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One Defining Question for Each Second-Round NBA Playoff Series

How much can Joel Embiid give the Sixers against the Celtics? Can Phoenix generate enough easy offense to keep up with Denver? We’re previewing the conference semifinals by answering one burning question about every matchup.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The 2023 NBA playoffs are off to quite the roaring start: an all-time classic seven-game series topped with a 50-point bow; an upset so unthinkable that it prompted an examination of the very concept of failure; one of the league’s most hated players embarking on a series of self-owns so egregious that they became a kind of performance art; incredible showings from the Knicks, who clobbered their way out of the first round for just the second time since 2000, and from Knicks fans, who are only getting stronger; a legend-making run from Jimmy Butler; injuries to elite players that altered the entire postseason landscape; and enough breaks in the field to set up an even more fascinating second round.

The best basketball is yet to come. To set the table, let’s wade through all four series by answering one defining question for each.

Can Phoenix generate enough easy offense to keep up with Denver?

Every Suns game is an exhibition of pure shotmaking ability—a duet from two of the most unstoppable creators in the sport as they convert every look imaginable. Kevin Durant draws multiple defenders on virtually every play, and it doesn’t make a lick of difference. Devin Booker will sprint his way through an entire possession before knocking down a leaning jumper with a hand in his face. That kind of scoring is as invaluable as it is impressive. Yet Phoenix might be better off in this series if it didn’t have to rely quite so much on being impressive—seeing as Durant and Booker combined for 56 points on 58 percent shooting in Game 1, and even those superhuman efforts couldn’t save the Suns from getting blown out by the Nuggets.

Slowing down Denver’s offense would go a long way toward equalizing the series, but also, good luck with that. You do your best to mitigate Nikola Jokic’s playmaking, you try to prevent Jamal Murray from heating up again, and you track every cutter and shooter you can as they spiral around the floor. Your best defensive efforts might work sometimes, but often, they won’t; Phoenix doesn’t have the personnel to be a great defensive team, but it can be good enough. It ultimately might be more crucial for the Suns to find ways to make their own scoring efforts a bit less arduous. Phoenix can trust that Durant and Booker will largely hit difficult shots at improbably high rates. After all, it’s what they do. Winning this series, however, could depend on whether the Suns can supplement all those contested midrange jumpers with the kind of easy, filler offense that carries teams through games and series.

How can you leverage the attention that Durant and Booker draw to get more dump-off passes and open dunks for Deandre Ayton? (OK, open layups.) It’s challenging with the way Denver is rotating and switching, but it’s far from impossible. How can you string out Jokic in coverage to get a clear path to the basket more often? This Nuggets defense acclimated well to start the series, but it’s not exactly impenetrable. Denver was one of the most turnover-prone teams this season but coughed it up only nine times in Game 1. Is there no way to ramp up the pressure just a bit to see whether they get sloppy? Can you save Durant the trouble of a turnaround jumper by getting a fast break instead?

Even a team with god-level shooting inside the arc will have difficulty overwhelming an opponent that can generate as many clean 3-point looks as the Nuggets do. But there will be moments in this series when Denver’s role players don’t convert, when Murray goes a bit cold, and when all of the Nuggets’ movement fails to turn up much of anything. And when that happens, the Suns can tilt the balance of the series with both their impeccable shotmaking and their capacity to turn their toughest shots into something more.

How much does Joel Embiid have to give?

The most fascinating on-paper matchup of the second round is compromised—because the best player in the series is compromised. As Doc Rivers tells it, Embiid is doubtful to play in the Sixers’ opening game against the Celtics on Monday night, and he hasn’t been participating on the floor in practices since spraining his LCL some 11 days ago. That is a blow not only to Philadelphia’s chances in this series, but also to the contrast in styles that would have made this series compelling.

Instead of trying to figure out how Boston will reckon with the force and finesse of the likely MVP (which will be officially announced on Tuesday), we’re left to wonder how much Embiid will be able to contribute to this series at all. It’s a familiar circumstance for the Sixers, but with that comes the silver lining of knowing that Embiid can impact a game when he’s not 100 percent. Even after spraining his knee in Game 3 against the Nets, Embiid rose to the occasion for what was effectively a series-ending block in crunch time. He’s played postseason games through other knee injuries, a torn ligament in his hand, a broken bone in his face, and an energy-sapping illness. And in most instances, he still commanded double-teams and made singular plays that no other Sixer could.

The trouble in this case is that even a healthy Embiid would have his hands full with Boston’s full-strength defense. The last time these two teams met, Embiid dropped 52 points on the Celtics in a signature performance—in a game Robert Williams III and Jaylen Brown both missed due to injuries. Philadelphia won by two. Boston won all three of the other head-to-head matchups by an average of just six points, all within the margin of error for two division rivals who know each other well. After so many battles, the Sixers and Celtics understand how to flex their advantages and push one another. But so much of that tactical balance revolves around Embiid—where he’s positioned, whom he’s guarding, and how on earth you’ll stop him.

