled with top-shelf defenders, and Jrue’s production was enough.
The C’s did a good job loading up on Giannis and making him take tough shots; he finished just 9-25 from the field, well below his average. Unfortunately for Boston, he had one of his best passing games in recent memory and consistently found open shooters while racking up 12 assists. The difference between his passing and Tatum’s (and Durant’s from the previous round) was stark.
The Celtics have proven in two straight series now that they are going to swarm an opposing team’s best option and make the rest of the team beat them. Although Holiday, Portis, and bench wing Grayson Allen all played solidly offensively, this defensive strategy still is correct, and it should have been more than good enough to win Game 1.
Milwaukee is used to winning hideously like they did for much of their championship run. They are comfortable in the mud. Giannis adjusted to the defensive attention the Celtics were paying him in a much better way than Durant did the series prior, but even more than that, the Celtics can’t just score at will like they did against Brooklyn’s myriad terrible defenders. Khris Middleton is an overrated defender and is likely Milwaukee’s weakest defensive link in the starting five. His absence has opened up more minutes for defensive pitbull Jevon Carter and veteran wing Wesley Matthews. What the Bucks lost in offense, they gained in defense.
We could see multiple battles between these teams where neither squad cracks 100 points. Boston can do better, but they’ll need to figure out a way to dent Milwaukee’s shell to bounce back in Game 2. I wonder if more mid-range jumpers, to draw some of the bigs a step or two out of the paint, may be a way to start.
Miami - Philadelphia
What will Philly do at center until Embiid is back?
Philly’s MVP candidate Joel Embiid will miss at least the first two games of this series. Miami handily won Game 1 in what was a close game to start before becoming a blowout by the end, and Philly’s center problem was glaring.
Coach Doc Rivers is getting lambasted by fans and media alike for continuing to play Deandre Jordan in Embiid’s absence. The 76ers were outscored by 22 points in his 17 minutes of floor time, an impressive total. Deandre can’t bend at the waist, turn his hips, shoot, rebound, or defend in space, so Doc’s insistence on playing him feels more like an “eff you” to critics than a logical basketball decision:
Former G-League MVP Paul Reed looked pretty good at times, showing active hands and feet and savagely attacking the glass, but he accumulated five fouls in 13 minutes. He barely played in the regular season (thanks, Doc!), and that lack of experience showed in his over-eagerness on some plays.
The last true center on the roster, Charles Bassey, only played garbage time, and small-ball veteran Paul Millsap played just five minutes.
The most interesting look the 76ers showed was when they went small with Tobias Harris and Georges Niang playing as the nominal bigs together. Niang would get lit up by a ten-year-old, but he is an excellent and willing shooter. His deployment opened up a lot more space for Harden and Tyrese Maxey to get into the paint and attack the rim. Harris might have honestly been the best defender for Philadelphia yesterday, but he played less than 1% of his minutes at center during the regular season. Asking him to do so for long stretches of Game 2 is unlikely to replicate that success.
Without Embiid there, the Heat rebounded an astonishing 40% of their own misses. It’s almost impossible to win a basketball game when the other team keeps getting two chances to score.
The Niang-at-center lineups can work when Bam is resting; Dewayne Dedmon (the Heat’s backup center) told Reed to hold his beer and somehow committed five fouls in four minutes! Dedmon’s a longtime veteran with plenty of experience under his belt, so he has no excuse. PJ Tucker isn’t as likely to abuse Niang defensively or on the boards. I’d expect Doc to glue Niang to those Bam-less minutes.
I’d also hope to see less DJ (despite Doc’s claims) and pray that Paul Reed can last 20 minutes instead of 13. Paul Millsap will have more of a role; he’s used to playing some small-ball center and might be a middle-ground option as a guy who can shoot and pass a little but is better defensively and on the boards than Niang. Millsap has mostly looked cooked this season, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Honestly, none of these options will work against Miami’s Bam Adebayo, who had a sparkling plus-26 +/- on Monday and walked into a casual 24-point / 12 -rebound game that didn’t come close to his ceiling. The best Philly can hope for in Game 2 is to tread water while Bam is on the court and then try to win the Tucker/Dedmon minutes.
Joel Embiid could come back as soon as Game 3. Philly will be sunk if he misses more time than that.