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The Three Big Questions in Each NBA Conference Finals

Will the champs need Kevin Durant against Portland? Can Toronto slow down Giannis? We break down the keys to Warriors-Blazers and Bucks-Raptors.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After the second round concluded with some of the most dramatic ball of the season to date, we’re moving on to the NBA’s answer to the Final Four. The 2019 Western Conference finals tips off Tuesday in Oakland, with the top-seeded Golden State Warriors taking on the no. 3 Portland Trail Blazers. On Wednesday, the scene shifts to Wisconsin, with the league-best Milwaukee Bucks welcoming the second-seeded Toronto Raptors to Fiserv Forum for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

As we get ready to find out which two teams will vie for the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in the 2019 NBA Finals, let’s set the table for Round 3 by looking at three big questions looming over each conference finals matchup, starting out in the Bay …

Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (3)

1. Can you still play Enes Kanter?

After Kevin Durant suffered a right calf strain during the third quarter of Game 5 against Houston last week, the Warriors responded to the loss of one of the sport’s most dangerous offensive weapons by reverting to Plan B: one of the sport’s most dangerous offensive weapons.

The Stephen Curry–Draymond Green pick-and-roll was Golden State’s bread-and-butter play in the pre-KD era, and with the postseason’s leading scorer unavailable to hoist unblockable jumpers, the Warriors returned to that recipe to close Houston out in Game 6 on Friday. With Durant reportedly out “for at least Game 1” of the conference finals, you’d expect the Dubs to continue dialing up the set that figures to put the most pressure on Portland’s defense—especially the big man tasked with guarding the screener and attempting to corral Curry (whose injured left hand seemed all right as he poured in 33 points after halftime of Game 6) as he comes off the screen.

Kanter went from waiver-wire insurance policy to starting center in the blink of an eye and the break of a leg. He has been a godsend for the Blazers, averaging 12.9 points and 10.6 rebounds in 32.7 minutes per game in the postseason despite playing through a separated left shoulder and fasting for Ramadan during the second round. He has battled on the glass, muscling up former Thunder teammate Steven Adams and Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic in the paint, and done his damnedest to deter drivers on their way to the basket. While Portland has allowed 6.4 more points per 100 possessions with Kanter on the court than off it in the playoffs, he’s holding opponents to 49.3 percent shooting at the rim when he’s contesting, a whopping 16 percentage points better than his regular-season mark. The 26-year-old has seized the opportunity to prove he can hold up to postseason questioning. But the Warriors—and especially the no-KD, Steph-centric Warriors—are the kind of opponent that could bring back the bad old days.

Whichever center Golden State plays—Andrew Bogut, who started Game 6 against Houston; Kevon Looney, who made 24 starts during the regular season; or Green, the first-choice 5-man whenever the Warriors go small—will screen for Curry early and often, trying to draw Kanter out into deep water and make him prove he can swim. Can he hold up well enough on those mismatches to prevent the Warriors from completely busting Portland’s coverage? On the other end, can he make Golden State pay in the paint—either by pounding the glass (where he’s second in the postseason in offensive rebounds and second-chance points) or in the post (where he’s producing just 0.78 points per possession used in the playoffs, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game charting)?

If he can’t, he could find himself in the same boat as Adams did in Round 1, or as Clint Capela did in the conference semis: played into a reduced role, effectively X’d out of the proceedings when things get most serious. Portland might be better equipped to survive that scenario, after second-year big man Zach Collins—a superior rim protector, a much more mobile perimeter defender, and a burgeoning 3-point shooter—emerged against Denver as a player worthy of minutes and trust. But handling starter’s minutes and a key defensive assignment is an awful lot to ask of a 21-year-old in his first major postseason run. If need be, Blazers coach Terry Stotts might turn to something unorthodox to get enough defensive aptitude on the court to defang the high pick-and-roll—Al-Farouq Aminu at the 5, anyone?—but that’s not where Portland wants to be. It needs minutes and production from Kanter. The Warriors will turn back the clock to try to take those off the board.