Many of those tactical considerations will still apply if Embiid is healthy enough to return at some point in the series. It’s a bummer, but that’s where the intrigue lies now. That’s what has become of a powerhouse matchup between two of the best teams in the league. There’s always an outside chance that a Celtics group prone to losing focus could fail to take the Sixers seriously or that James Harden could shrug off some of his playoff demons to have a huge game in a big moment. (I did say an outside chance.) Until then, the most dramatic moments of this series could be in the Sixers’ league-mandated medical update.

Will the Warriors or the Lakers wear down first?

This isn’t just a long-awaited playoff rematch between Steph Curry and LeBron James—it’s a showdown in which 35-year-old Steph Curry and 38-year-old LeBron James will go up against the attrition of a long, hard-fought series. Starting Tuesday, these two veteran teams will play every other day until one crashes. It took seven grueling games for the Warriors to finally dispatch the Kings—and along the way, they sometimes looked the part of the older, slower team against their up-and-coming foils. You could say the same of the Lakers, who looked absolutely dominant in their wins against the Grizzlies and pretty rickety in their losses. Both teams made powerful statements in their closeout games to get to this point, but it’s fair to wonder what kind of condition they might be in by Game 4 or 5.

Even the marquee matchup is a bit misleading, seeing as James is playing on a foot that will almost certainly require offseason surgery—and he looks it. A one-legged GOAT can clearly still control a playoff series against an opponent like Memphis, but you would never mistake the version of LeBron on the floor in that series—camped out well beyond the arc, declining to attack lesser defenders off the dribble—with the player who last had a playoff bout with Curry in 2018. James has help and wouldn’t be advancing to the second round without it. Yet the Warriors might be the worst possible opponents to play when you’re dragging around an injured foot. They also might be the most taxing, whether you’re checking Draymond Green as he runs through handoff after handoff or Kevon Looney while he tracks down every offensive rebound. James was already deferring to not only Anthony Davis (who tends to wear down with nagging injuries himself), but also Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, and Dennis Schröder. If this is a long, competitive series, a living legend might really start to show his age.

Curry is looking a bit sprier, as his 50 points in Game 7 against Sacramento can attest. Yet the Lakers have posted the second-best defensive rating in the playoffs for a reason: They’re physical, they’re deep, and they have significantly more length across the board than a guard-heavy team like the Kings. Driving on Davis hits a bit different than driving on Domantas Sabonis, both literally and figuratively. It’s safe to assume that the propulsive force behind the Warriors’ entire offense will hit the floor more often in the second round than he did in the first, if only because the Lakers are so much more willing and better equipped to challenge Curry’s forays to the rim. Davis is an absolute terror, and he might be on the best defensive run of any player in the postseason. When Jarred Vanderbilt isn’t hounding ball handlers, he’s lurking. James may be chilling on defense, but he’s still good to obliterate a shot or two every game. It can be a grind trying to score on these Lakers, and seven games of that could wear on Steph—along with Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and the already-in-a-rut Jordan Poole. The Warriors are the better, more complete team—but only if they don’t wear down first.

Can the Heat keep the Knicks out of the paint?

Some series are about matchups. Others are about geography. Who defends Jalen Brunson is less important for the Heat than whether they can collectively stop the Knicks’ shifty lead guard from working into the lane, where he’s always a pump fake or a pivot away from getting his patented floater off. In Game 1, that effort sometimes involved tasking Jimmy Butler—who, on top of being a gutsy playoff scorer of the highest order, rates as Miami’s best wing defender—with checking Brunson directly. At other times, it meant moving Butler elsewhere so he could rove into plays as they developed. New York scored 62 points in the paint anyway, but crowding those attempts made it harder for the Knicks to keep their offense humming and encouraged a collection of shaky perimeter shooters to fire away.

There’s a winning formula there for Miami, achievable through a variety of defensive schemes and styles. Erik Spoelstra even worked in some zone. Yet as the Heat try to control the paint for the rest of the series, they might have to figure out ways to do so without asking quite so much of Butler—who was practically immobilized by an ankle injury in the fourth quarter of Game 1. Butler limped through the final minutes of the game, but inexplicably, the Knicks never really tested his mobility. It’s the kind of strategic error a frazzled team can make in the heat of the moment but wouldn’t make again after a few days of watching film and game-planning. If Butler is on the floor, New York will drag him into the action and see what he’s capable of.

How Butler fares could set the terms for the next stage of the series. An ankle sprain this brutal is no joke; just ask Julius Randle, who was sidelined by his own sprain and missed Game 1 entirely. Even if Butler can suit up, he’ll be a target. A hobbled Butler is a considerable test for the faculties of a Heat team that is already without Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo, particularly when the Knicks apply so much pressure inside. The drives never stop. It’s about containing not just Brunson, but also all the action he creates by getting into the lane in the first place. If the Heat aren’t careful, adjusting to contain the ball could spring New York’s bigs loose for rolls to the rim and free points. There’s always a give and take, and if Butler isn’t able to fly around the floor with the same abandon he showed in Game 1, he could be a hitch in the defensive pressure and rotation that allowed the Heat to keep the Knicks under control.