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The Biggest Question for Each NBA Second-Round Series

As each series moves to a new city, we’re looking at the X factors that will shape the rest of the conference semifinals

Clint Capela, Kyrie Irving, Jamal Murray, and Pascal Siakam Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Each series in the second round of the 2019 NBA playoffs has completed two games. Three matchups—Bucks vs. Celtics and Raptors vs. 76ers in the East, Nuggets vs. Trail Blazers out West—are knotted at one game apiece, while the two-time-defending-champion Warriors hold a 2-0 edge over the Rockets in their much-anticipated (and, so far, kind of disappointing) rematch of last season’s Western Conference finals.

With each series headed to a pivotal Game 3—fun fact: all sportswriters must refer to Game 3s as “pivotal” or else risk excommunication from the field, per the grim dictates of the Elder Gods of Purple Prose—let’s take a look at one major question looming over each matchup, starting with Thursday’s affair in the City of Brotherly Love:

Will Pascal Siakam figure it out?

After watching Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam torch his 76ers in Game 1, Brett Brown decided to juggle the team’s defensive matchups before Game 2. Those changes—moving Ben Simmons onto Leonard and Jimmy Butler onto Kyle Lowry; sliding Joel Embiid onto Siakam and putting Tobias Harris on Marc Gasol—paid major dividends, short-circuiting Toronto’s offense in an ugly first quarter that allowed the Sixers to build an early lead that they’d never relinquish.

Leonard eventually got himself going, finishing with 35 points on 13-for-24 shooting to go with seven rebounds, six assists, and just one turnover in 42 minutes of floor time. But Siakam—one of the most improved and interesting players in the league this season, who averaged 22.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 3.0 assists in Toronto’s five-game pasting of the Magic in Round 1, and who’d poured in 29 on 15 shots in the Raptors’ Game 1 win over Philly—never really did. Siakam needed 25 shots to notch 21 points. He spent much of the game attempting awkward in-between floaters and push shots lofted tentatively over the arms of the 7-foot Embiid:

Siakam shot just 6-for-17 in Game 2 on plays where Embiid served as his primary defender, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. He seemed ill at ease when Embiid and the Sixers let him step into open 3-pointers up top; this was a choice, as Siakam shot 41.5 percent from the corners during the regular season, but only 27 percent from above the break.

“I think I was just rushing a little bit and then I missed a lot of shots, shots that I would take again,” he told Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun after the game. “So I think that’s on me mostly and maybe just not kind of going, like rushing early in the game. I felt like I did a little bit, but it’s part of growing and part of learning.”

If Brown’s going to stick with those defensive matchups when the series shifts to Philadelphia, the Raptors will need this particular segment of Siakam’s growth to bend back toward efficiency in a hurry. If Embiid’s determined to sag off of Siakam, Nick Nurse might look to deploy his versatile forward more as an off-ball screener or dribble-handoff hub to pop other teammates free for more open looks. Siakam’s individual efficiency might not matter quite as much if his teammates can knock down a few more of those; in Game 2, Raptors not named Leonard and Siakam shot just 7-for-28 on attempts charted as “uncontested” in NBA.com’s tracking data.

But relying on role players to come through on the road in the playoffs can be a dicey proposition; that’s when teams need their stars to shine brightest. Leonard’s going to find his way to a crooked number no matter how many Sixers stand between him and the basket. It’s on Siakam to give him help by shooting well enough to make Brown think twice about sticking with Embiid in the matchup and proving that he’s crossed over that “role player/star” line for good.

Can Al Horford and Kyrie Irving regain control?

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks got going in a major way in Game 2, outscoring the Celtics 98-72 over the final three quarters and burying Boston beneath a barrage of 3-pointers and Giannis’s relentless march. Watching Milwaukee, especially during that 39-18 avalanche of a third quarter, you got the feeling that the Bucks believed they’d broken through. Now, we find out whether Boston’s top stars can break back.

After controlling Game 1 as much with his facilitating as with his peerless shot-making, Irving never found his rhythm in Game 2, flustered by a switching Bucks defense that sought to keep him out of the lane. Point guards George Hill and Eric Bledsoe saw the bulk of the Irving assignment, but bigger defenders like Khris Middleton, Antetokounmpo, and Pat Connaughton also picked Irving up higher on the floor than they did in Game 1, trying to prevent him from getting a head of steam. The results were everything Mike Budenholzer could’ve asked for, with Kyrie scoring just nine points on 4-for-18 shooting with three turnovers and just four assists.