2. Will the Warriors even need Durant in this series?

OK, I’ll admit it: I was wrong. I had my doubts about how Golden State’s reserves would fare in Game 6 against Houston, after Warriors coach Steve Kerr had essentially cut his rotation to the bone and excised everybody who didn’t fit into a Death Lineup of some type to the far reaches of the bench. Those once-jettisoned backups raced back to the fore on Friday and played great, helping provide the baseline production (25 points on 14 combined shots for Looney and Shaun Livingston) and innings-eating minutes (11 in a spot start for Bogut, double-digit floor time for Jordan Bell, Jonas Jerebko, and Quinn Cook) that allowed the championship core to carry them over the finish line.

With Durant potentially out for the first two games of the conference finals, if not more, you’d expect Kerr to adopt a similar #StrengthInNumbers approach, leaning on his array of not-quite-ready-for-small-ball bigs and trick-or-treat wings to bang, run, provide energy, and generally ensure that Curry, Green, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala don’t burn themselves out too much too soon. But what worked in a one-game burst against Houston might be tougher to conjure up for a full series against a foe with the time to prepare for a different look.

After a series in mothballs, how will Bogut hold up in hand-to-hand combat with Kanter down low, and in drop pick-and-roll coverage against flamethrowers Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the perimeter? No one doubts Livingston’s savvy, poise, playmaking sense, or championship-level IQ, but after his first double-figure scoring performance in nearly four months, it does seem reasonable to question whether he’s got enough shot-making juice to turn in a few more performances like Game 6 to tilt the tide against Portland reserves like Evan Turner (who just had the most important playoff performances of his career in games 6 and 7 against Denver), Rodney Hood (ditto, assuming he’s healthy), and Seth Curry (hey there, little brother). Bell could be a boon as a pick-and-roll lob target or a floor runner in transition, but young players prone to defensive lapses are a bad match for minutes against Lillard and McCollum; with the series in the balance in Game 6 in Houston, Alfonzo McKinnie saw just six minutes. How comfortable Kerr will be with them in a conference finals matchup remains to be seen.

Something to keep in mind: During four regular-season meetings with Portland, the Warriors scored a scorching 118.8 points per 100 possessions in 146 minutes with Durant on the floor, and only 90.5 points-per-100 in 51 minutes without him. Now, that came in a different context than we’ll see in this series, with Portland down a key two-way piece in injured center Jusuf Nurkic (who averaged 20.3 points, 10 rebounds, and 3.3 assists in four regular-season meetings between the two teams) and with Golden State likely to orient everything around the high screen game. Still: If the Warriors struggle to score without KD available, the odds of Portland nicking a game in Oakland go up. And if this thing heads back to Moda Center at 1-1 rather than 2-0, there will be a lot of pressure to get Durant back on the floor as soon as possible—even if that might not necessarily be the ideal course of action for a team with its sights set on winning a third straight title.

3. Which Dame are you getting?

Lillard was the toast of Round 1, the deadpan destroyer who looked Russell Westbrook and Paul George square in the eye, called “series,” and then waved them into the offseason. But after averaging 33 points and six assists per game and drilling 48.1 percent from deep on nearly 11 attempts a night against Oklahoma City, the Blazers’ All-NBA point guard struggled in the conference semis. Denver combined long, athletic defenders at the point of attack (Gary Harris, Torrey Craig) with an aggressive help scheme designed to trap Lillard off screens, force the ball out of his hands, and prevent him from taking the kind of deep-but-in-rhythm 3s that obliterated Oklahoma City.

Lillard still had his moments: 39 points on 21 shots in Game 1, a vital 32 points and six 3s in Game 6. But all that attention and physicality seemed to wear on him, as he shot just 40.7 percent from the field and 28.8 percent from long distance in the series, capped by a 3-for-17 outing in a decisive Game 7 in which McCollum served as Portland’s premier offensive option.

As great as McCollum has been—67 points on 53 shots in games 6 and 7 against Denver, playing 87 minutes of high-usage ball without a single turnover—and as crucial as he’ll be against Golden State, it’s Lillard who most needs to be at his best. He can still make a positive impact even when his shot isn’t falling, as evidenced by his 10 rebounds, eight assists, and three steals in 45 minutes of Game 7; defenses have to account for him everywhere he goes on the floor, and his playmaking will be vital. But Dame’s got to be capable of going shot for holy shit, are you serious? shot with Steph for the Blazers to be able to make the Warriors sweat.

