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Five Questions, Skipping Ahead in the NBA Playoffs

Plenty of things can change in the second leg of a best-of-seven, but with most of the front-runners established in each respective series, perhaps it’s time to ponder what’s on the horizon for the teams in position to advance to the second round (and beyond)

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

None of the first-round series have ended yet, but we’re far enough along that we can start prognosticating about what might unfold in potential matchups ahead. To that end, here are five questions inspired by the action we’ve seen thus far.

Is the Spurs’ future rosier than we’d imagined?

“I think he’s going to be a star,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs, I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player.”

These words were uttered in 2012, after Kawhi Leonard put the league on notice with a startlingly well-rounded rookie campaign at only 20 years old. Though you’d be forgiven for thinking it might’ve slipped out of Pop’s mouth after Thursday’s star-making 36-point night from second-year guard Derrick White in San Antonio’s 118-108 win against Denver in Game 3. While Kawhi had Pop speaking with effusive earnestness, White’s night garnered more customary Popovichean sarcasm. “Eh,” he told reporters. “He’s OK.”

It’s happening again, as if there were any doubt: The Spurs are back. Phantom limbs in San Antonio don’t linger long before they’re replaced. But how do you replace Kawhi, whose game-breaking isolation skills gave the team a radical sense of what it could be in a post-Duncan world? For the Spurs, the answer is, you don’t. You go back to the formula that helped establish your ironclad culture to begin with, and you find a player who might be able to inherit those lessons and bring them into the modern era. You find a player like White, whose path to the NBA is as unlikely as any.

NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at San Antonio Spurs
Derrick White
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

White has been the biggest revelation of the Nuggets-Spurs series and has thoroughly outplayed his more lauded Denver counterpart in the first three games. He is averaging 23 points on 69 percent shooting, 4.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.3 steals, and 0.7 blocks in just under 31 minutes thus far. There is something uncanny about the way he plays, as if he is a walking palimpsest of Spurs perimeter stars past—he attacks closeouts with the resolve of Manu Ginobili; shifts his speed and weight on hesitations and spins like Tony Parker; and has the understated, gliding athleticism of a young Kawhi. He’s hasn’t proved himself to consistently reach those levels, but he is, at the very least, stylistic soul food for the Spurs faithful.

The Spurs have a chance to make some real noise this season given the side of the bracket they’re on, but for the first time in a long time, it’s feels more fun to imagine their future. Dejounte Murray, who missed the entire season recovering from a torn ACL, is back to throwing down windmill dunks in practice. He and White figure to be the Spurs’ backcourt of the future, a tandem that would give the Spurs at least three capable ball handlers (including DeMar DeRozan) in the starting lineup in an era when teams are rightfully jamming as many creators in a single lineup as possible.

Both DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are likely to hit free agency in 2021. Murray will be 24 then; White will be 26. The Spurs will keep winning for as long as Popovich chooses to coach the team; it’s what they do. Things could change immensely two years from now. But if White stays on the course he’s set for himself, the Spurs will have a tether to their past.

Is this the best shot the Rockets have at winning it all?

Houston isn’t killing Utah, it’s killing time. The Jazz simply do not have the personnel to escape what has been an existential submission hold by the Rockets over the course of a seven-game series. James Harden and Co. create weak links in a defense only to mow them down. The airtight way to beat Houston is to ensure that each defender can ably guard any of the five potential players in front of him; oh, and they also have to be able to hit a lot of 3s on the other end of the floor. The Jazz are not built to do either, let alone both.

No one could fault the Rockets for looking ahead, not when their potential upcoming opponent is the bane of Houston GM Daryl Morey’s existence. While it may be anticlimactic seeing the Warriors and Rockets, the two best teams in the West, face off in the second round, it’ll also be refreshing to know that both teams will be unburdened by the fatigue that sets in the deeper teams go in the postseason. Chris Paul is averaging career playoff lows in minutes per game; Harden hasn’t played this little since he was a sixth man for Oklahoma City seven years ago. For a team that has seen burnout become a primary catalyst in its narrative of failure year after year, there might be some optimism in the fact that they’ll get to go up against the best with fresh legs.

The Rockets are 8-6 against the Warriors since the start of last season, including the playoffs, and have won the regular-season series in both 2017-18 and 2018-19. Houston knows how to beat Golden State, but there is precious little margin for error against a team that boasts two of the greatest players in NBA history in their prime. Wrinkles that the Rockets anticipated during the regular season will no longer be applicable—for instance, there will be no DeMarcus Cousins to exploit in the pick-and-roll. Golden State is not a team that will fold to the same strategies deployed over and over, anyway. Houston should feel confident in its roster construction; Harden has taken on a historic workload this season, but the team as a whole, ironically, has more creators ready to moonlight as primary options against the second unit than it did last year—and might be just as versatile defensively. If there were ever a year for Harden, Paul, and Mike D’Antoni to break through, this is it.

Just past the Warriors is the light at the end of the tunnel. The Rockets don’t have an unfavorable matchup in any of the potential Western Conference finals series. Make it to the Finals, and anything can happen. But it starts with the one team Houston was constructed to beat. Live through this and you won’t look back.

Has anything changed our outlook on the East’s best team?

The two most compelling series in the entire playoffs might both happen in the second round. With the Bucks and Celtics both taking a commanding 2-0 lead in their respective series against the Pistons and Pacers, a proving ground has appeared before Milwaukee. What does the league’s best regular-season team look like against a Celtics team that might be the closest Eastern Conference facsimile to the Warriors?