Having spent Game 1 focusing on passing and Game 2 trying to get his jumper online, you wonder whether Irving might look to attack more off the bounce to try to get to the rim in Game 3. He told reporters after Tuesday’s loss that while the Bucks “did a great job of switching tonight, forcing me left,” he felt that “getting to the paint wasn’t hard; it’s just getting in there and making the right decisions.” A lot of times, the right decision is to make the simple play and kick out to an open shooter. Sometimes, though, the most unselfish thing a star playmaker can do is go make some magic and get some buckets to ease the pressure on everybody else.

“There were times, examples in the game where I could have slowed us down and got us into some sets we’ve gone to and attacked the switches, and especially when Khris and Nikola Mirotic are switching on me,” Irving told reporters. “That’s something, like, I’ve just got to go by them.”

Kyrie’s track record following a down game suggests he might just lean toward distribution in Game 3:

Irving and Horford repeatedly burned the Bucks defense with the pick-and-pop in Game 1. They still got some good looks out of it in Game 2, especially when Horford got to involve center Brook Lopez in the action—he shot 5-for-6 from the field, and 3-for-4 from 3-point range, when Lopez was his primary defender—but the Bucks’ switching helped stifle Boston’s attack. On a couple of possessions, though, Horford went old school after forcing the switch, taking a smaller defender into the post and going to work. It might not be the way Brad Stevens wants to run all of Boston’s offense, but with Horford’s size and savvy, it can be a pretty effective counter:

Coach Bud and the Bucks changed the terms of engagement in Game 2, taking away the Celtics’ bread-and-butter actions, forcing misses, and then ramming the ball down Boston’s throat before Horford and his help-defending teammates could get back in transition to build as formidable a wall against Giannis as they want to. After taking the one-two combo of Playoff Kyrie and Not-So-Average Al on the jaw, Milwaukee now seems ready to trade blows; it’ll fall to Irving and Horford to come up with a counterpunch that can knock the Bucks back on their heels.

Which Jamal Murray will the Nuggets get?

Nikola Jokic was a legitimate top-five MVP candidate during the regular season, and he’s been one of the standout performers of the 2019 playoffs, but he can’t win games by himself. (As evidence, I submit Game 6 of Denver’s first-round series against the Spurs.) The Nuggets need someone else to generate buckets and make defenses pay for loading up on Jokic, and all season long, the Confident Canadian has been Denver’s most critical complementary piece.

No single factor determines the outcome of most NBA games, but Murray’s offensive performance is a clear barometer for the Nuggets. Including the playoffs, Murray has made more than 45 percent of his field goal attempts in a game 40 times this season. In those games, the Nuggets are 31-9. The 28 times that he’s hit fewer than 40 percent from the field, though? They’re just 13-15. Denver has won every playoff game in which he’s scored 20 or more points, starting with his remarkable 21-point fourth quarter in Game 2 against San Antonio. And the Nuggets have lost every postseason contest in which he’s failed to crack 20, including Wednesday’s Game 2 against Portland, during which Murray struggled and put up just 15 points on 6-for-18 shooting.

That Murray can vacillate from scorching to sputtering is nothing new. Denver head coach Michael Malone and president of basketball operations Tim Connelly each told our Kevin O’Connor back in January that improving Murray’s consistency as a secondary source of offense alongside Jokic ranks as a top priority for the development of both the 22-year-old guard and the Nuggets as a franchise. But such growing pains can be tough to deal with in the heat of a second-round series, with a berth in the Western Conference finals on the line. Especially when the player experiencing them is also dealing with some physical pain.

Murray spent the end of the San Antonio series getting “around the clock” treatment on his left leg after Spurs center Jakob Poeltl caught him with a knee to the thigh on a screen in Game 6. After taking some more stiff screens early in Game 2 against the Blazers from big men Enes Kanter and Zach Collins, Murray again needed some work on the sideline—heat packs, this time on his right thigh—but was clearly limping as the game wore on. He gutted it out, hitting a 3-pointer and driving for a reverse layup in the final few minutes as the Nuggets tried to pull off a comeback, but he was visibly impaired; at times, he looked like he could barely move on either end of the court.