Lillard will likely be dealing with another big, tough, smart defender for the majority of this series—either Klay Thompson, who has seen the bulk of the matchup on Dame in each of the last two seasons, or Iguodala—and more blitzes and traps. He’ll also have to deal with Golden State attacking him on the other end; this all is a lot to manage, but chances to play for a championship don’t come around often. It feels like the Blazers have to steal one of the first two games to make this a series. Their best chance of that is probably Dame returning to his hometown and finding a way to drop a building on the defending champs. If he’s too tapped out to do that heavy lifting, the first installment of Lillard Time in the conference finals could be short-lived.

Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs. Toronto Raptors (2)

1. Who helps Kawhi?

Leonard was masterful throughout the second round against Philadelphia, most of all in an unbelievable Game 7 that he capped with the greatest shot in Toronto basketball history. But depending on an unabated string of superheroics and miracles is not, strictly speaking, a plan. And non-Kawhi Raptors, at various points in Round 2, strained under the burden of pulling their weight.

”We lean on [Kawhi] a lot,” Raptors center Marc Gasol told reporters after the Game 7 win, evincing a solid grasp of the power of understatement. “Sometimes a little too much.”

As understandable as that approach may be, given Leonard’s remarkable postseason run thus far, it’s not likely to be enough to beat the Bucks. Not only has Milwaukee boasted the NBA’s no. 1 defense in both the regular season and the playoffs, it’s also fielded the second-most-efficient offense in the playoffs through two rounds; Milwaukee also scored 111.7 points per 100 possessions against the Raptors during the regular season. Toronto will have to score to beat the Bucks, and it’s unlikely that Kawhi will be able to manage that on his own.

Leonard averaged 22 points on 42.6 percent shooting against the Bucks during the regular season, subpar numbers for him, thanks in large part to the work of Milwaukee swingman Khris Middleton. As you watch the tape of Leonard’s shot attempts against Milwaukee, you can see why Middleton was coach Mike Budenholzer’s preferred choice to check Kawhi. He does a great job of slithering around screens and fighting through traffic to stay connected to Leonard, trying to shade him left into the midrange without fouling and force him into waiting help, and using his own impressive physical gifts—he’s 6-foot-8 with a near-6-foot-11 wingspan—to contest Kawhi’s pull-up off the dribble.

To be fair, Leonard has spent the past few weeks showing us that there’s a considerable difference between his regular season and postseason selves. But Middleton seems well equipped to make Kawhi work for his buckets, and if the effort winds up sapping some of his vaunted shooting efficiency, it’ll be up to the other Raptors to pick up the slack. So who else can create?

Despite being guarded primarily by Antetokounmpo during the regular season, Pascal Siakam had a pair of big performances against the Bucks back in January—30 points on 11-for-15 shooting in a win, and 28 points on 12-for-19 shooting in a loss—and has at times looked like the second scoring star Toronto needs against elite opposition. But his production waned as the Sixers series wore on. The combined effects of Joel Embiid’s defense and a right calf contusion limited his explosiveness and effectiveness, as he shot just 38.5 percent from the field and 6-for-29 from 3-point range over the final six games against Philly.

Kyle Lowry makes magic in the margins of the game, and played a much larger role in Toronto’s final three wins of the second round than his scoring totals would indicate. But he also averaged 6.3 points per game against Milwaukee this season, went 1-for-20 from 3, missed all 11 shots he took when guarded by Eric Bledsoe, and can struggle to find space against longer defenders like George Hill and Malcolm Brogdon; these feel like grim omens for his odds of producing big scoring games if Kawhi falters.

Virtually every Raptors rotation player—Gasol, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, poor Fred VanVleet—looked, at times, unwilling to take open shots against the Sixers. The Bucks would feast on such indecision; they’re too long and smart, recover too well and contest too hard, and erase openings before you can bat your eyelash. Maybe less thinking would lead to more making: No second-round squad shot a worse percentage on open 3-pointers (between 4 and 6 feet of space from a defender) or rolled up a lower effective field goal percentage on wide-open shots (nobody within 6 feet of the shooter) than Toronto. The Raptors need more of those shots to go down to lighten Leonard’s load.

