NBA Playoffs: 5 conference finals questions, including Kawhi Leonard vs. Giannis and Blazers' chances against Steph Curry
What will the Giannis vs. Kawhi battle look like? Will Stephen Curry tear apart the Blazers? And more!
Twenty-six NBA teams are on vacation, which means it's conference finals time. In the West, the Bowl of Curry, starring brothers Stephen and Seth, will begin on Tuesday. In the East, two MVP- and DPOY-caliber players will tussle in two cities where cheese curds are prominent, starting on Wednesday. (There's a brotherly theme there, too, but Pau just had foot surgery, so we have been robbed of a Gasol Bowl.)
Here are five of them:
1. What will Kawhi vs. Giannis look like?
This is the most interesting matchup of the whole playoffs, so allow me to pose a number of sub-questions:
- Will Kawhi Leonard start the series on Giannis Antetokounmpo? Leonard essentially never defended him during the regular season, but that wasn't all that unusual -- back then, Toronto's best defender rarely matched up with the opposing team's best player. The playoffs are a totally different story, and Leonard might be more capable of slowing Antetokounmpo down than anyone else on Earth. (It is also possible that no one is capable of this.)
- Will Milwaukee borrow the Sixers' strategy against Leonard? After a rough series opener, Philadelphia decided it could not afford to let Leonard operate one-on-one comfortably. He had a few more awesome games anyway, but the single-biggest reason the Raptors came so close to losing in the second round is that his teammates didn't give him enough support. The Bucks are typically a conservative team on defense, but their switching against Boston showed that they will adjust when need be. I wonder how much they will emphasize sending help Leonard's way and getting the ball out of his hands.
- How will they fare as facilitators? Toronto looks its most dangerous when it has an "if Kawhi doesn't kill you, then someone else will" feel to it. The problem is that he is not the most natural, instinctive passer, and he sometimes misses assist opportunities while he's pounding the ball and sizing up the defense. Antetokounmpo is more advanced in this area, but unlike, say, Ben Simmons, his mentality is to attack first and find his teammates when he can't get all the way to the rim. In the postseason, his teammates have been much better at finishing those plays than Leonard's, but they might not find the same rhythm against this defense.
- Will Giannis dominate on defense? Milwaukee will probably ask him to try to neutralize Pascal Siakam and be a disruptive help defender. It could also throw him on Leonard or have him switching all over the place. Regardless, the Raptors are more talented on offense than they showed in the second round, and Antetokounmpo needs to use his length and strength to make them think.
2. Can the Blazers contain Steph?
The Warriors closed out the Rockets by running pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll with the ball in Stephen Curry's hands. Expect that to continue, especially because Portland employs Enes Kanter. As tough as Kanter has been in the playoffs, a Curry pick-and-roll is his nightmare scenario, and I am not sure that the Blazers will be able to get away with giving him heavy minutes.
One thing in the Blazers' favor here: Golden State plays plenty of non-shooters, and as long as Kevin Durant is sidelined, they will presumably do the obvious: ignore those guys, bend their whole defense toward Curry and live with the results.
That, however, is much simpler in theory than in practice -- just ask the Rockets. Curry has seen every defensive scheme imaginable, and while he can be turnover-prone, his basketball IQ is off the charts. The Warriors' system is built around having counters for everything, and they maximize Curry's ability to move without the ball and make shots with only a sliver of space. And if you trap him, beware of the basketball genius who has operated in 4-on-3 situations once or twice before, which brings us to …
3. Is this going to be a Draymond Green showcase?
Green has had a phenomenal playoff run, and, with both teams running tons of pick-and-rolls, he can build on that. I can just picture him baiting a Blazer into a lob pass, snatching it out of the air, starting a fast break and screaming at the top of his lungs when Golden State scores.
No matter when Durant comes back, Green will be instrumental in the Warriors' efforts to make life difficult on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. As long as the superstar is out, though, Green has a chance to show more of his point forward skills. The more he reminds us of 2015 and 2016, the shorter the series will be.
4. Can the Raptors or Bucks run free?
Coaches are typically obsessed with rebounding, limiting turnovers and getting back in transition this time of year. Postseason scouting and familiarity tends to make it difficult to score against a set defense, so allowing the opponent to run is deflating. Allowing Antetokounmpo and Siakam to run is death.
In the regular season, Toronto was the league's most efficient transition team, but Milwaukee was eighth in that category and ran slightly more frequently. The Bucks had the best transition defense in the league in terms of limiting efficiency, but the Raptors were ninth in that category and their opponents ran significantly less frequently. In all four of their meetings, the winning team scored more efficiently in transition. (These stats are courtesy of the indispensable Cleaning The Glass.)
It is silly, by the way, to talk about offense and defense and transition as if they are completely independent. If Toronto makes its open 3s, which it rarely did against Philadelphia, it will have an easier time preventing fast breaks. If Milwaukee sends help every time Leonard dribbles the ball, it will have a greater chance of forcing turnovers ... but it will be at risk of surrendering those open 3s.
5. Who will have 'Strength in Numbers' in the West?
The Warriors needed more than superb performances from the Splash Brothers, Green and Andre Iguodala to eliminate Houston. In Durant's absence, coach Steve Kerr used 11 players in Game 6 and 10 of them played double-digit minutes. If the Warriors get consistent production from Kevon Looney, Shaun Livingston and Jonas Jerebko, they'll be in good shape, but it is not as if their opponents haven't had their own playoff heroes.
Rodney Hood (who is questionable for the opener) and Zach Collins swung games against Denver, and I still can't get over Evan Turner's out-of-nowhere aggressiveness in Game 7. You never know when Al-Farouq Aminu (and, to a lesser extent, Moe Harkless) is going to knock down a few 3s, and it would sure be something if Seth Curry caught fire while his family is trying to decide which team to root for.
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