Maybe more treatment before Friday will have him ready to roll; he is, as one Nuggets source told Christian Clark of BSN Denver, “tough as fuck,” after all. But a guard with a bum leg can be exploited: The Blazers had success in Game 2 running Murray through screens off the ball, attacking him in isolation and on the block with bigger wings like Maurice Harkless and Rodney Hood, and forcing him to work against longer defenders on offense. Expect Terry Stotts to call for more of the same back in Portland—especially if Harkless, who left Game 2 after suffering a nasty right ankle sprain, can return to the lineup—as he looks to keep Denver’s most explosive scorer under pressure and under wraps. The Nuggets need everything Murray’s got to keep their hopes of making their first Western finals in a decade alive. As the dings pile up, though, the question becomes: How much does he have left to give?

Can Clint Capela play against the Warriors? If he can’t, what the hell does Houston do?

The thing about saying you want the Warriors is that then ... y’know … you get the Warriors.

Capela, a 24-year-old Swiss shot-blocker, has developed into one of the best screen-and-roll big men in the league over the past few seasons. He was a key part of Houston’s rotation in the 2018 Western Conference finals, averaging 10.3 points on 72.1 percent shooting and 10.7 rebounds in 28.5 minutes per game in a seven-game slugfest. But despite the double-double, those minutes weren’t necessarily effective; Golden State blew Houston’s doors off by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Capela on the floor. Through two games of the rematch, the story’s been largely the same, with Capela looking less like a linchpin and more like a millstone.

The Warriors have outscored the Rockets by 36 points in Capela’s 60 minutes of floor time, far and away the worst plus-minus mark for any Houston player. He was a virtual nonfactor in Game 1, instantly looking out of place against the small-ball Death Lineup that started Game 1. Capela’s stat line looked better in Game 2—14 points, 10 rebounds, two assists, two blocks—but the overall impact didn’t, as Draymond Green continued to vaporize any easy looks for him. The former Defensive Player of the Year has done a brilliant job of stunting toward James Harden in the pick-and-roll just long enough to make him commit to passing rather than shooting before perfectly timing his drops back into coverage to break up the lob passes on which the Rockets center typically feasts.

Without a steady diet of spoon-fed buckets, Capela’s offensive utility disappears quickly. Using him as a screener in the pick-and-roll just brings another defender up to bother Harden or Chris Paul. Planting him in the dunker spot makes it easier for the Warriors to shrink the floor and provide help on drives. A guy who has attempted three 3-pointers in 352 career regular- and postseason games isn’t going to suddenly start playing like a stretch-5. And without any real back-to-the-basket game to speak of, it’s not like Houston’s going to dump the ball in to Capela and let him try to post up a smaller guard. During the regular season, the Rockets scored 113.2 points per 100 possessions with Capela on the court. In Round 1 against Utah, they scored 112.4 points-per-100 in his minutes. Through two games against Golden State, that’s all the way down to a microscopic 92.4 points-per-100—and that doesn’t feel like an accident.

Making matters worse, Capela has struggled in coverage, too. He’s been dusted on switches and caught out of position in the screen game. The Warriors are shooting 71.4 percent at the rim when Capela’s been defending it, and thanks to Houston’s scheme often calling for him to switch out on ball handlers at the perimeter, the Rockets—already a bad defensive rebounding team—have pulled in only two-thirds of Golden State misses with him on the court.

Nene offered a surprisingly solid 13 minutes in Capela’s stead in Game 1, but Mike D’Antoni can’t rely on the Brazilian for consistent production at this stage of his career. Kenneth Faried, a player in the Capela mold, presents many of the same flaws and liabilities. Houston’s best, and perhaps only, answer to Golden State going small is to go even smaller, with the 6-foot-6 P.J. Tucker at center; the delightfully dubbed “Tuckwagon” units have outscored the Warriors by 13 points in 13 minutes over two games, which is too small a sample to be definitive, but certainly more encouraging than what Capela’s lineups have produced.

The problem there: finding the fifth player to ride the wagon with Tucker, Harden, Paul, and Eric Gordon. Iman Shumpert and Gerald Green can be an adventure. Austin Rivers leaves you extremely small. Danuel House might be the answer, but he was iffy in Game 1 and played just five minutes in Game 2; will D’Antoni trust him in a must-win Game 3? Beyond that, whichever fifth man Houston goes with, the Rockets can’t play those lineups for 48 minutes; Capela will have to play at least some significant minutes, and will have to play extremely well in them for Houston to turn the tide. He’s done it before. The Rockets’ season could depend on his ability to do it again.