NBA insiders: The most important convention semifinal surprises and storylines proper now

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NBA insiders: The biggest conference semifinal surprises and storylines right now


The NBA’s convention semifinals are in full swing. The Milwaukee Bucks simply saved their postseason with a nail-biting Recreation 3 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz simply put the LA Clippers in one other 2-0 gap.

In Friday night time’s matchups, the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks wrestle for command of their sequence in Recreation 3 whereas the Phoenix Suns look to seize a commanding 3-0 lead on 2021 MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.

How a lot do the Nets want James Harden, who continues to be sidelined with hamstring tightness? What’s essentially the most spectacular a part of the Suns’ 2-0 sequence lead? What participant or adjustment will resolve the Jazz-Clippers sequence? Which potential Finals matchup would supply the juiciest storylines?

Our panel of specialists is answering among the playoffs’ greatest questions forward of two huge Recreation 3s.

MORE: Matchups, schedules and information for each sequence

Truth or fiction: The Nets ought to be the favorites to win the NBA title, even when James Harden does not play once more this postseason.

Tim MacMahon: Fiction. Kevin Durant as soon as once more seems like arguably the world’s greatest participant and Kyrie Irving is a confirmed championship-caliber sidekick, however my intestine feeling is the Nets will want Harden to get previous the 76ers and/or whoever comes out of the West. Nets GM Sean Marks clearly thought as a lot when he pulled the set off on the picks-loaded deal to carry Harden to Brooklyn.

Kevin Pelton: Fiction. Harden’s absence is placing stress on Brooklyn’s different stars to play enormous minutes. After enjoying 44:35 in Recreation 1, Irving was on the courtroom for 44:57 in Recreation 3. Durant performed 40:06 and 42:52 in these two video games, respectively. That may not be sustainable over three full rounds — particularly given their very own battles with accidents in the course of the common season.

Jorge Sedano: Truth. Regardless of all their lineup shuffling, the Nets had a league-best offensive score of 117.3 this season. Curiously sufficient, when Durant and Irving had been on the courtroom collectively with out Harden, that quantity elevated to 120.6. Couple that with Blake Griffin’s reemergence and Joe Harris’ regular capturing and it isn’t out of line to assume they’ll win all of it with out Harden.

Brian Windhorst: It is reality. Nevertheless it’s not an enormous reality. The Nets had been principally a .500 crew this season when Harden did not play. They’ve nice expertise and their function gamers have been robust up to now, but it surely’s laborious to wager on them.

Royce Younger: Truth. The reason being fairly easy: Even with a slew of gifted famous person gamers remaining within the postseason, Durant is in a category of his personal. He is one of the best participant enjoying proper now, a whole matchup nightmare who impacts each ends of the ground. Harden or no Harden, Durant goes to effectively dominate video games.


What’s been most spectacular concerning the Suns’ 2-0 lead over the Nuggets?

MacMahon: Chris Paul has been in full management of the sequence to date, however he has dominated playoff sequence earlier than, regardless of by no means having superior all the way in which to the Finals. How Deandre Ayton would deal with his matchup with MVP Nikola Jokic was the Suns’ greatest query going into the sequence. The 22-year-old Ayton has greater than held his personal. He has averaged 17.5 factors and 10.0 rebounds whereas capturing 65.2% from the ground within the two wins. Extra importantly, Ayton has made life tough on Jokic, who’s 11-of-26 from the ground with solely 4 assists when Ayton has been the first defender on him, in response to NBA Superior Stats.

Catch all of the postseason motion on ESPN, ABC and the ESPN App.

Friday, June 11
76ers-Hawks Game 3, 7:30 on ESPN
• Suns-Nuggets Game 3, 10 on ESPN

Saturday, June 12
• Jazz-Clippers Game 3, 8:30 on ABC

All times Eastern

Sedano: It’s Paul. Let’s be real, there weren’t many out there who didn’t feel he was snake-bitten again after his injury in the first round. He battled through that and has regained his form to take a commanding 2-0 lead over Denver. His Game 2 performance was masterful. His 17-point, 15-assist, zero-turnover night was the first playoff game with 15-plus points, 15-plus assists and no turnovers since 2014. The player who accomplished that feat in 2014? Chris Paul. Before 2014, the last time it happened was 2008 … by Chris Paul.

Young: The poise of the young Suns. Paul is a weighted blanket for the rest of the roster, providing the security the Suns need in tight situations. But as steady as he has been — 26 assists to one turnover is absurd — the rest of the Suns’ youngsters have played their parts wonderfully. Ayton is up to the challenge against Jokic. Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson look comfortable in their roles. And Devin Booker appears built for any postseason moment thrown his way.

Pelton: Ayton’s defense against Jokic. Despite early foul trouble in Game 2, Ayton has just about matched the MVP minute for minute (Jokic has played four minutes with Ayton on the bench, per NBA Advanced Stats) and deserves the majority of the credit for holding Jokic in check as both a scorer (23 PPG on 47.5% shooting) and distributor (4.5 APG).

Windhorst: Phoenix’s depth. Paul has been otherworldly during the Suns’ five-game win streak and he’s got an incredible 53-4 assist-to-turnover ratio in that span. But in both games this series, the Suns have had five players in double figures. Ayton is playing the best ball of his life, Cameron Payne is electric off the bench and the Jae Crowder/Bridges 3-and-D combo has been perfect.


Even with a hurt right knee, Joel Embiid has been a handful for the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Associated Press

What has been the biggest surprise so far in 76ers-Hawks?

