NBA

Making Sense of the Biggest NBA Playoff Storylines

Chris Paul turning back the clock, Jamal Murray’s star turn and more intriguing storylines that have dominated the 2020 NBA playoffs.

Being smack in the middle of the NBA playoffs is a strange place to be, particularly when, somehow, it’s September. There is a whole lot going on right now, the remainder of the league is crammed into the same scant square miles, and these games are moving quickly. If you’re just catching up—or are simply basking in the glow of postseason basketball—here are some thoughts on the state of things as constituted.

1. It feels disingenuous to write a column about playoff storylines without first acknowledging the collective strength of the players, who have handled an extraordinarily difficult situation in the bubble with heart and bravery. The history of American sports is inextricable from the civil rights movement, and Black athletes have often been at the center of that discourse. But NBA players are facing a painfully modern challenge, tasked with going to work every day under an inescapable microscope. It’s a weight that their critics will never comprehend, and sad but unsurprising how many of them have no interest in listening. The double duty of being a high-performing athlete who must also call for action with a degree of authority in the public sphere is near-impossible, particularly in a time where racist ideas both overt and subtle are being aggressively weaponized by those in power as a means to an end.

It’s been a challenge to try and write about the NBA like it’s only a sport in a moment where it’s painstakingly clear that the league has transcended that. I can only imagine what it would feel like trying to play through this moment. No matter what you think of the league’s politics, the pointedly careful way it chose to make protest part of the bubble’s on-court branding, and the fact that not every team owner is truly in alignment with what needs to happen next, it’s essential to simply try and empathize with what players are dealing with on a daily basis. Imagine being Jamal Murray, scoring 50 points in an emotional win to stave off playoff elimination, and then immediately being put on the spot on national television to try and explain everything you’ve felt this week. I’m glad the playoffs are still happening, but if last week’s strike had been the end of it, I would have understood. The rest of this column is about what’s happening around the league—but as you watch the games, don’t forget about the context of what these guys are going through, and the work left to be done.

2. Hats off to the Nuggets and Jazz after a rollercoaster series that ended in a beautiful train wreck of a Game 7. Denver hung on for dear life during a breakneck final sequence that included two beautiful defensive plays by Gary Harris on Donovan Mitchell, the Nuggets racing upcourt off a steal with a two-point lead and inexplicably smoking a layup instead of burning clock, and the Jazz getting one last good look on a Mike Conley three that narrowly missed. Jamal Murray was pretty clearly favoring his left leg (the one that was injured earlier in the bubble) late in the game after colliding with Joe Ingles, and labored through the final minutes after singlehandedly carrying the Nuggets for the previous three games. Murray dropped 50, 42, and 50 points in games 4, 5 and 6, and if he can get back close to full strength, Denver might give the Clippers some issues.

So, the Jazz became the first team to blow a 3–1 lead in the playoffs since, well, you know when. It’s hard to get over the hump, and Utah will get panned for missing three chances to make it happen. The good news is that Donovan Mitchell’s arrival is more or less complete. Trying to recap this bizarre, exhilarating series with coherence is still difficult, but Game 6 in particular—in which Murray could not miss—was particularly memorable, and Mitchell for the most part matched him every step of the way over the course of seven games. It was the type of unexpected duel between two young players in the type of strangely transcendent zones that you only get every so often. They brought so much out of each other that it felt like a simultaneous ascension to another tier of stardom, and a rematch next season would suffice. We’ll be lucky if there’s another playoff series that matches the pure entertainment value here. But more chaos may be in immediate order on Wednesday…

3. What started off as more of a muted series between the Rockets and Thunder has built up to a Game 7 with real competitive stakes coming Wednesday night, largely thanks to three factors: an irrepressible Chris Paul turning back the clock, Russell Westbrook returning to the floor in iffy form, and the fact, of course, that they were traded for each other last year. There was a whole lot going on in the fourth quarter of Game 6, with Paul taking over on both ends of the floor (and delivering a momentous slap to the ass of Robert Covington) as the series turned even more physical and personal. Meanwhile, Westbrook ate up too many key possessions, the opportunity cost being fewer late-game shots for James Harden. There was a fleeting but pointed bit of déjà vu in what transpired.

So now it doesn’t feel overcooked to posit that Game 7 might be a crossroads for the careers of all three superstars, all of whom are in their 30s and are still searching for a championship. There’s added subtext in that the winner of this series gets a crack at LeBron and the Lakers. It seems like Mike D’Antoni is done in Houston after this season, which throws the Rockets into an interesting place organizationally after selling the farm to get Westbrook. James Harden is going to need to step up here, and Westbrook will have to discover enough self-awareness to let him do that. There’s a bit less at stake for Paul, who should get credit for leading the Thunder this far, but knocking out his old team would have to be insanely satisfying. There’s some thought around the NBA that OKC may decide to move off of veterans and rework the roster in the offseason, and this could very well be the only ride for this surprisingly entertaining iteration of the Thunder. A Game 7 is a Game 7, and this should be a treat.

