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The Five Most Interesting Players of the 2019 NBA Playoffs

The postseason is here. Here are the figures who could make or break their team’s title hopes.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Well, gang: We made it. After an 82-game war of attrition, we’re just one sleep away from our handsome reward: the 2019 NBA playoffs. Sixteen teams, four rounds, and at the end of it, only one team left standing to celebrate while hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. Even with an odds-on favorite looming over the proceedings, this will be fun.

Before the conference quarterfinals commence on Saturday, let’s take a look at the five players whose paths through the postseason most interest me, starting with the man of the moment in Milwaukee:

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

There’s nothing in the NBA scarier than Antetokounmpo with a clear runway and a head of steam—and that’s exactly what he has entering the postseason.

The Bucks will have home-court advantage through the Finals, affording Giannis the chance to start and end every series in Milwaukee, where they are a dominant 33-8 this season. Antetokounmpo is surrounded by a deep and talented supporting cast, headed by All-Star swingman Khris Middleton and inside-out difference-makers Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez. He’s playing the best basketball of his life in a system optimized for his gifts by Coach of the Year front-runner Mike Budenholzer, and he enters spring fresher than ever; Giannis has played fewer total minutes in 2018-19 than he has in any single season since he was a spindly 19-year-old rookie.

Health is a concern for Milwaukee: Key contributors Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic remain on the injured list, though they’re expected to be back in time for the second round, and a number of other Bucks, including Antetokounmpo, have been dealing with nagging ailments. Beyond that, though, there doesn’t seem to be anything for Milwaukee to fear; the Raptors, 76ers, and Celtics could all pose their share of problems, but the skyscraping wall that has separated would-be Eastern contenders from the promised land for nearly a decade came tumbling down last July, when LeBron James made the fateful decision to leave Cleveland for Los Angeles.

James’s absence from the postseason matters in an off-court sense, too. The NBA’s most popular and famous player being sidelined for the playoffs creates an attention vacuum. With everything seemingly pointing toward the Greek Freak’s coronation—a first All-NBA First Team selection, and a real shot at both Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year honors—this is Antetokounmpo’s opportunity to seize the throne, to establish himself as the next face of the league, and to take LeBron’s place as the new immovable object that will prevent a generation of Eastern teams from grabbing the brass ring.

That ascent will have to begin with a small but meaningful step: getting out of the first round of the playoffs. Antetokounmpo has yet to do that in three tries, and the Bucks franchise has done it just once in the past 30 seasons. Do that by knocking off the eighth-seeded Pistons, stay healthy in the process, get Brogdon and Mirotic back in the fold, and the path to a title starts to look much more manageable.

”People don’t think we can’t win it all. But at the end of the day, we are going to play for that,” Antetokounmpo recently told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. “We are going to play till the end. It’s in our hands to decide what the end is going to be.”

There’s nothing but open space and opportunity in front of Giannis and the Bucks. Once they take off, there’s no telling how high or how far they could go.

Chris Paul, Rockets

An analytics adherent like Daryl Morey would likely downplay the value of momentum at this time of year, but Houston enters the playoffs as the NBA’s hottest team all the same. Mike D’Antoni’s team posted the NBA’s best record and its best efficiency differential after the All-Star break, turning in the league’s no. 1 offense (which you’d expect) and its no. 2 defense (which you would very much not!) in non-garbage-time play, according to Cleaning the Glass. The only team stingier post-All-Star: the similarly streaking Utah Jazz, whom Houston will face in Round 1.

It took the Rockets a while to rediscover the form that led them to Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals, but as Morey said before the season, his job is to have his best team on the floor by mid-April. Well, it’s April, and Houston once again looks dangerous as hell, with James Harden operating as the sport’s most unstoppable offensive weapon, Clint Capela flexing on the interior (15 points on 68.2 percent shooting and 12.8 rebounds per game since the All-Star break), and vital role players like Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and scrap-heap savior Danuel House Jr. scorching the nets from 3-point range. Everything’s lining up for the Rockets to once again take their best shot at the Warriors; whether they can put the champs down for the count this time could depend on how healthy and effective Paul is when it’s time for the main event.

