2021 NBA Playoffs

Biggest question for every playoff team

One question for all 16 teams as the playoffs get underway.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

How will the Lakers’ supporting cast perform this time around?

The 16-team field is set, the ball is being tossed and the urgency begins. The NBA Playoffs are upon us, with intrigue and drama dropping nightly as the league makes the annual spring tightrope walk for two months to crown a champion.

Along the way, there are questions facing every team, no matter the seeding, which must be addressed at some point. The answers will determine how deep into summer each team is capable of traveling and also serve to entertain and inform the masses who have the good fortune to sit back and behold.

And so, here are the main questions confronting these teams, and we also take a stab at possible answers while raising the dilemmas and problems:


EASTERN CONFERENCE

 

Philadelphia 76ers: Will the lack of outside shooting cost Ben Simmons? In the playoffs, the court shrinks and the flow slows. This puts a premium on shooting because fast-break points are generally reduced. That said, when the ball reaches Simmons, can he make a bucket beyond 15 feet? There’s the assumption that Joel Embiid will park himself in the lane throughout the playoffs because he has no peer at center unless he sees Nikola Jokic in The Finals, and then that’s a good thing for the audience. Therefore, when he draws the double team, Seth Curry and Tobias Harris will handle the shooting load, but at some point the opposing defense will force Simmons to take chances with his jumper. He does a good job of not placing himself in those situations, and unless he suddenly gained confidence in his shot overnight, he’ll need to keep avoiding shots. Will that hurt the Sixers, or will it even matter at this point?

Brooklyn Nets: Can the Nets bring the defense? The Nets, who spent much of the season with a low ranking at preventing buckets, don’t need to be a great defensive team. They just need to be good enough — yes, that’s a vague description but it fits a Brooklyn team that’ll bring perhaps the greatest collection of offensive firepower seen in NBA history. With James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving as the core, and then adding Joe Harris and Blake Griffin as the opportunistic role players, the Nets can drop 140-150 points on just about anyone. They can win a title while surrendering 120 a night. Therefore, Brooklyn doesn’t need to be on lock-down defensively because few if any teams can keep up with the pace they’ll set. The Nets just need to make a handful of fourth-quarter stops and not allow opposing superstars to enjoy career nights.

Milwaukee Bucks: How much of a difference-maker is Jrue Holiday? There aren’t many guards who get more love from the basketball world than Holiday, whose arrival in Milwaukee was met with almost universal applause. There’s a reason; Holiday is a good defender, makes wise decisions and is a reliable source of offense. He fits the description of a “missing piece” and is a big upgrade over Eric Bledsoe. That said, Holiday has made only one All-Star team (eight years ago), never was All-NBA, made All-Defensive twice and won one playoff round (in which he was superb, by the way) with the Pelicans despite having Anthony Davis. He won his other against the Derrick Rose-less Bulls. Meanwhile, the Bucks just gave him an enormous contract extension and also sacrificed future No. 1 picks to pry him from New Orleans. Essentially, now is when we really get to see how good Holiday is, and whether he can accomplish two things: save Mike Budenholzer’s job and help Giannis Antetokounmpo finally get over the postseason hump.

What should we expect from the Knicks-Hawks series?

New York Knicks: Will the playoffs expose the inexperience of this feel-good New York story? Lost in the hoopla of the Knicks finally overcoming their recent history is the fact this isn’t a battle-tested team. None of the important players — Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks — have earned any stripes this time of year; only Derrick Rose has a history. Lucky for the Knicks, the same can be said for their first-round opponent, the Hawks. Still, when pressure builds, it’s a myth that everyone wants the ball. Actually, most players hide and defer to a chosen few teammates. In that sense, the Knicks, with only one All-Star in Randle, will be a study on how a team mainly comprised of role players will respond deep in the fourth quarter, when the score and the throat tightens.