4. As far as the Eastern Conference playoffs are concerned, well… it’s a good thing that we’re down to four teams, and it’s better news that both series feel like legitimate tossups. Milwaukee isn’t fully clicking, and Miami looks very capable of an upset, thanks to Jimmy Butler’s thorny persistence and a healthy Goran Dragic providing a quality change of pace and capable late-game decision-making. The Heat are still inexperienced around the fringes of the roster, but it’s been clear dating back to the regular season that they give the Bucks problems.

Bam Adebayo and Jae Crowder won’t shy away from being physical with Giannis. Milwaukee missed Eric Bledsoe in Game 1, with his absence stretching their backcourt painfully thin. The burning question for the Bucks is always going to be late-game execution—creating good looks out of nothing against a defense designed to crowd him in the paint is where Antetokounmpo can fall short. This series may come down to Giannis’s ability to find shooters in crunch time. Apart from Khris Middleton, none of the Bucks’ perimeter players strike much fear attacking a closeout with the game on the line. Milwaukee’s capacity to seize and hold onto leads, rather than play from behind late, might be a major factor.

5. How much trouble are the Raptors in? It’s not often you see Toronto lose consecutive games in which they were out-executed, but that’s how good Boston has been early in this series. The Raptors missed an opportunity to equalize on Tuesday, blowing a fourth-quarter lead after Marcus Smart (of all people) hit five consecutive three-pointers, and multiple late-game gaffes by Pascal Siakam didn’t help. If you gave most coaches a choice, they’d still take the odds of Smart beating you from three versus dying at the hands of Kemba Walker or Jayson Tatum, but these are the types of breaks that define seven-game series, and Boston has gotten them. And so the defending champions are on their heels and facing a daunting task.

The Raptors are still tough as hell, and after all this, I’m willing to bet this series goes at least six games. There’s no glaring hole to exploit—they’ve simply lost twice in a row. Boston has squeezed workable center minutes out of Daniel Theis and Robert Williams; Toronto’s supporting cast hasn’t played particularly well other than OG Anunoby. And the Celtics deserve a ton of credit—personnel-wise, they’re the most difficult team in the East to defend late in games. Boston has the luxury of Walker and Tatum, two legitimate, late-clock shot manufacturers, and can pick and choose which matchups to attack when things slow down in the fourth quarter. Factor in two coaching staffs that excel at making adjustments, and a must-win Game 3 should be fascinating.

6. Rather than an extended obituary for the Blazers, who always seemed somewhat fated to run out of steam against the Lakers, it’s probably worth reiterating out how much of a revelation Jusuf Nurkic was in the bubble. His return from injury couldn’t have gone much better given the circumstances, and was almost jarring to see how much he’d slimmed down. Clearly, he took his rehab and body seriously, and if this is the player Portland is going to get for the next few years, the ceiling for their team raises considerably. His activity on the glass, passing savvy and the uptick in defensive impact makes it much harder for defenses to simply key on Damian Lillard, and it won’t be surprising if they start to play through him more and ease some of the mileage on their guards. If Nurkic continues to do his best Arvydas Sabonis impression, the Trail Blazers might be a top-four team in the West next season.

7. Lastly, the biggest what-if of the playoffs so far is probably Kristaps Porzingis’s injury, which robbed us of a proper ending to the Clippers-Mavs series that for a few days was the clear highlight of the first round. Everyone knows exactly how good Luka Doncic is now, but he’s not quite ready to carry this particular team in a slugfest of a series, particularly with Kawhi Leonard involved. But it was notable that Porzingis was up for the challenge and caused major issues for the Clippers in the first few games—his ability to pull centers out of the paint opens up space for Doncic to attack ball screens—and that L.A.’s perhaps overly-vaunted defense is somewhat vulnerable if opposing guards can get into the paint and put pressure on the rim.

This is by no means an original opinion, but Dallas’s rebuild is over. The Mavericks are a third star away from contention in the West, and they know it. There’s plenty of room for the supporting cast to improve, but watching Doncic’s presence elevate the play of guys like Dorian Finney-Smith and Trey Burke made clear that there’s some margin for experimentation and error with who you place around him moving forward. Simply replacing the shot-happy Tim Hardaway Jr. with a more seasoned, responsible scorer might have been enough to swing a series with Porzingis healthy. The gap between the Mavs and the rest of the west isn’t as wide as you think, and simply tightening the screws defensively will make them a real force. They are that good on the other end of the ball, and Doncic is 21 years old and arguably one of the 10 best players in the league. Guessing at the Western conference standings next season will be a chore. 

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