Paul, when he’s at his best, is arguably the best non-Warriors second banana in the league—a game-controlling mastermind capable of working his team into a productive possession against any defense, of stifling the best ball handlers and scorers in the world, and of maintaining the Rockets’ roar when Harden hits the bench. We didn’t see much of that version of CP3 early in the season, leading many to wonder whether injuries and age had cost the about-to-be-34-year-old point guard the athleticism he needed to make a difference at the highest levels. But while Paul’s individual numbers haven’t been overwhelming following his return from a left hamstring strain in late January, his overall impact has been massive.

Since the All-Star break, the Rockets have outscored opponents by 8.2 more points per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor than when he’s off it. Houston has been elite when Paul has run the show without Harden, posting a plus-9.9 net rating in CP3-but-no-Harden minutes. And while Houston’s margin has been even bigger in Harden-no-CP3 floor time, it’s been an astronomical plus-17.6 points-per-100 when they’ve shared the floor, the 10th-best mark of any duo to log at least 400 minutes together since mid-February. This was the model the Rockets relied on last season: an all-world creator, pick-and-roll facilitator, and isolation shot-maker at the wheel at all times, and, for large chunks of the game, two of them. With Paul struggling and hurt, Harden had to go galactic. Now that he’s back and healthy, he’ll be able to take some of that burden from the Beard.

Another heartrending late-season injury, and one world-historic 3-point freeze-up, kept Paul and the Rockets from playing for last season’s championship. But the guard is only going to get older, more expensive, and harder to build around, especially on a team that seems adamant about avoiding the repeater tax; this could be his last chance. Can he help Harden get all the way to the finish line this time? Or will one of the greatest players of his generation once again come up short?

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

After a franchise-shaking first-round sweep at the hands of the Pelicans last year, and a summer in which its most notable additions were Sauce Castillo and the top search result for “the other curry,” Portland seemed to be on the precipice of sliding down the Western pecking order. And even if that didn’t wind up being true—and it didn’t, as the Blazers topped 50 wins and secured home-court advantage in Round 1—there still really wasn’t much they could do to change anybody’s mind about who they were.

Barring some miraculous push for 70 wins, or the addition of a legit superstar at the trade deadline, Portland would still look like the same old “pretty good” squad that executes its way to a high regular-season win total before bowing down to better talent. Only in the playoffs could the Blazers prove they’re something different—to us, and to themselves. “We’re really looking forward to that opportunity to redeem ourselves,” Lillard told SB Nation’s Paul Flannery last month.

For a second there, it looked like they might be able to make the most of it, running and gunning and pushing Denver and Houston for the West’s no. 2 seed ... and then Jusuf Nurkic shattered his left leg going for a double-overtime rebound, only one week after CJ McCollum suffered a popliteus strain in his left knee. (McCollum will be available to start Round 1, though he didn’t quite look 100 percent in his first two games after coming back; Nurkic will be on the shelf for a long, long time.) Just like that, the Blazers’ chances of making the franchise’s first Western Conference finals since 2000 seemed to vanish.

Another exit before the conference finals wouldn’t necessarily tar Lillard’s reputation. He’s still a three-time All-NBA selection (and a virtual lock to add a fourth come season’s end) who ranks among the NBA’s most lethal pick-and-roll playmakers, and consistently earns praise as one of the league’s most valuable culture-setting leaders. But since his game- and series-winning buzzer-beater against the Rockets in Game 6 of 2014’s opening round, Lillard has struggled in the postseason, shooting just 38.5 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from 3-point range in 24 playoff games. In three of those seasons, the Blazers bowed out in five or fewer games; in 2016, the only other year of Lillard’s career in which they’ve advanced, they were down 2-1 before the Clippers lost superstars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin for the rest of the series.

