You have questions? So do the teams still alive in the 2022 NBA Playoffs, and they’re still searching for those answers because nobody’s been eliminated yet.
Yes, this is where adjustments are made and strategies are tweaked and heads are being scratched, all because situations can change with every loss or even after a win.
As the conference finals beckon next week, here are some key questions confronting the remaining eight teams:
1. Does Luka Doncic need to pull a 2011 Nowitzki?
In some ways, what Luka is doing so far is on that level. At least Dirk had the benefit of some veteran teammates on that championship squad, players who were proven and at one point in their careers were among the best at their respective positions. Take, for example, the current coach of the Mavs: Jason Kidd was beyond his prime as Dirk’s point guard but a lock Hall of Famer.
Meanwhile, without Tim Hardaway Jr., Luka is working with a smattering of role players who are largely undistinguished: Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, Spencer Dinwiddie, Reggie Bullock, etc. Even Jalen Brunson, until the first-round against Utah, was just a solid role player. The Mavs had hoped Kristaps Porzingis would ride shotgun next to Luka but that didn’t exactly work out.
And while the Mavs won Game 4 despite Luka missing 16 of 25 shots, he needs to play like a superstar on fire to make the Suns nervous, which he’s capable of doing. He must steer clear of foul trouble and stay aggressive — and hope at least one of his teammates, if not more, take their own games to the next level. Meaning, a repeat of Game 4, if that’s possible.
2. What’s the drawback, if any, with small ball for the Warriors?
Crazy, but the Warriors have outscored the Grizzlies in the paint and out-rebounded them in this series. Golden State is getting away with it against the Grizzlies because Memphis lacks a low-post offensive threat — Jaren Jackson Jr. spends his time standing around the perimeter — and Steven Adams, just back from Health & Safety issues, has been a bad fit in this series.
The Warriors are matchup hell for Memphis when they go small because there’s no counter; the Grizzlies aren’t really trying to exploit the weakness, and maybe they can’t with the exception of Morant, who feasts in the paint. So if there’s a drawback, the Warriors likely won’t see it until the next round, assuming they advance and play the Suns. That’s when they’ll need to change or tweak the strategy because of Deandre Ayton if nothing else.
For now? The Warriors only need to shoot efficiently and also send an extra layer of defense in the paint against Morant to minimize any small-ball drawback issues. Otherwise, going small is delivering big results.
3. Who should be the No. 2 option for the Sixers?
Look, anyone who’s still pining for the return of that James Harden, despite the latest evidence, might be guilty of wishful thinking. Unless, of course, you think his Game 4 was a turning point. Does that erase all the previous games he played, when he never attempted 20 shots and didn’t score 20 points in five of he previous nine? Harden’s game is game now is facilitating, not shooting a bunch of shots and going iso all day.
For some reason, that style doesn’t appear to be in Harden’s makeup on a nightly basis. Therefore: For as long as the Sixers are alive in the playoffs, their best chances lie with Harden making plays for others, and primarily Tyrese Maxey, who (for better or worse) is Philly’s most efficient and willing shooter after Joel Embiid. Harden can still break down his man off the dribble, as he showed Sunday, and when that happens, he’ll first look to draw contact or go for a layup.
Absent of that, the Sixers must hope Harden finds an open man and that such player actually hits the jumper. It’s not the most ideal situation involving Harden, but here we are.
4. Can Jayson Tatum get his offense on track?
Milwaukee’s defense on all the Celtics has been terrific. When a team is making Boston work on almost every possession, it only underlines how important Tatum’s production is. If he struggles, chances are high the Celtics will labor; Tatum is a combined 10-for-37 shooting in the two losses to Milwaukee.
This is a player who’s been on a scoring tear since January, and even better, became more efficient. (Remember those maddening hot-cold Tatum games in the early season?) If Tatum is rolling, then the Bucks’ defense must adjust and throw more doubles his way. When he’s chilly, then Milwaukee can respect others. It’s really that simple.
Actually, Boston should be thankful Grant Williams has taken his game up a notch (defensively as well) and Al Horford is defying age. How long can either hold up? Conventional basketball wisdom says Tatum will, or at least should, shake free eventually. He’s extremely prideful and takes it personally when the shots don’t fall. The problem: He already has a pair of offensive no-shows. He can’t afford another, not against this team. The Bucks and Celtics are so evenly matched that neither can afford a disappearing act by their superstar. If Tatum throws bricks again, the Celtics better hope Giannis does as well, and good luck with that.
