At long last, the NBA playoffs 2018 are (almost) here. Before Saturday afternoon’s opener, here are 13 questions that could define the first round:
1. Are we completely convinced that Kawhi is out for the season?
CBS Sports’ Jack Maloney brought up this possibility as one of his 18 reasons to be excited for the playoffs. I just can’t shake the thought of the San Antonio Spurs bringing Kawhi Leonard back in the first round and upsetting the Golden State Warriors. I also like Jack’s idea of Leonard descending from the rafters in the second quarter of the second game.
The funny thing: As professional NBA gambler Haralabos Voulgaris tweeted, if Leonard is even close to fully healthy, you’d be crazy not to pick the Spurs against this version of the Warriors. Golden State seems vulnerable right now, just not against a Leonard-less San Antonio team.
2. Is this where the Melo trade finally pays off?
Even the most ardent Carmelo Anthony supporters would have a hard time arguing that he has flourished with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He has become a glorified stretch forward (albeit with a 35.7 3-point shooting percentage), and opponents routinely target him on defense.
Anthony deserves credit for accepting a smaller offensive role to empower his star teammates, but if he’s not playing a large offensive role, how exactly is he helping a team win? Unlike guys like Vince Carter and Grant Hill — the exception, not the norm for franchise players — he has not transformed himself into a do-it-all supporting player.
And yet, I’m more optimistic about Playoff Melo than I thought I’d be. In this particular matchup, he might just be able to be effective. The Jazz can put Anthony in pick-and-rolls, sure, but it’s not as if they are going to change their identity, embrace isolation basketball and go matchup-hunting. And on the other end, Utah tends to give up a ton of midrange shots while should-be Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert hangs around the basket. That has been an awesome game plan, but if Anthony gets a rhythm, he can still do damage in that area.
3. Can the Jazz score enough points to survive?
People asked this question this time last year, but they managed to get past the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. The difference: Not only did they have Gordon Hayward then, veteran Joe Johnson emerged as a postseason hero. Utah plays the exact same style this season, and it will be relying on rookie Donovan Mitchell to score like a star — there is not another high-usage player on the roster.
To be clear, the Jazz are not a bad offensive team. They ranked 15th in offensive rating on the season and 12th since Jan. 19, when Rudy Gobert returned from a knee injury. Their “advantage basketball” style fits their personnel — is there a better marriage of player and system than Joe Ingles in this offense? — and teams with multiple pick-and-roll players can be difficult to disrupt. It’s just that, if Oklahoma City is playing Paul George and Steven Adams 40-plus minutes every game, Utah could be dealing with a pretty imposing defense. Without more bucket-getters, I’m not sure the Jazz will be able to create decent looks in close games.
4. Can OKC do its thing against the league’s best defense?
Jazz-Thunder is the most intriguing series of the first round to me, so yes, I’m asking THREE questions about it. When Gobert is on the floor, Utah is not only a great defensive team — it is far and away the best one in the NBA. When players try to go one-on-one against this team, it usually does not work. You see where this is going.
Over the course of the regular season, the Thunder have failed to establish a cohesive offensive system where Russell Westbrook, George and Anthony are actually making each other better. They were a good offensive team — they finished No. 10 in offensive rating — but they were not a great one, nor a consistent one. Their style might just play into the Jazz’s hands. Jazz hands!
5. Is LeBron still invincible in the first round?
LeBron James has won 21 first-round playoff games in a row. Twenty-one! The last time he lost a game in the opening round was 2011 — against the New York Knicks, of all teams. (Fun facts about that game: Carmelo Anthony scored 41 points; New York’s starting backcourt was Baron Davis and Landry Fields.) In James’ career, he has won 40 of 47 first-round games.
Here’s the catch: James’ teams finished either first or second in the conference dating back to 2008-09. The two times that he went to the playoffs with a lower seed than that — in 2006 and 2008 with the Cavs — his team won its first-round series in six games and was eliminated in the second round.
This year’s Cleveland team finished fourth in the standings, and its point differential is actually worse than its opponent: the Indiana Pacers. I highly doubt most people will bet against James leading the Cavs past the Pacers, but I’d be surprised if this streak of sweeps continued.
6. How will Oladipo respond to playoff pressure?
Victor Oladipo is going to win Most Improved Player and he might make an All-NBA team, too. In his fifth season, with his third franchise in three years, he has gone from an average-efficiency role player to the superstar the Orlando Magic dreamed he could be when they took him No. 2 in the 2013 draft. Oladipo is by far the biggest reason for the Pacers’ surprising success this season, and he is going to be on the top of the Cavs’ scouting report. Earlier this season, Indiana coach Nate McMillan told CBS Sports that Oladipo’s next big challenge will be dealing with his new station.
“He has become the No. 1 option. He’s seeing the best defenders every night and he’s seeing double-teams, just as some of these All-Stars are seeing,” McMillan said. “And he’s learning to play against that. That takes a year or two to be able to play in that role and be productive. Teams are now game-planning for him.”
Cleveland has not been known as a great defensive team over the past few seasons, but in the playoffs it has been pretty good at executing coach Tyronn Lue’s game plan. The Cavs have tended to take teams away out of the situations in which they are most comfortable. For Indiana, that means making life as difficult as possible for Oladipo and forcing him to give up the ball.
7. Who wins the big battle of the backcourts?
OK, let’s break this down: Quinn Cook and Klay Thompson vs. Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray.
