So we are here in the second round after an immense, gripping first round of the playoffs.
On paper most match-ups seem a little one-sided, but NBA games are not played on paper and there are so many questions. Let’s tackle eight of them, one for each team.
Can Boston’s ‘switchability’ stand up to this massive test?
Once Gordon Hayward was joined on the bench by Kyrie Irving, professor Brad Stevens went into his laboratory and came out with an all-switching line-up to stifle the athletic power of the Milwaukee Bucks.
In Round 2, he will need to find that mix against a Philadelphia side that not only shoots the ball extremely well, but has one of the most uniquely unguardable big men in the game in Joel Embiid.
Look for Stevens to throw Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, as well as a little Jaylen Brown against Ben Simmons; Shane Larkin becomes near on unplayable against anyone except T.J.McConnell so the C’s may look at an eight-man rotation, all of whom will be set to guard multiple positions aside from Aron Baynes who may come in to pay special attention to Embiid.
Brown may miss time with a sore hamstring, meaning even more pressure is on Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris to deliver. The former is a safe bet, the latter not so much.
How will Philadelphia handle the expectation to win?
Miami threw everything including the kitchen sink at Ben Simmons and co in the first round, and there is a strong argument to be made that they are better equipped to defend the Sixers than the Celtics were.
After a hiccup in Game 2 at home, Philly adjusted perfectly and waltzed to a five-game series win. Whether or not the win released a pressure valve, or was celebrated too hard remains to be seen – the Sixers have meshed Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli into this line-up seamlessly, and now have as balanced and multi-skilled an eight-man rotation as any team left in the playoffs.
Simmons has made a mockery of expectations, doing exactly what he did all season in the playoffs and taking Miami’s best hit in the process. For all their blows, Boston still hold home court and Philly may have to shake off some rust early in the series.
If Boston can land an early blow or two, it remains their only chance of walking away with a series victory. If Philly can dictate the tempo and pace, we should be looking at a five-game series given the disparity in the two squads as they are currently formed.
Is this finally the time for Toronto to slay the dragon that is LeBron?
The Raptors are a cursed franchise, carrying the hopes of an entire nation on their back and falling short time and time again. By falling short, I mean blowing home court advantage and losing year after year when they really should win.
Put simply, they haven’t been able to beat LeBron James and it is as mental as it is physical. Simply sharing the court with LeBron has been enough for them to wilt under the bright lights, both in the regular season and the playoffs.
They enter this series with no excuses and should be heavily favoured to win; not only do they hold a massive advantage as far as their offensive diversity goes, they are facing James when he has never been less prepared for a long, torrid season.
There can be no excuses this time around – Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan should feast on the Cavs backcourt and if Toronto move the ball and don’t make mistakes, they should be able to dissect a shaky Cavs defence. Cleveland will enter Game 1 off a brutal Pacers series, while Toronto will be well-rested and ready to pounce.
History says that they will freeze under the glare of the spotlight, but logic says this is finally the season they progress past the best player alive, as they have by far the better team.
Can Cleveland find the right mix around James?
LeBron James made history with his stat line in the Game 7 win over Indiana, and claimed he wasn’t coming out of the game at all. His body had other ideas, as he was forced to rest due to cramping but he still willed his side to a series win despite not having one teammate deserving of a pass mark.
The biggest challenge now is how Tyronn Lue shuffles the pieces around LeBron to give his side the best chance to win this series. George Hill’s health is a massive factor; Jose Calderon cannot drag his corpse around the court as he will be eviscerated by the Raptors four-man backcourt.
J.R.Smith and Kyle Korver are definitely in the best five available players, and if they can at least play satisfactory defence then their offense should generate enough to remain effective.
Up front, this is a series where Kevin Love should be able to remain effective, and despite Tristan Thompson crawling out from under a rock in Game 7 against Indiana he cannot be relied upon to do the same again.
Larry Nance has to play a role in this series; he is the Cavs’ best defender and most energetic player, and can anchor a side with James playing the four and three shooters around him.
Ideally James has to play 35-40 minutes a game, tops, in order for him to be fresh later in what promises to be a long, hard series but there doesn’t seem to be a way that is possible unless (A) Hill is fit and firing and can run the point with the second unit and (B) Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson do something more than the absolutely nothing they did in the first round.
LeBron will be The King, but even the King needs trenchmen.
Does Steph even need to come back in this series?
