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One Burning Question for Every NBA Second-Round Series

What will ultimately decide all four conference semifinals matchups? We examine the story lines that could make or break each series.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a rare (and somewhat surprising!) night off, the second round of the 2022 NBA playoffs resumes Friday night. With four Game 3s on tap this weekend, let’s take a look at the biggest matchup, schematic, and strategic questions hanging over every series, starting in the City of Brotherly Love:

Heat-76ers: How much can Joel Embiid really change this series?

With Philadelphia’s best player sidelined by a broken orbital bone and concussion, the biggest question heading into this series was whether James Harden could turn back into the sort of no. 1 offensive option he’s been for most of the last decade, including in non-Embiid minutes during the regular season. Now that we know the answer appears to be “no,” or at least “not right now”—18 points and seven assists per game, shooting 39.3 percent from the floor and 25 percent from 3-point range—all eyes turn to Embiid: When he might be able to join the series, and just how large a difference he might be able to make when (if?) he does.

The big fella’s timeline remains up in the air. Before Game 2, John Clark of NBC Sports Philadelphia reported that Embiid was “progressing well” and that there’s “real hope” he could return for Game 3. During the game, though, Chris Haynes reported that Embiid had only just resumed being able to look at the screen of his cellphone without the brightness bothering him as he recovers from his concussion. After Miami’s 119-103 win, Sixers coach Doc Rivers told reporters that Embiid still had “so many steps to go through [and] I don’t think he’s cleared any of them right now,” and said at practice on Thursday that he “still has hurdles to get over”—casting plenty of doubt as to whether the MVP finalist could secure a clean enough bill of health to perform under the bright lights in time for Friday night. The Sixers have officially listed Embiid as out for Game 3, but they could still change that designation before tipoff.

Even a limited version of Embiid would provide a huge boost for the Sixers, who have been forced to cycle through a host of bad options in the middle without him. The return of the NBA’s scoring champ would restore a semblance of order and balance to an offense that’s been producing at league-worst levels without him, and alleviate the pressure on Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris, who have accounted for nearly 61 percent of Philadelphia’s total field goal attempts, 63 percent of its assists, and 63 percent of its fouls drawn in the series. Having Embiid around as a release valve would also make it tougher for Miami to send extra defenders and double-teams at Harden—a key part of Erik Spoelstra’s defensive strategy, and one reason the former MVP has attempted only 28 shots through two games. I’m not sure Embiid’s presence alone will suddenly get every Sixer to stop bricking the jumpers Harden’s creating—Philly’s just 4-for-18 from deep on the Beard’s feeds through two games—but shit, it couldn’t hurt!

Honestly, just vaporizing DeAndre Jordan’s floor time would represent some massive addition by subtraction for Philly, which has been outscored by 31 points in the plodding vet’s 31 minutes across two games, and has actually outscored Miami by a point in 65 minutes with him on the bench. Merely playing the Heat about even won’t be good enough to take four of the next five games, though; the Sixers need Embiid to be the kind of game-wrecker who can dominate anybody in the post, foul out opposing frontcourts, knock down trail 3s, and helm a top-five defense.

That’d be a tall enough order under the best of circumstances against the top-seeded Heat, who held Embiid to 23.7 points per game—nearly seven points below his average—on 21-for-50 shooting (42 percent) during three meetings during the regular season, and whose swarming defense excels at forcing Embiid to play in a crowd:

Expecting him to overwhelm Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, and Co. while likely playing with a mask—something he found cumbersome and uncomfortable when he had to do it against Miami in 2018and through the torn thumb ligament he suffered against the Raptors, though? And to hit the ground running at full speed after spending nearly 10 days away from almost all basketball-related activity? Even for a player as great as Embiid, that feels awfully optimistic. And yet, if the doctors clear him and he suits up, that’s exactly what the Sixers will ask of him. At this point, with a sub-1-in-10 chance at surviving the second round, what other choice do they have?

Suns-Mavericks: Can Dallas find any answers for Phoenix’s offense?

After falling into an 0-2 hole against the West’s no. 1 seed, Dallas head coach Jason Kidd again bemoaned the lack of production from Mavericks not named Luka Doncic. While it’s true that Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie combining for 41 points on 46 shots through two games is less than ideal, the Mavericks’ offense—their intentionally very, very Luka-centric offense—has been more or less fine in this series, averaging 116.9 points per 100 possessions outside of garbage time—a rate that would’ve finished no. 2 in the NBA during the regular season.

The problem is on the other end of the floor, where the Dallas defense finds itself hanging precariously over the Hellmouth on seemingly every possession: Phoenix has scored 135 points-per-100 outside of garbage time through two games, shooting 62.3 percent on 2-pointers, 45.3 percent on 3-pointers, and 92.3 percent on free throws … as a team.

