NBA Playoffs 2018: From Stephen Curry's health to Cavs' defense, highlighting each team's biggest concern
Every team has a weakness, and the postseason will expose you very quickly
The NBA playoffs tip off Saturday with the first game slated being San Antonio at Golden State at 3 p.m. ET. While you might be able to get away with some flaws in the regular season, the postseason is a different story. Teams will be gearing up to highlight one another's weaknesses. Here is the biggest area of concern for all 16 playoff teams.
- Too much iso ball
For all the Rockets' offensive greatness, there really isn't much to it. They put shooters around the arc, they put the ball in the hands of James Harden and Chris Paul, and they get out of the way. It's genius in its simplicity, but at the same time, if and when a team figures out a scheme to force the ball out of Harden's hands, if only for stretches before Houston re-adjusts, and some of the shooters go cold at the wrong time, the Rockets don't really have a collective offensive counter. Chances are, Paul and Harden will be as great at single-handedly creating offense as they've been all season. But if they're not, where does Houston go?
Golden State Warriors
- Stephen Curry's health
It's not going to matter against San Antonio, but without Curry at close to 100 percent, Golden State is just not the same team. He says he plans to come back sometime during the second round, but the question here is: At what percentage will he come back? Is he 75 percent? That could be a problem, as we saw in 2016 when he returned from the same MCL sprain and was never able to re-summon his full explosion, particularly in small spaces as it pertained to creating those few inches of space he needs to get his shot off. Bottom line here is the Warriors are an all-time offensive team with Curry being Curry, and when he's not on the floor, they're pretty average, as crazy as that sounds for a team with Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Is average, or even slightly above average, enough to beat the Rockets?
Portland Trail Blazers
- Who's the third guy?
Damian Lillard is going to be lights out, you can pretty much count on that. CJ McCollum is maybe the most underrated No. 2 option in the league, and he'll be great. But who steps up into that third scoring spot? Jusuf Nurkic is one of the better rim protectors in the league and can score in the paint, but doing it in the playoffs, consistently, is a different task. Teams will do all they can to get the ball out of Lillard and McCollum's hands, and if the Blazers are going to even get past the Pelicans, let along threaten to go any farther, a third guy will have to assert himself as a consistent playoff scorer.
Oklahoma City Thunder
- Carmelo Anthony
This is simple: If Anthony finds his 3-point stroke as that outlet shooter for Russell Westbrook and Paul George as they create offense, and if he isn't a complete liability on defense, OKC is scary. We have seen at times this season where teams simply clear their whole offensive playbook and just go at Melo. They put him in pick and rolls. They take advantage of his lacking off-ball awareness and cut on him. They get him switched onto an island and kill him with penetration. Maybe Billy Donovan just gives in and doesn't play Melo, particularly down the stretch, if he's not able to hold up his end of the Big 3 bargain, but assuming he doesn't take that measure, Melo being bad Melo can derail any plans OKC has of making some legit noise in these playoffs.
We know about Utah's defense, which has been suffocating since Rudy Gobert's return in mid-January, but can they score the ball at a high enough level to beat OKC if Westbrook and George have it rolling? Donovan Mitchell is going to get a playoff baptism by fire with George smothering him all series long, and while Ricky Rubio has shot it better this season than he has at any point in his career, is Rubio knocking down threes really something you want to rely on? We might see the Thunder just completely ignore Rubio, leaving an extra roaming defender to cut off Mitchell's driving lanes. If Rubio doesn't make them pay for that, Utah could really struggle to even get quality shots off, let alone score enough to win a playoff series.
New Orleans Pelicans
- Too much burden on The Brow
Anthony Davis is going to go down as one of the greatest basketball players in history. I don't care if the guy never wins a playoff series (which won't be the case). He's just so amazingly good. What he has done since DeMarcus Cousins went down in leading this Pelicans team to where it is has been MVP stuff. But the question is: How much can Davis do? Yes, Jrue Holiday has also been great this season and quietly, so has Rajon Rondo, and yes the Pels have some shooting and have actually played pretty decent defense down the stretch. But Davis just has to do so much on both ends of the floor for this team to win.
I have no doubt that he'll continue doing it in the playoffs; his numbers will be incredible. But will he have enough in the tank to win those two or three late-game possessions in what will probably be very close games throughout this series? And if he doesn't, will he have the willpower to give up the ball and let someone else take the biggest shots? And will that person be able to make them? Anthony Davis is only one man. How far can one man take you?
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are going to battle, and Gregg Popovich will certainly have some wrinkles, and overall they'll be more competitive than their overall talent level suggests they should be able to be. Yet the bottom line here is they just can't score enough to come close to keeping up with the Warriors in the first round. LaMarcus Aldridge has been terrific in returning to a No. 1 option role in the absence of Kawhi Leonard, but like the Wolves in the Rockets series, the Spurs just don't take, or make, enough threes to appreciably shrink the talent gap that exists between them and the Warriors, even without Curry.