Atlanta Hawks: Can Nate McMillan overcome his playoff history? McMillan by all accounts has done a wonderful job with the Hawks since taking over for Lloyd Pierce; a 27-11 record doesn’t lie. His coaching and the improved health of key players saved the season. The players are responding to him, he’s getting results, and McMillan is all but assured of getting a contract extension. The elephant in the room is 3-16. That’s his postseason record at his last stop, and he’d still be coaching the Pacers if the team managed to get beyond the first round on his watch, which it never did. This time, McMillan is going against Tom Thibodeau, who likewise has turned around the Knicks and is a finalist for Coach of the Year. Let’s see if McMillan, who has the more talented team in this first-round series, can devise a way to crack the Knicks’ vaunted defense, spring Trae Young free, and quiet all the playoff slander surrounding him.

Miami Heat: Can Miami rediscover the bubble magic? Whatever worked for Miami last fall when the Heat advanced to the NBA Finals (and won two games) has failed to return in generous doses. The Heat spent much of the 2020-21 season staggering back and forth, finally finding a groove late and securing a playoff spot. Last fall they had Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo all playing at maximum levels. The returns are mixed so far, and they’ll get the Bucks again after eliminating Milwaukee in the bubble. Giannis didn’t finish that series because of an ankle sprain, but of course he’s healthy now. We can safely assume Butler will rise to the occasion; his track record says as much. Miami now needs the others to fall in line, like they did eight months ago. Is that too much to ask? If so, their stay in the playoffs will be short.

Boston Celtics: Will Jayson Tatum need to be Superman to keep the Celtics competitive? He’s coming off a 50-piece at the right time; that performance in the Play-In game saved the Celtics’ season and gave Boston a face-saving seventh place in the East. Problem is, with Jaylen Brown out for the playoffs with a wrist injury, the Celtics are desperate for offense against a Brooklyn team that can drop 140 points in a pinch. Tatum is on a roll, yet that means he’ll get the respect he deserves in terms of double-teaming. Boston will need Tatum at his best and Kemba Walker to get some Charlotte flashbacks just to go toe-to-toe with Durant, Harden and Irving in the first round. And even that might not be enough.

Washington Wizards: Whatever happened to Davis Bertans? Following a breakout 2019-20 season, the Wizards gave him $80 million in free agency just to make 3-pointers, and he hasn’t even done that well enough lately. Not only aren’t the open shots falling with regularity, he’s had trouble creating off the dribble. His shooting percentage and scoring are all down from a year ago and he occasionally forces bad shots out of desperation. This is critical because Bradley Beal is coming off a hamstring injury and Russell Westbrook is burning heavy minutes trying to keep the Wizards competitive. Without another source of offense, the Wizards will likely be finished off quickly by the Sixers.

Can the Wizards manage to be an early threat to the Sixers?


WESTERN CONFERENCE

 

Utah Jazz: How far can the Jazz go without a superstar? No disrespect to Donovan Mitchell, but he has never made All-NBA or collected MVP votes or won a major award or a statistical title. Therefore: Not a superstar, in spite of his epic and highly entertaining run in the bubble last year. Anyway, history is unkind to teams in such positions; the only champion that can boast of lacking a true superstar is the Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace Pistons. Utah will put that theory to the test, after posting the best record in the West and destroying teams all season with defense and 3-point efficiency. Speaking of that, the Jazz offensively are almost one-dimensional. What happens when those shots don’t fall? There are legitimate concerns about a Jazz team that lacks championship experience on the roster, concerns that aren’t coming from “haters” and until Utah puts those issues to rest, the West favorite lives in Los Angeles (pick which team).

Phoenix Suns: Is Deandre Ayton ready for prime time? The Suns are loaded with players who never sipped postseason nectar until now, none more suspicious than Ayton. At least with Devin Booker, everyone saw how he responded last fall in the bubble when the Suns had to run the table (which they did) just to give themselves a shot at the postseason (which they didn’t). Ayton has had a solid 2020-21 season (thank you Chris Paul) but his importance will rise in the playoffs. He’ll be tested right from the jump, because his interior defense will be needed against LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Plus, if he’s active enough offensively, he can draw fouls and force the Lakers to redo their game plan. If the Suns are both good and lucky enough to keep advancing, Ayton could see Rudy Gobert and/or Nikola Jokic. Essentially, Ayton better get his rest; he’ll need it.