The Mavericks won more regular-season games and advanced past Round 1 for the first time since winning the 2011 NBA title in large part because of the advancements Kidd was able to coax on the defensive end. Dallas moved from the bottom third into the top 10 in points allowed per possession, defensive rebounding rate, and opponents’ free throw rate and effective field goal percentage, with Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock taking on the toughest one-on-one assignments buoyed by a teamwide commitment to quicker rotations, sharper closeouts, and more disciplined execution. And none of it’s meant a goddamn thing against a Suns team with the talent, skill, versatility, and savvy to pinpoint an opposing defense’s weakness and just hammer it until it breaks open.

Case in point: the fourth quarter of Game 2, in which Phoenix turned a six-point game into a 20-point blowout with ruthless ease, thanks to Chris Paul’s gift for manipulating coverages to manufacture good looks, and Devin Booker’s ability to rise up and rain fire:

In the competitive portion of that fourth quarter, Dallas really managed only one good defensive possession, which resulted in a turnover … and which they promptly squandered, with Luka turning the ball over, sending the Suns out on a fast break that ended with Paul lofting a lob to Mikal Bridges for a dunk. On just about every other possession over an eight-minute stretch with the game and home-court advantage on the line, the Suns created wide-open or extremely comfortable looks. This is the residue of design: the system that Monty Williams has crafted, implemented by players who can think, move, and execute at an elite level, no matter what coverage an opponent throws at them.

Stay in drop coverage, and the Suns will step into the space you’re conceding and cook you: Among 123 players to take at least 150 pull-up jumpers this season, Paul, Bridges, and Booker finished third, fifth, and 13th in field goal percentage, respectively, according to Second Spectrum, while Deandre Ayton is shooting a blistering 63.4 percent on non-restricted-area 2-pointers. Switch pick-and-rolls to try to take away those pull-ups, and now you’ve got to worry about Paul and Booker hunting your weak link, or Booker taking a smaller defender to Mamba Academy in the mid-post, or Ayton getting a deep seal in the paint before going up over the top for a layup or a soft-touch floater.

Try to trap or blitz Paul and you’re almost assuredly drawing dead, daring one of the greatest passers in NBA history to slip a pocket pass through to his rolling big man or swing it to a pressure-release wing on the opposite side who can trigger a four-on-three attack. Try to junk things up by going zone—something Dallas only did about two possessions per game during the regular season—and there are Paul and Booker to shoot you out of it, cutters slicing through it to collapse it, and Ayton (and Bismack Biyombo and JaVale McGee) rising up for lobs over the top of it.

Phoenix has dusted Dallas when it has gone big with Maxi Kleber or Dwight Powell in the middle. When the Mavs have gone small, eschewing centers in favor of playing Finney-Smith at the 5, the Suns have scorched them. They have been surgical and shocking, leaving Doncic and the rest of Dallas’s defenders licking their wounds and looking for answers … that are starting to seem like they might not exist.

It’s up to Kidd to prove otherwise—to come up with something beyond just hoping some non-Luka Maverick starts scoring so he can fight fire with fire against a Phoenix offense that’s generating exactly what it wants, whenever it wants it. If he can’t, then no matter what heroics Luka might have in store back at home, the only question left in the series might be how much time Phoenix gets off before Grizzlies-Warriors wraps up.

Celtics-Bucks: Can Giannis Antetokounmpo solve Boston’s defense again?

I took an in-depth look at the state of play in Celtics-Bucks after Game 2, so I won’t belabor the issue. My guess is that both sides came away from the first two games in Boston feeling pretty good: Milwaukee because it was able to steal home-court advantage, shut down the Celtics’ interior scoring, and force Ime Udoka’s team to rely on a new franchise playoff record for 3-pointers (and Jaylen Brown’s brief ascension to another plane of existence) to beat them; and Boston because, for the most part, they’ve been able to keep the reigning Finals MVP under wraps.

Antetokounmpo controlled Game 1 with his leveled-up passing, dishing 12 assists as he leveraged the additional help the C’s shaded his way. In Game 2, though, Boston was able to limit both his scoring (28 points, but 11-of-27 shooting) and his playmaking (seven assists, but none for 3-pointers, and six turnovers) largely by keeping those help defenders at home and entrusting the Giannis matchup to old nemesis Al Horford and new foe Grant Williams. They’ve done the job: According to NBA Advanced Stats’ matchup data, the two-time MVP has shot a combined 14-for-40 against Horford and Williams, who’ve used their strength and lateral quickness to push Antetokounmpo off of his spots and force him to finish through tough contests.

The Bucks need more from everywhere: More of Jrue Holiday in isolation, more secondary off-the-bounce creation from Grayson Allen and Pat Connaughton, more perimeter shot-making from Bobby Portis and Wesley Matthews (a combined 3-for-16 from deep through two games), and more floor time from Brook Lopez, limited by foul trouble to just 25 minutes in Game 2. But with Khris Middleton continuing to work his way back from an MCL sprain that will keep him sidelined through at least games 3 and 4, what Milwaukee needs most is for its best player to give them more than 52 points on 52 shots and not allow Boston to guard him with a 35-year-old and a 6-foot-6 dude straight up without sending help. What Milwaukee needs most is for Giannis to do what he does best: see a coverage, internalize it, find the right angle of approach, and battering-ram the shit out of it until the other team breaks down.