The Blazers’ rough run of postseason luck isn’t all on Lillard’s shoulders; they were injured and outgunned against Memphis in 2015, ran into two buzzsaw Warriors teams in 2016 and 2017, and had a team-wide collapse against New Orleans last season. But it seems odd that a star so synonymous with performance in the clutch has gone five years without a signature postseason moment. Rightly or wrongly, Dame’s inability to push the Blazers further than they’re supposed to go in the playoffs contributes to the tendency to drop him down the rankings of the league’s best point guards below peers who might not be clearly superior players, but who have superior postseason résumés.

Lillard and Co. face a tough first-round matchup against Oklahoma City, which beat them four times during the regular season. Without two-way linchpin Nurkic, with McCollum still working his way back from the knee strain, and with little in the way of playoff-tested complementary scoring or playmaking in reserve, Lillard once again has his work cut out for him. But he also has an opportunity to gain some measure of redemption after last year and to burnish his bona fides as one of the sport’s most dangerous offensive players. The Blazers’ postseason survival may wind up coming down to Lillard setting fire to a very good defense all by himself. I’m down to tune in for that.

DeMarcus Cousins, Warriors

It took six-plus years of roiling dysfunction in Sacramento, a brief and career-altering stint in New Orleans, and a surprise phone call to Golden State GM Bob Myers, but Boogie’s finally set to make his first-ever playoff appearance. The big question: How will he fare on the sport’s grandest stage?

It’s been an up-and-down season for Cousins. After a year-long rehabilitation from a torn left Achilles tendon, he hit the ground running in his return to the court, looking like a seamless scoring and playmaking fit for a Warriors team that frankly didn’t need a whole lot of scoring help. But a post-All-Star stumble marked by disinterested and defective defense—including, notably, Cousins’s struggles in pick-and-roll coverage when drawn away from the rim—offered at least some cause for concern about how the four-time All-Star would hold up in postseason matchups against opponents who can gear their offensive attacks toward trying to exploit his lack of lateral quickness.

Since Cousins’s introduction to the lineup in mid-January, the Warriors have outscored opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court ... and by 8.8 points-per-100 when he’s off it, according to NBA.com/Stats’ lineup data. Overall, Golden State’s five-All-Stars lineup of Cousins, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green has been great, posting a plus-12.6 net rating. But among Warriors units to log at least 75 shared minutes, that’s only the fourth-best mark on the team, behind the Death Lineup that bumps Green to the 5 and moves Andre Iguodala to the wing, the season-long starting lineup with Kevon Looney at center, and the late-season model that plops prodigal Warrior Andrew Bogut into the middle. It’s not that the Boogiefied Warriors aren’t imposing; it’s that, as Ethan Strauss of The Athletic wrote earlier this week, lineups featuring him often seem like the third- or fourth-best option available to this particular team.

As the playoffs progress, though, that might not remain the case. The Warriors’ first opponent, the eighth-seeded Clippers, feature a pick-and-roll-heavy attack piloted by Sixth Man of the Year favorite Lou Williams and a center platoon of third-year surprise Ivica Zubac (thanks, Magic!) and ace reserve Montrezl Harrell—not the kind of low-block bruisers or defensive deterrents likely to cost head coach Steve Kerr much sleep, but potentially a matchup better suited to Looney, Bogut, or Green than the comparatively plodding Cousins. Beyond Round 1, though, Golden State’s path to a third-straight championship could include clashes with bigger, more physical, and more worrisome pivots.

Round 2 will bring a rim-wrecking shot-swatter, whether it’s Clint Capela of the Rockets or Rudy Gobert of the Jazz. And in the Western Conference finals, opponents could include mustachioed brick wall Steven Adams, sweet-shooting LaMarcus Aldridge, or playmaking savant Nikola Jokic; had Portland’s Nurkic not gone down, all four possible combatants would have presented Golden State with a thorny problem. And the four favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals could each pose their own issues in the middle, with Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, the Toronto tandem of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, and Boston’s Al Horford all boasting a shooting touch that can stretch an opposing defense to its breaking point, while Philly’s Joel Embiid is capable of smashing a coverage into submission down low.