Denver Nuggets: Can Aaron Gordon make the Nuggets miss Jamal Murray a little less? Look, they play different positions and are different players. It’s apples and oranges. Still: Denver needs production from Gordon, enough to make him a dangerous option, much like Murray was. Gordon can impact games in ways Murray couldn’t: Athleticism, transition buckets, momentum-changing dunks and defending big men. This is why they traded for him at the deadline, and they could use a third wheel next to Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. Gordon has never played a game of major importance in his NBA life, so this will be a wake-up call for him. Denver hopes he responds positively to the sound of the alarm.

With Nikola Jokic leading the way, how scary will the Nuggets be in the playoffs?

LA Clippers: Is this the year for Paul George? All suspicious eyes will be on the All-Star guard as he gets another crack at slaying a playoff reputation. The slander only grew to epic proportions last fall in the bubble, when PG struggled throughout the playoffs (he shot 36% against Dallas) and was particularly forgettable in Game Seven against the Nuggets when he hit the side of the backboard, but not a shot, in the fourth quarter. At each failure throughout his career, the pressure expanded and confronted him the following year, so you can imagine how much is on George this time. He’s coming off yet another solid regular season and insists the past is in the past. Well, George really shouldn’t worry about proving anything to the general public. Instead, he needs to convince those in his locker room that he’s up to the task.

Dallas Mavericks: Can Luka Doncic take another star turn? Few players made more ripples in last season’s playoffs than Doncic, who increased his profile another level and doing so mainly without an injured Kristaps Porzingis. All’s well on the health front this time, yet the focus will remain on the young guard and how he handles himself with and without the ball. There’s little doubt about what he’s capable of doing when sizing up the defense and making the right decisions; Doncic is equally as solid creating for himself and teammates. Still: Can he keep his composure and avoid the technicals? And can he remain cool when the play turns physical and the double-teams force him to surrender the ball — which is what the Clippers will certainly throw his way in the first round? Few superstars in the playoffs will carry as much burden as Doncic.

Portland Trail Blazers: Will the frontcourt let Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum down again? We can safely assume that Portland’s backcourt will be fine on its own. Both guards have a history of delivering this time of year, and Dame in particular owns a collection of epic game-winners. Yet, throughout their time together in Portland, the duo never had a third option to rely on. A few years ago during the Blazers’ run to the conference finals, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins were out with injuries and Portland fell to the Warriors. Nurk is healthy but is coming off an inconsistent year, and the other frontcourters as well: Carmelo Anthony, Robert Covington and Norman Powell (whenever Portland goes with three guards). Enes Kanter has been splendid offensively but that’s never been his main issue. If the Blazers continue to get spotty results from that unit, add another championship miss to Dame’s career tally.

Los Angeles Lakers: Is the supporting cast better, as good as, or worse than last year’s? LeBron and Davis are healthy enough, rested and prepared, as you knew they would be. That’s fine. Now, what about the rest of the rotation? The Lakers made changes that brought Dennis Schroder, Andre Drummond and Wesley Matthews while giving Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo and Danny Green the boot. This was considered a mild upgrade in that Howard is past his prime, Green misfired constantly and while Rondo played well for the champs, he can’t score like Schroder. The good news is the Lakers may have a clear path to the conference finals because they won’t see the Clippers or Jazz until then. By then, they’ll have a better handle on what player(s) in the rotation are ready to help the Lakers return to the Finals.

Memphis Grizzlies: Does Jaren Jackson Jr. become unleashed now, or next season? Memphis played it extra careful with the young big man following offseason meniscus surgery, holding him out until the final few weeks. That bodes well for his long-term health, maybe not so well for these playoffs. It’s hard to go from zero to 60 in less than a month, especially given the heightened intensity of the postseason. In 11 contests (23 minutes per game because of minutes restrictions), Jackson has shot 42.4% overall and 28.3% from deep, well below what he can do on a normal schedule. His pick-and-roll presence with Ja Morant should give the Grizzlies many years of splendid duo basketball, yet that’s in the future. Jackson’s status as an impact player right now seems tenuous; we’ll see how the Grizzlies compensate if that’s the case.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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