2. What impact will the reinforcements have?

All four regular-season matchups between these two teams came before the trade deadline. That means that Milwaukee didn’t play a second against the Raptors’ starting lineup with Gasol in the middle, which outscored opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions during the regular season and blitzed Orlando and Philly by 20.1 points-per-100. Against Philly, Gasol was Toronto’s Al Horford, doing his part to stifle Joel Embiid into an inconsistent and often ineffective series. Could he pull a similar trick against Milwaukee, using his length, smarts, and shot-making touch to limit Antetokounmpo’s forays into the paint, make the Bucks pay for giving up pick-and-pop 3-point looks, and succeed where Horford and the Celtics failed in Round 2?

The schedule cuts both ways, though: It also means that Toronto never faced the Bucks with Nikola Mirotic in the lineup. The 28-year-old forward has struggled to consistently knock down shots since returning from a left thumb injury, but the threat of Mirotic firing from outside has still improved Milwaukee’s half-court spacing—important for giving Giannis as much room as possible to dust defenders and rumble to the rim. Mirotic’s combination of size and quickness has also allowed him to handle different defensive assignments, whether taking on challenges like guarding Boston wing Jaylen Brown in a jumbo frontcourt alongside Antetokounmpo and center Brook Lopez, or operating as a center in a “small”-ball pairing with Giannis capable of playing more plodding traditional big men—like, say, Gasol—off the court.

Even with Mirotic struggling with his shot, the Bucks have been lights-out when he shares the court with Giannis, outscoring opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions during the regular season and by 11.4 points-per-100 in the playoffs. If the Bucks shift to that kind of big-and-small-at-the-same-time alignment, how will Toronto respond? A pairing of Siakam and Serge Ibaka might have the mobility to hang defensively, but can the Raptors score enough against a stingy Bucks defense without Gasol on hand to act as a high-post locksmith?

3. Can the Raptors slow down Giannis?

Maybe, but they certainly didn’t have much luck during the regular season. Antetokounmpo averaged 27 points, 15.3 rebounds, and five assists per game against Toronto, shooting 58.5 percent from the field. Nick Nurse gave Siakam the task of trying to limit Giannis; matched up against a 6-foot-9-inch, 230-pound Swiss army knife with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, all the Greek Freak did was drop a crisp 44.1 points per 100 possessions.

The numbers skewed better for Toronto when Leonard wound up guarding Giannis. The Bucks scored 31 points on 31 possessions in that matchup, with Giannis taking only three shots against the two-time Defensive Player of the Year. But just as Budenholzer prefers to keep Giannis off of Leonard, Nurse this season largely kept Kawhi on Middleton, aiming to prevent Milwaukee’s no. 2 option and most menacing long-distance shooter from going off and getting hot. In the confines of a short series, though, best-laid plans can come undone.

If Siakam can’t keep Antetokounmpo from bulldozing his way to the rim, I’d imagine Leonard will pick up more of the assignment, as he did in moving off of Ben Simmons to shut Jimmy Butler’s water off against the Sixers. Giannis, though, is an order of magnitude tougher to tackle than even those two excellent players. How much can Kawhi guard Giannis and shoulder the load on the offensive end?

If the answer is “not much,” Nurse might need to get weird in search of answers. I thought David Thorpe’s idea of putting smaller defenders, like Lowry or Green, on Giannis in an attempt to try to coax him into posting up, pestering him à la Patrick Beverley on Kevin Durant, and perhaps short-circuiting Milwaukee’s offensive flow was interesting. But after watching Antetokounmpo bully Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, and every other Celtics defender on whom he drew a switch in the second round, I’m not sure junking up the matchups would work in Toronto’s favor, either.

Ultimately, at a certain point, we might find ourselves down to Occam’s razor: Your best bet for stopping the best offensive player on the other team is sticking your best defensive player on him. I hope we wind up seeing that simpler solution play out early and often. It seems to me that there are definitely worse ways to figure out who gets to go to the NBA Finals than by letting the two best players in the conference trade haymakers.