The New Orleans Pelicans decimated the Portland Trailblazers and looked all-world in the process. The Golden State Warriors were very unconvincing in defeating the weakest Spurs team of the last 20 years.
Much was made of the Pelicans chances of an upset, but the keen anticipation of a close series may have been put to bed in one dominant quarter in Game 1. The Warriors won the second quarter 41-21 and in the process dismissed the worst fears of the competition – they have been in cruise mode and can flick the switch when they want to.
Curry seems to be nearing a return but may not need to rush if Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green reproduce what they did in the first game. Granted, the Pelicans had been off for days and rust was to be expected but their clears advantages from Round 1 were not present with the Warriors starting Andre Iguodala as point guard.
This made them near on impenetrable defensively, as they were happy to let Rajon Rondo shoot and shut down Jrue Holiday, which seems to be a bad omen for a Pelicans side that must score 120 points to be a chance of winning.
You may not like them, and you may think they are bad for basketball, but this side is so damn good that they can rest their best player and still likely not get out of second gear in this series.
Can AD be the best player on the court?
There is a very strong argument for Anthony Davis being the best player in the NBA right at this minute. A similar argument could be made for James or Durant, but Davis is right alongside them in the stratosphere of the ultra-elite, and he must show he belongs in the discussion in this series.
It’s easy to overreact to Game 1; Davis is a victim of his own brilliance, as he put up 21-10 with a couple of blocks and steals but was helpless against the defending champions. Davis may need to produce at the level his did in Round 1 just to steal a win in this series, but there is zero doubt he needs to be clearly the best player on the court for this to be a long series.
The Pelicans problems go deeper than just Davis; their need for offensive firepower needs to be complemented by some semblance of a defensive game which means their roster construct is like a science experiment.
Holiday needs to produce and be the star he is, even something close to what we saw in Round 1 will do. It’s hard to see Rondo being effective against this team, but Nikola Mirotic can stretch the floor and draw Green or Durant out of their comfort zones with hot shooting. Even if Alvin Gentry gets all other spots on the floor perfect, the only chance of the Pelicans staying in this series is if Davis can dominate and be simply the best.
Can Clint Capela half the centre contest?
Rudy Gobert is the defensive player of the year, a man who patrols the paint to such an extent that nary a player wants to come close. He is not outstanding, but adept at switching onto guards and competent enough to at least make them think twice when he comes out to the perimeter.
But quite simply, when he is on the floor and can anchor the defence the Jazz are an elite basketball team. Two things can cause him problems – an agile big man and foul trouble. Given James Harden thrives in turning minimal contact into theatrical drama and lives at the foul line, the Stifle Tower will be put under plenty of pressure with an early foul or two.
Capela is the agile big man that may cause Gobert headaches. As a rim-running athlete, he is almost the perfect fit alongside Harden and crew, shooting at a very efficient clip and improving on almost a daily basis at the defensive end of the floor.
Houston are comfortable surrounding Harden with shooters, but Capela adds another wrinkle that not only will cause Utah problems but could be a real issue for Golden State should they meet in the next round.
The Jazz need Gobert to dominate the game in order for this to be a competitive series, while the Rockets just need Capela to be competent. Anything more than that is a bonus, and based on Game 1 it is looking very good for Houston.
Can the Jazz adjust to the loss of a key player?
Ricky Rubio was a juggernaut in the first round, playing quite brilliantly at both ends of the floor. His shooting percentages were below average, as they are with him, but his all-round game was fantastic as he provided a perfect foil to rookie phenom Donovan Mitchell.
The kid got his points in Game 1, but the Jazz will need to be consistent, flexible and strong around Mitchell as this series goes on. Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder are in purple patches, and both offer great value at both ends of the floor and figure to be key pieces against a versatile Rockets team.
However the balance of the team comes into question beyond that, as Derrick Favors will be largely ineffective against this agile Rockets team. Gobert is a defensive difference-maker, but the Jazz will need to look at a small line-up where Ingles or Crowder plays power forward down the stretch which leaves Favors out in the cold.
Dante Exum’s defensive prowess should see him getting plenty of minutes as the season goes on, and Royce O’Neale will do most things well but the reliance on the three point shot is there for all to see. Utah is a very tough place to win, and if they steal Game 2 they throw the cat among the pigeons, but how Quin Snyder is able to cover the loss of Rubio, if at all, will determine whether or not this will be a long series.