Kidding. The Raptors-Wizards series is fascinating for a bunch of reasons, but first and foremost because of the star guards on the floor. DeMar DeRozan is a better playmaker than Bradley Beal, but Beal is the superior shooter and could catch fire. John Wall vs. Kyle Lowry could go a long way toward determine the series — Wall, who just returned from a knee injury last week, has an opportunity to send a message to those who say he is overpaid and doesn’t make his teammates better. Lowry, playing a reduced role this season but still the tone-setter in Toronto, has an opportunity to send a message to those who say he can’t be counted on in the playoffs.
In 2015, the Wizards got the best of the Raptors, but that was a very long time ago. (The Atlanta Hawks won 60 games and the Brooklyn Nets made the playoffs that season!) Washington has a new coach and has developed a few young players. Toronto has a new offensive philosophy and a bench fleet that has been destroying everybody all season. The question is not just about which star guards will put up the best numbers; it is also about which team has created an environment to help their stars succeed. The battle of the backcourts will be a reflection of the way these organizations have built their respective rosters around them.
8. Can the Raptors’ role players make shots?
If the Wizards essentially ignore O.G. Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam on the perimeter, it will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody. The book on Toronto over the last few postseasons has been to try to make anybody but Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan beat you. The Raptors’ much-discussed “culture reset” is about empowering those players to do exactly that.
“We want them to be more in the rhythm of making plays,” Toronto assistant coach Nick Nurse told CBS Sports earlier this season. “We want our primary guys to trust them to make plays. And I think we’re seeing that. That’s really the big thing.”
Regardless of how well this worked in the regular season, Nurse said that it all comes down to “the true test” of the postseason, when every team’s offense is scouted to death. This time the Raptors should be less predictable, but there’s no guarantee that the shots will fall.
“We created a lot of good shots in the playoffs before that we haven’t made,” Nurse said. “Again, getting our guys used to it and ready to make those in the playoffs — we’re going to have to see about that.”
9. What the heck do the Blazers do about The Brow?
Do the Portland Trail Blazers have anybody on the roster who can competently guard Anthony Davis? Will they throw double-teams at him? Triple-teams? Would it be better to just let him score 40 and focus on stopping Jrue Holiday and the rest of the Pelicans? I definitely don’t have the answer, but I’m excited to see Davis back in the playoffs for the first time since 2015 (when he averaged 31.5 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks against the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors).
10. Can the Wolves win a game? Just one game?
It feels like the Minnesota Timberwolves are in deep, deep trouble against the Houston Rockets. Their defense was only marginally better than last season despite adding Tom Thibodeau’s old buddies Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, and their offense — while very efficient — doesn’t have the juice that Houston’s does. It would be impressive if Minnesota can just ugly up the series, old-school-Thibodeau-style, and make the Rockets work for their wins.
11. Can Simmons keep this up?
Ben Simmons’ post-All-Star break averages — 14.5 points, 9.8 assists, 8.9 rebounds, 58.9 percent shooting — make me giggle like an idiot. Also relevant: the Sixers have outscored opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions with the 6-foot-10 rookie point guard on the court in that same span. Simmons is somehow already among the game’s elite, and this postseason run could be a coronation of sorts for Philadelphia.
On the other hand, the Miami Heat’s roster is stacked with versatile, athletic defenders. They can switch pick-and-rolls and let Justise Winslow, James Johnson and Josh Richardson take turns as Simmons’ primary defender. Erik Spoelstra is a brilliant tactician, and Miami will do whatever it can to take Simmons’ driving and passing lanes away. Continuing to dominate will be a challenge.
12. What will Playoff Wade look like?
Did you see that Spoelstra quoted Toby Keith to SB Nation’s Seerat Sohi? It’s a perfect way to think about Dwyane Wade as he enters the playoffs: “I’m not as good as I once was. But I’m as good once, as I ever was. I truly believe Dwyane is every bit who he used to be in those iconic seasons. Those moments just may have to be a little bit more compact.”
Spoelstra added that he will “go to my grave with the ball in Dwyane Wade’s hands with the game on the line.” Heat fans understand this, having seen him take over games and hit big shots in countless high-pressure situations. Wade has shot only 40.9 percent in his return to Miami, though, and he has made only 22 percent of his 3-pointers.
All of this adds up to an odd dynamic. Wade is at once a franchise player and a role player. He averaged 22.2 minutes with the Heat in the regular season and that number might not rise in the playoffs. If it is crunch time, though, and they need a bucket to put the Sixers away, it is obvious who Spoelstra trusts.
13. How much will star power matter in Celtics-Bucks?
No series provides a window into the value of star power in the postseason quite like this one. Conventional wisdom dictates that, if you have the best player in a series, you have a chance to win. Theoretically, playoff-level scouting and defense means that pretty, egalitarian, movement-oriented offenses get gummed up, and that’s when a traditional star — someone who can create something out of nothing, even against high-quality defense — is something between valuable and essential.
The Celtics, without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, have no such player. Al Horford is a star, but of a totally different type. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown could be stars one day, but that day is probably not within the next few weeks. Boston coach Brad Stevens will not ask anyone — no, not even Terry Rozier — to be a hero here. This team is going to have to do things a different way, with creative play-calling, stifling defense and opportunistic scoring.
The Bucks, meanwhile, employ Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Eight bonus questions: Remember Malcolm Brogdon? How obscenely large will the 3-point differential be in the Houston-Minnesota series? Is Kelly Oubre the X-factor he was supposed to be? How much does Miami’s deep bench matter? Can Jusuf Nurkic stay on the floor? Will Myles Turner put himself back in the unicorn universe? Is Corey Brewer really healthy (and can you believe how much this question matters for Oklahoma City)? Will the Warriors clean up their turnover problem?