We’ve seen him do it before: to the Suns last July, to the Heat a few weeks before that, and, a couple of years prior, to an earlier iteration of the Celtics, led by a younger model of Horford. Milwaukee’s chances of keeping its title defense alive likely depend on whether he and Coach Bud can do it again.

Grizzlies-Warriors: Can Golden State make Ja Morant pay on defense?

Following Morant’s 47-point masterpiece in Game 2 to level the series, my Ringer colleague Kevin O’Connor looked at how the Warriors have been guarding Ja, and wondered whether Steve Kerr might consider blitzing the newly minted Most Improved Player rather than surrender the soft switches on which he’s feasting. Perhaps just as big an issue, though, is whether Golden State commits to attacking Ja.

The Warriors have made Morant—a slight 6-foot-3 and 174 pounds, regarded by a number of metrics as one of the weaker defensive guards in the NBA—defend 34 screens through two games, per Second Spectrum. The Grizzlies have held up well overall on those plays, with secondary defenders using active hands and quick feet to plug up gaps, and conceding just 0.87 points per chance. On about half of those possessions, though, the Warriors have decided to attack elsewhere rather than focusing in on Morant: They’ve gone directly at him on only 17 of those screens, and you can count the times they’ve tried to get him out in deep water and isolate him on one hand. Which is kind of wild, when you consider that Patrick Beverley—who, delightful as he is, isn’t exactly Stephen Curry or Jordan Poole when it comes to off-the-bounce scoring—took Ja one-on-one 20 times in Round 1, producing a healthy 1.16 points per chance in the process.

To some degree, that’s a credit to coach Taylor Jenkins and the rest of the Grizzlies’ defense, stocked with long-armed, attentive, and capable players who allow Morant to slide out of compromising positions. And to some degree, it’s about the fundamental precepts of Kerr’s offense—fluidity, ball and body movement, an egalitarian approach based on the concept that everybody’s more invested and engaged when everybody’s touching the rock—skewing away from a strategy that would emphasize the kind of screen-and-roll hunting that we see so much of in the postseason these days.

Sometimes, though, just going at the guy who’s not that good a defender can open up some pretty good stuff for an offense that’s stunningly scored at a bottom-five clip through these first two games:

The question of how much the Warriors should be trying to hunt Morant ties closely to another big question: Just how healthy will Desmond Bane’s sore lower back be after three days off?

The second-year shooting guard was arguably Memphis’s best player in Round 1, averaging 23.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in 38 minutes per game while shooting a torrid 49.1 percent from 3-point range on more than nine attempts a night. He’s the Grizzlies’ most reliable floor spacer for Morant’s drives, and their most dangerous catch-and-shoot threat to cash in on the kickouts he creates. He’s a viable secondary playmaker, which could be vital if the Warriors start blitzing Morant’s pick-and-rolls and Memphis needs a release valve, and a stout perimeter defender who has held Klay Thompson to 2-for-10 shooting through two games, according to NBA Advanced Stats. His top-tier two-way play becomes particularly important for Memphis now that Dillon Brooks has been suspended for Game 3 after injuring Gary Payton II with a flagrant foul early in Game 2.

If Bane’s back doesn’t loosen up, and he’s not capable of averaging more than the seven points on 29 percent shooting that he’s mustered through two games, the Grizzlies’ offensive ceiling drops precipitously. (Some good news on that front: The return of center Steven Adams from a stint in health and safety protocols, which could help bolster Memphis’s offensive rebounding and second-chance opportunities, which the Grizz capitalized on better than any team during the regular season.) If he’s not able to move effectively enough to keep tamping down on Thompson, or to deal with spot duty on Steph or Poole, the Grizzlies’ defense becomes much more vulnerable as well. If he’s not healthy enough to pose a scoring and playmaking threat when Golden State goes small with its three-guard lineup, it would give Poole a safer hiding spot and make it tougher for Morant to go into search-and-destroy mode on switches.

Sprinkle in the inherent variance that comes with Jaren Jackson Jr.’s trick-or-treat, foul-trouble-avoidance-dependent game, and if Bane can’t go, the pressure on Morant to turn in more superhuman performances on the order of Game 2 ratchets up considerably. And if Memphis’s best chance of getting a win in Golden State is Ja going into the phone booth and coming out wearing a cape, then it might make sense for Kerr to grit his teeth, push pause on his principles for a minute or two, and just simplify things: Put the ball in the hands of Steph and Poole, call Ja’s man up top, and let the chips fall where they may.