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The Miami Heat have already punched their ticket to the next round and the Warriors and Bucks could do so tonight. With the Conference Finals just days away, I tapped in some of the best minds from The Step Back and FanSided’s NBA network to break down some of the biggest lingering questions.
1. Which player remaining in the NBA Playoffs is the most unstoppable, the most matchup-proof?
Ben Ladner, The Step Back: I think the stars whose games are hardest to disrupt are Devin Booker and Chris Paul, though I don’t think what they do is as valuable as even slightly diminished versions of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler or Steph Curry (or Joel Embiid, before Thursday night). Of those three, I think my answer would be Giannis, who somehow finds his way through every wall that’s thrown at him in the playoffs. Opponents will load up on Antetokounmpo’s drives, send double-teams, look for charges and foul to try and stop him from getting to the rim, yet he always finds his way there eventually. He’s never been better as a passer, and while the Bucks haven’t been able to fully unleash him as a roll man without Khris Middleton available, Giannis has compensated with passable mid-range shooting and more matchup-hunting against Boston’s weakest defenders. Defensively, he might be even better in the postseason than he is in the regular season, which allows him to dominate games alongside another big man or as an ultra-versatile center.
Dalton Sell, Behind The Bucks Pass: Some will call me biased, but the answer is Giannis Antetokounmpo. People were saying early on that the Boston Celtics, who boast arguably the NBA’s best defense, had figured him out in this series, but Antetokounmpo has silenced that crowd entirely with what has been a dominant series through five games. Opposing teams can continue to try and build that wall to prevent Antetokounmpo from scoring inside, but he has shown that he can work around that.
Jordanna Clark, Nothin’ But Nets and Daily Knicks: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Out of the remaining players in the playoffs, he’s hands down the toughest to guard. Just ask Grant Williams. His 40-point performance to put the Bucks up 3-2 over the Celtics on Wednesday night continued to prove that he should be the only answer to this question. We all saw what he did in the playoffs last year and he’s playing with the same, if not higher, level of intensity.
2. The NBA just announced they’ll be handing out MVP awards for the Eastern and Western Conference Finals. Give me your East and West MVP picks for the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Ben Ladner, The Step Back: Despite the fact that his team just got bounced and he missed multiple games in the playoffs, it might be Joel Embiid, who gave the Raptors and Heat fits with multiple injuries and downright terrorized them in the games he was healthy. Two rough showings against Miami showed how punchless the Sixers can be without Embiid, and the fact that two excellent defenses couldn’t really do anything with him proved how immutable his impact is. Butler and Giannis are a close second and third (apologies to Al Horford). In the West, Curry has been a little bit better than Luka Doncic, Chris Paul, Devin Booker or Ja Morant because of his enormous off-ball offensive impact and positive value on defense. The Grizzlies have forced him into a less efficient series than the one he had against the Nuggets, but his ability to create in isolation and pick-and-roll when the Warriors’ offense grinds down has made the difference in multiple games of the series. Besides, you can only do so much to stop Curry before you start giving up easy buckets to his teammates.
Dalton Sell, Behind The Bucks Pass: For the Eastern Conference, the answer is Giannis Antetokounmpo. What he has been able to do without the Milwaukee Bucks’ second-leading scorer in Khris Middleton for most of these playoffs has been astonishing. Antetokounmpo’s two-way brilliance is the reason why the Bucks are one win away from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. For the Western Conference, I say the nod should go to Luka Doncic, given what he has done for the Dallas Mavericks this postseason. The guard has put up some impressive numbers and is currently going toe to toe with the defending Western Conference Champions due to his herculean effort.
Jordanna Clark, Nothin’ But Nets and Daily Knicks: It’s Giannis Antetokounmpo in the East, for the reasons listed above. The West is tough but I’m going to have to go with Luka Doncic and that answer will be solidified if the Mavericks beat the Suns in Game 7. He had to miss Dallas’ first three games in round one but in his nine playoff games thus far, he’s averaging 31.1 points. I don’t think that the Mavericks have what it takes to make it over the hump and to the Finals if they do advance to the WCF, but based on what we’ve all witnessed, it’s hard to count Doncic out.
3. Which is a bigger problem for the Mavericks — a lack of depth, or Luka Doncic’s inability to maximize existing depth?
Ben Ladner, The Step Back: Doncic’s ball-dominant style makes me lean toward the latter. Doncic is an easy pathway to a good offense, but other players who work best with the ball in their hands — like Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie — hit a point of diminishing returns playing next to someone who creates that much of the offense. I also think Doncic’s inactive off-ball game makes it hard to run a very active offense, which means secondary creators are often relegated to spot-up duty while Doncic runs pick-and-rolls. Either they or Doncic is a live threat at a given time, but seldom both at once. A more collaborative offense could help unleash Doncic in a wider range of roles and maximize more of Dallas’ playmaking talent, but it would require Doncic to fundamentally change the way he plays.
Dalton Sell, Behind The Bucks Pass: This is a bit of a tough one. There have been plenty of remarks made about the Mavericks’ depth, but they do have a quality supporting cast around Doncic, including Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, and others. There may not be a legitimate second superstar or even All-Star, but the pieces are solid. Yet, it is hard to say that Luka is not maximizing the existing depth when the role players struggle so mightily on the road during the postseason. He cannot be blamed for them missing open shots off his passes, after all. I’ll say a lack of depth is the bigger problem, but depth as in a legitimate All-Star or superstar second fiddle like most stars around the league have. Brunson is great, but he is not on that level yet.
Jordanna Clark, Nothin’ But Nets and Daily Knicks: I think that the lack of depth is a bigger problem, especially after watching Luka Doncic drop 33 points on Thursday night to force a Game 7 against the team that finished with a league-best 64-18 regular-season record. I don’t know if the Mavericks will be able to advance to the WCF, but if they do, it’ll be hard to see them make it past either the Grizzlies or the Warriors. There’s clearly something special going on in Dallas but the lack of depth is something that the Mavericks lack. Let’s hope for their sake that they can find a way to re-sign Jalen Brunson during the offseason.
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