MacMahon: Just how dominant Joel Embiid has been, despite the meniscus tear in his right knee. It’s impressive to average 39.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the conference semifinals under any circumstances. It’s absolutely amazing to do it despite nursing a knee injury that put Embiid’s availability in question until just before the Game 1 starting lineups were announced. And he’s doing it against one of the NBA’s best defensive big men in Atlanta’s Clint Capela.

Windhorst: How good Embiid has been despite having a moderate knee injury. The idea that he’d play in Game 2, much less put up 40, seemed wild just a few days ago. That said, the way the Hawks played in the first half of Game 1, jumping out to a huge lead, was pretty surprising and deserves special mention.

Young: Embiid. Obviously, it’s not a surprise Embiid would play great in a playoff series. But under these circumstances, his health was the biggest question going into the series. It seemed admirable he was going to try to play through a meniscus tear, but how limited he might be, or the challenges he might face, was a key storyline. Instead, after two games, the only question around Embiid is, how on Earth are the Hawks going to stop him?

Sedano: How poorly the Sixers’ bench has played. Philly was a middle-of-the-pack bench scoring unit this season, but it’s been downright bad this series. (And the numbers would look a lot worse had Shake Milton not given the Sixers a huge boost in the second half of Game 2.) Their bench players all had a negative plus-minus in Game 1 and had zero points in the first half of Game 2 prior to Milton setting the tone. That isn’t a sustainable recipe for success.

Pelton: Besides Atlanta stealing Game 1 on the road, I’d say the performance of Kevin Huerter off the bench. Huerter has made more than half his 3-pointers (6-of-11) and is a perfect 8-of-8 from inside the arc, a big reason the Hawks are plus-12 with him on the court and minus-24 with him on the bench through two games.


What will most determine the winner of Jazz-Clippers?

MacMahon: Can the Clippers figure out a way to cool off Donovan Mitchell? LA has no chance in this series if Mitchell keeps scoring in the 30s or 40s efficiently. The Jazz aren’t as reliant on Mitchell as the Mavs were on Luka Doncic — and Utah is a much better defensive team than Dallas — so the Clippers aren’t going to survive this series if they never find a sustainable solution for the opponent’s go-to guy.

2 Related

Sedano: Mitchell’s success — or lack thereof — will determine who wins this series. Particularly, how effective he is in the pick-and-roll. For the Clippers to succeed, they have to contain the perimeter with a combination of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Nicolas Batum or Terance Mann. Luke Kennard certainly helps them on offense, but he was being targeted on defense by Mitchell. If Mitchell is allowed to feast, then the Jazz will win the series.

Pelton: The ability to create off the dribble. The assumption was that would favor the Clippers, but I think Utah’s ability to score self-created buckets is wildly underrated. In fact, the Jazz’s 50.3% effective field goal percentage on shots with more than two seconds of touch time — sixth in the league during the regular season, per Second Spectrum tracking — was actually better than the Clippers’ 49.4% mark (11th). Playing against the Clippers’ junk defenses, Utah had just 15 assists on 40 field goals in Game 2 but won anyway thanks in large part to Mitchell’s creation.

Windhorst: The Jazz in the fourth quarter. They’ve blown some leads (don’t ask about last year) but, whoa, have they looked like a championship team in the fourth quarter during this six-game playoff win streak. Games 3 and 4 in the Memphis series and Games 1 and 2 against the Clippers were all wide open in the fourth and the Jazz’s mix of active defense, great shooting and Mitchell have secured 50/50 games repeatedly. It’s championship stuff.

Young: George. The secret of the story of Playoff P is that he’s actually quite similar to Regular Season P. George’s entire history as a star player is an ability to reach a peak level, on par with the absolute best in the world, but then follow that with a puzzling, wandering performance two nights later. The Clippers need the best version of George only four times, and if they can get it, they can beat the Jazz.


Chris Paul, Devin Booker and the Suns are riding a five-game playoff winning streak heading into Game 3 against the Nuggets. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Finals matchup with the best storyline is …

Young: Suns vs. Hawks. After we got beyond all the big-market handwringing that would go on, the focus could shift toward the reality that the league would have an opportunity to showcase two stars who could be featured players for the next decade. Giving Trae Young and Booker the big stage could pay long-term dividends for the NBA. And I’m also a major sucker for overcoming long title droughts, or winning your first, and seeing Paul in the NBA Finals just seems long overdue.

Pelton: I like Brooklyn’s big three vs. Utah’s homegrown core as a storyline, but I think the answer has to be Nets vs. Clippers for the opportunity to see Durant vs. Leonard in a battle with both of them playing at a high level. Kawhi wasn’t quite there yet in 2016 when Durant’s Thunder upset Leonard’s Spurs, and we were denied this matchup in the 2019 NBA Finals by Durant’s injuries. This would be a fitting culmination for KD’s incredible comeback.

Sedano: It’s any series that involves Paul. The only things missing from his résumé are a Finals appearance and subsequently a championship. Particularly, if the Nets were the opponent. CP3 vs. Kyrie? A dream point guard matchup. Not to mention potentially squaring off versus his old teammate in Harden. Having him and this young/fun group of Suns face a Nets team that looks like a juggernaut would be must-see TV.

MacMahon: Suns vs. Nets. Don’t count on Paul and Harden going out to dinner between games if they face each other in the Finals a couple of years after their two-year tenure as Rockets teammates ended. Harden wasn’t the only one in Houston who wanted to trade Paul and a bundle of picks for Russell Westbrook, but that deal wouldn’t have been done unless Harden pushed for it. Paul has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that it was a bad move, and leading the Suns to an upset over Harden’s superteam would be the sweetest revenge. (Another storyline: Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni trying to finally win a title at the Suns’ expense.)

Windhorst: Suns vs. Nets with Harden and Paul healthy. The Rockets can cry in the corner.



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