5. Are the Suns more vulnerable than we thought?
Yes, it’s true the Suns for the second straight time are tied 2-2 against flawed teams (Pelicans, Mavs). But they needed six games to beat the Lakers and Clippers last season. And here’s reason for optimism heading into Game 5: The Suns haven’t lost three straight games all season, and Chris Paul just endured a rare back-to-back for him — fouling out of one playoff game and getting seven turnovers in the other. What are the chances of that happening again?
Assuming that basketball sanity takes over and the Suns advance to the next round, that’s when their margin for error begins to close, especially if, as expected, they encounter the Warriors. That’s when the Suns must deliver to the degree they did during the regular season, when they were clearly the most dominant team in basketball. With the exception of Paul, most of Phoenix’s other vital signs are solid: Devin Booker’s scoring, Deandre Ayton’s inside work and Mikal Bridges’ defense are all intact.
6. How much longer can the Bucks survive without Khris Middleton?
It says much about the greatness of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the stability of Jrue Holiday, that the Bucks aren’t on the wrong side of the series with the Celtics. Understand that Boston was the hottest team in the league when this semifinal began, and the Bucks were, and are, handicapped without Middleton, who’s dealing with a hyperextended knee.
Well, so far, so good: Giannis has been relatively solid at both ends and Holiday’s defense has helped neutralize the Celtics. But this margin for error remains narrow for the Bucks; remember that Giannis needed 42 points for a Game 3 home win that came down to the buzzer. And in Game 1, the Celtics played their worst game in months and essentially handed over the win.
More important is that nobody has really filled the void left by Middleton. Pat Connaughton, Grayson Allen and Brook Lopez have all been inconsistent on the perimeter this series. And it’s really deeper than that; Middleton isn’t afraid to take the big shot in crucial minutes, so when he’s on the floor, the defense must respect him. Therefore, aside from his points (and underrated defense), Middleton’s presence is crucial.
In Milwaukee’s last few possessions in a tight Game 3 finish, Connaughton missed badly on a pair of open 3-pointers after Giannis drew the double team. Chances are fairly good that Middleton makes at least one of those shots — and after those misses, Connaughton wanted no part of the ball again. (It landed in the hands of Holiday, who made the game-deciding floater.) The longer Middleton sits, the more the Bucks play with fire.
7. Can the Grizzlies get their regular-season mojo back?
Memphis won 56 games, one shy of the franchise record, finished with the second-best record in the West and defied all realistic projections. In other words, the surprising Grizzlies earned plenty of applause in what was clearly a developmental step forward for the young team.
Still, we really haven’t seen that Memphis team since mid-April; the dominant runs and convincing wins have diminished greatly. Remember, if not for some dreadful late-game collapses by the mistake-prone Timberwolves, the Grizzlies would’ve trailed 3-1 in the first round. And it took a superhuman effort by Ja Morant (47 points) to get their lone win so far against the Warriors.
It’s possible that Memphis was a nice regular-season story, and if that’s the case, no shame in that. This just proves, for progressing teams like Memphis, how tricky the next step can be, especially against a championship-proven team like Golden State. But back to the question: Can they recapture their flex? It’s not totally out of the question.
Morant needs to be healthy, for one, after injuring his knee Saturday. They need Jaren Jackson Jr.’s A-game, plus better help from streaky Desmond Bane and an energetic rebound from Brandon Clarke, who was so instrumental in the first round. Also, since he’s coming off a one-game suspension, it would help if Dillon Brooks made amends with a big Game 4 performance Monday.
8. Whatever happened to Duncan Robinson with the Heat?
He’s buried on the bench because, in a nutshell, he stopped doing what he does best. Actually, the only thing he does best. And when that happens, he’s unplayable, much like Davis Bertans, another 3-point specialist, currently getting very little run in Dallas.
When the league drifted toward 3-point-mania, certain players found themselves in demand and, as a result, struck it big financially. As one of the more efficient shooters in the league, Bertans signed for $16 million a season in Washington two summers ago, then subsequently saw his percentage nosedive and quickly found himself on the bench — and soon after that, out of town.
There’s the fear that Robinson is a carbon copy. His story is rather remarkable, how few colleges wanted him after high school, then he went undrafted, became an important rotational player in Miami the last few years and even started 67 games this season before being replaced by Max Strus last month. After shooting over 40% in his first two seasons and being a regular starter, Robinson signed for five years and $90 million last summer.
His playoff status could change if Miami advances to the next round, but this reads as a cautionary tale for teams: Beware of paying big for one-dimensional shooters.
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