The Warriors added Cousins to punish smaller, switch-heavy defenses like Houston’s, yes, but also to combat the biggest bads they might face along the way. Boogie has looked pretty damn good doing it of late, too, pounding Capela and the Rockets to the tune of 27 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists on March 13 …

... and thoroughly dominating Jokic on his way to 28 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists in a win over Denver on April 2:

If Cousins can do that while holding up in coverage for four rounds, he’ll be well on his way to the lucrative long-term contract he missed out on last summer due to the Achilles tear. The Warriors expect he can, and will; as Green put it recently, “Somebody else plays their best game with their center, and we play our best game? We will win. Simple as that.” Just how much Golden State’s best game against the best opponents actually features Boogie, though, remains to be seen.

Gordon Hayward, Celtics

It became exhausting, this season, trying to keep track of whether or not Hayward was back after returning from the broken left tibia and dislocated left ankle that cost him nearly all of his first season in Boston. It looked like it, and then it didn’t, and then it did, and then it didn’t; and that just sort of continued through winter and into spring, with the max-salaried swingman struggling to find consistency and stability in his comeback from the most crushing injury of his nine-year career.

When Hayward felt confident enough in his surgically repaired leg to attack off the bounce and explode to the basket, he resembled the All-Star who shined so brightly in Utah. When that self-belief waned, he became a “liability on both ends of the court” who sometimes disappeared from view entirely, leaving the Celtics and their fans wondering if the do-it-all playmaker they’d seen in Salt Lake City was gone for good. (For what it’s worth, Hayward told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan that Paul George said it took him “two full years before he could play freely” after suffering a similarly devastating leg injury in 2014.)

After 72 games and nearly 1,900 minutes, definitive answers still remain tough to come by. But the good news for Boston is that, as the regular season wrapped up, Hayward looked solid once again. Over the season’s final five weeks—a span interrupted by a short stay in the league’s concussion protocol—Hayward averaged 14.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 3.1 assists in 26.3 minutes per game. He shot 60 percent from the field during that stretch, headlined by a perfect 9-for-9 performance in a blowout win over the same Pacers team that the Celtics will face in Round 1.

Hayward was more aggressive in getting to the basket late in the season, too. Through March 4, he’d averaged 5.2 drives to the basket per game, kicked the ball out to a teammate on 48.4 percent of those forays into the paint, and shot just 44.8 percent on the field-goal attempts he did take. Over his final 14 games, though, he ratcheted things up, driving to the hoop 7.4 times a night, giving up the rock after penetration just 35 percent of the time, and shooting a scorching 68.3 percent on his takes. He also started to seem more comfortable taking body contact from would-be shot-blockers: During that 14-game stretch, Hayward shot 48 free throws compared to 130 field goal attempts, a free throw rate of .369, right in line with the mark from his All-Star season in Utah and miles above the .275 rate (which would’ve been a career low) he’d managed before his strong closing kick.

An assertive and bold Hayward—one actively looking to make plays for himself and others, rather than resigning himself to the corners in a complementary role—is a good thing for Boston. It means Kyrie Irving isn’t the only Celtic that Brad Stevens can rely on to create his own high-percentage shot; when Hayward scored 15 or more points this season, the Celtics were 17-4. If Hayward is on, Irving and Al Horford won’t need to shoulder as much responsibility for getting the Celtics into their sets, or finding good looks for their teammates; when he dished five or more assists, Boston was 12-5. Hayward also gives Stevens another reliable two-way contributor with the size and skill set to fit into any lineup. Even given all the peaks and valleys, Boston still outscored opponents by nearly two more points per 100 possessions with Hayward on the floor during the regular season than when he sat.

With every spotty performance and sound-bite pop-off, the Celtics have spent the last six months giving us reasons to doubt them. (The news that they’ll be without heart-and-soul guard Marcus Smart for at least the first round doesn’t help matters.) Hayward continuing his late-season surge in the playoffs, alongside a highly motivated Irving and a fully operational Horford, could provide a pretty compelling reason to believe that, after all that’s come before, Boston might yet have a shot at being the team so many envisioned.