The Rockets scored 130 points per 100 possessions in four victories over the Wolves this season, and if Minnesota doesn't figure out a way to at least put up some kind of resistance, particularly against the pick and roll, the Rockets are going to torch them. I still think the Wolves' dated offensive approach is also a problem even though the numbers are pretty good overall -- they just don't makes enough threes to keep up and they should play more through Karl-Anthony Towns inside -- but the defense is just disastrous in this matchup. Jimmy Butler can only do so much in guarding James Harden one on one, which is going to wear him out considerably. This is a problem.
- 3-point shooting
As you're probably aware, the Raptors have changed their style drastically this season, thanks to a "shot spectrum" that encourages 3-pointers and shots at the rim rather than those tough, tricky long 2s. But while this more modern Toronto team has increased its 3-point attempts drastically (from 24.3 per game to 33), it has not gotten better at making them: The Raptors shot 36.3 percent from deep last season, which ranked 13th in the NBA. This season they shot 35.8 percent, which ranked 18th. Opponents didn't respect their shooting in last year's playoffs, and they couldn't punish them for doing so, shooting only 33.2 percent from deep. Let's see if things are different this time.
This isn't as much of an an issue as it once was, but the Wizards wound up facing Toronto, which has the best and deepest bench in the league. The old maxim is that this variable matters less in the playoffs, and while this is broadly true -- starters play more minutes in the postseason -- I'd argue that it is still important in terms of versatility. Deep teams can make adjustments and play around with lineups in a way that shallow teams can't, and this could be an issue for Washington. Sharpshooter Jodie Meeks was suspended for violating the league's anti-drug program on Friday, so coach Scott Brooks will basically be relying on Kelly Oubre, Tomas Satoransky, Mike Scott and Ian Mahinmi. That's not a bad group, but competing with the Raptors' second unit will be challenging.
This has been less of an issue as Philadelphia has steamrolled everybody in the past month, but over the course of the season it turned the ball over more than any other team on a per-possession basis. Part of this is the product of playing at the league's fourth-fastest pace while running an offense predicated on ball movement, and part of it is youth. The Sixers are definitely more disciplined than they used to be, but it wouldn't be surprising if this problem reappeared in a playoff atmosphere, with the increased pressure and the fact that Miami, a team full of interchangeable defenders, will be familiar with all of their sets and players' individual tendencies.
- Offensive firepower
I love the Heat's aggressive, attacking mentality, and Erik Spoelstra has done a marvelous job making this team cohesive. With a bunch of similarly skilled players fighting for minutes, there were a lot of ways this could have gone wrong. That said, they finished the season ranked No. 20 in offensive rating, just percentage points worse than the Pistons and better than the Nets, Lakers, Mavericks and Knicks. Goran Dragic is their best offensive player, but only has a 25 percent usage rate -- you could argue that this is a feature, not a bug in an egalitarian offensive system, but I'd say that their lack of other playmaking is why Dwyane Wade has had a (kind of ridiculous) 30 percent usage rate in the 21 games he has played in his return. It is not easy for any team to find holes in the Sixers' incredible defense, so Miami is in a particularly tough spot.
If the Celtics were fully healthy, there's no way I'd be thinking that they're in a similar situation to the Heat. Without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, though, they will have to be extremely creative. It is a wonder that they were able to win as many games as they did while shorthanded this season, and Brad Stevens deserves credit for being completely unafraid of getting weird if he thinks it might work (Greg Monroe at point center, anyone?). The bright side is that, unlike Miami, Boston is not going up against an elite defensive team. The less bright side is that the Celtics don't have the Heat's depth. If they are going to get past the Bucks, it will be because their defense is stifling and they get just enough out of their offense to survive. It would help if Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown or Terry Rozier had a couple of unexpected 30-point outbursts.
This might sound harsher than I intend, but the Bucks have not been great at decision-making in the half-court game. They get stagnant and they take low-percentage shots. They are not going to thrive in a slugfest where the team that executes the best wins. Milwaukee changed coaches midseason, but it did not undergo that much of a makeover: Under Joe Prunty, it still wants to force turnovers, create chaos and use its athleticism in transition. If the Bucks can't run much and the Celtics keep them out of the paint, they will need to space the floor with shooters, simplify their attack and find mismatches … but do they have the discipline to out-think a team like Boston possession after possession?
The Cavs need to stop the other team from putting the round, orange thing into the 10-foot-high hole. This has proved problematic for them for the vast majority of the 2017-18 season.
- Defensive rebounding
The Pacers aren't exactly a small team, but that doesn't mean they're beasts on the glass. They finished the season 26th in defensive rebounding percentage and 19th in overall rebounding percentage, which could be a problem depending on what lineups Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue decides to use. The Cavs were a terrible offensive rebounding team this season, but if Lue throws Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson out there at the same time (or just one of them alongside Larry Nance Jr.), they will get extra possessions. Some of those extra possessions will result in wide-open 3s for Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith, which can be absolutely demoralizing.
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