The Bucks still have the biggest trump card out East, which is to say they still have Giannis Antetokounmpo out in front, and he is plowing a direct path to the Finals by virtue of being the best player on the floor every single night. Al Horford would likely receive a sizable share of possessions on Antetokounmpo, especially when he spends time at the center position, but the task as a whole would likely fall under community watch. Semi Ojeleye, who has logged exactly 28 seconds of playing time in the first two playoff games against Indiana, could be a regular fixture in the rotation after playing solid defense on Giannis in last year’s first-round matchup that went to seven games. The Bucks found a mini-breakthrough halfway through that series by thrusting Thon Maker, a floor-spacing big man, into the rotation, which gave Giannis more room to breathe. That shouldn’t be an issue this time around; Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has devised his whole game plan around maximizing the amount of space Giannis has to himself.

In Horford, the Bucks will be able to game-plan for a versatile big man who can space the floor, facilitate, and defend all areas the way both Draymond Green and Kevin Durant are capable of doing; in Kyrie Irving, they’ll be able to formulate a plan around a hyper-efficient scoring point guard capable of shooting from anywhere, whose bag of tricks off screens and dribble handoffs has diversified not quite to Steph Curry levels, but enough to make life frustratingly difficult. There is no doubt that the Bucks have what it takes to make the Finals, but how they handle the next stage will tell us a lot about how ready they are for the ultimate challenge.

Does Joel Embiid’s status affect a potential Sixers run against the Raptors?

The Sixers’ resounding Game 3 win over the Nets was wish fulfillment for certain corners of the Ringer office. Out of necessity, Philadelphia coach Brett Brown turned to Ben Simmons and let him loose, deploying him as a playmaking center with Embiid managing his knee soreness on the sideline. It was as glorious as you’d imagine: Simmons’s athleticism made him a terror as the roll man in the two-man game, allowing him to make plays on the move or get directly to the rim. It helped that Tobias Harris, who’d been missing in action for much of the final regular-season stretch, caught fire from behind the arc. Without Embiid, the Sixers asked Simmons to be their Giannis, and he delivered.

The Nets are too scrappy a team to give up without a fight, but it seems as though Brown might have finally realized the significant talent disparity between the two teams, and how to leverage that, even with his most notable star off the floor. Sixers GM Elton Brand has seemingly banked on the theory that talent trumps continuity, as evidenced by his bold trades during the season, and while the Nets have chipped away at that notion, the Raptors, who likely await the Sixers in the next round, would be a significant litmus test.

Both Toronto and Philly have a shocking scarcity of depth given their status as conference elites, but their issues manifest in almost opposite ways. Both teams lack wing depth, but that’s where the similarities end. Among the nine Sixers players who have averaged at least 15 minutes per game in the playoffs, their average height is around 6-foot-9. Of the eight Raptors players in Nick Nurse’s playoff rotation, their average height is 6-foot-6. The Sixers, even when downsizing, are often way bigger than their opponents. The Raptors, who were dealt a crushing hand before the start of the playoffs when second-year forward OG Anunoby was ruled out until at least the conference finals due to an emergency appendectomy, have had to turn to two-PG lineups that are susceptible to length.

What I’m most curious about in this potential matchup is just how much of a factor Embiid will play, whether he steps on the court or not. While Marc Gasol is no longer the individual defender he once was, he might be uniquely suited to exploit a hobbled Embiid’s hubris in the post: Gasol stonewalled Embiid in the Grizzlies’ two games against the Sixers this season. Should Embiid sit out games in Toronto, Philly could easily run Gasol off the floor with Simmons in that 5 spot, which would force some uncomfortable adjustments on Nurse’s end. Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard playing extended minutes at center and power forward, respectively, is an NBA nerd fantasy, and both have done well defensively on Simmons during the regular season. The potential series could very well come down to which team expends all of its resources first.

Will the Blazers be the high-variance conference finals dark horse?

As promising as the Spurs’ future suddenly looks, of the teams in the non-Warriors side of the bracket, there is only one team that feels destined for the now. Damian Lillard has put on a long-range clinic in the first two games against the Thunder, taking roughly the same amount of 3s per game (9.5) as Steph Curry while shooting at a higher clip (47.4 percent) than Harden. Running mate CJ McCollum isn’t far behind, averaging 28.5 points per game, hitting 42.9 percent of his seven 3s per game. There isn’t a starting backcourt attempting more 3s per game than the Blazers’ in these playoffs, and it’s honestly a wonder they aren’t shooting more of them.

These are the Blazers we thought we were getting out of last year’s feel-good, 3-seeded Portland team—before the constant blitzing pressure from Jrue Holiday and one of the Pelicans’ mobile bigs made life a living hell on the perimeter. The Thunder haven’t yet been able to replicate that winning defensive formula given their personnel, and it’s unclear whether any of the other teams in the bracket have the horses to do it, either—and the team that might (Denver) is currently showing its inexperience in a big way against the Spurs.

While losing Jusuf Nurkic late in the season to a gruesome leg injury has affected the Blazers’ ceiling, the team’s depth and versatility could be a boon should they make it to the second round and beyond. At some point, Enes Kanter’s defensive deficiencies will be picked apart, and the team will have to find ways to mitigate the damage by relying on the two-way role players that surround the Blazers’ fire-and-brimstone backcourt. Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, in another timeline, are quintessential Mike D’Antoni small-ball 5s. Zach Collins has yet to earn the respect of coach Terry Stotts, but he adds a unique element to the team as the only true center capable of both mobile rim protection and floor spacing. They’ll need a little bit of everything.

Portland was caught in matchup hell for the past two seasons, but luck has finally turned in its favor. The Blazers have the offensive firepower from behind the arc to turn entire series into games of chance—which is all you can hope for as an underdog—and the versatility to match up against the positionally fluid death lineups that both the Warriors and Rockets trot out. They might be the best hope at a compelling Western Conference finals series. Let’s hope their run of luck lasts long enough.