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The playoffs resume tonight after a rate night off. With every second-round series looking tight, 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. More likely outcome in Game 3 — Giannis and Jrue Holiday combining to shoot under 50 percent again, or the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combining to make better than 50 percent of their 3s again?
Ben Ladner, The Step Back: I don’t think either will happen in Game 3, but I’d say the former is more likely than the latter. The Celtics played excellent defense on Giannis in Game 2, and Holiday has routinely forgotten how to play offense at various points in the postseason. Meanwhile, neither Brown nor Tatum is an elite 3-point shooter and Tatum in particular will have to shoot under duress throughout the rest of the series. The Bucks started to figure out ways to get Giannis going in the second half of Game 2 and they’ll have the home crowd behind them, but both have struggled to generate easy looks in the series. I think it’s generally smart to bet on poor shooting from both teams in this series.
Michael Saenz, Sir Charles in Charge: Giannis Antetokounmpo only shot under 50 percent 21 times this season. He’s happened to do so against the Boston Celtics in each of the first two games. Jrue Holiday hasn’t shot over 50 percent at all through the Bucks’ first seven games in the postseason. That said, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can’t both shoot over 50 percent from 3 again, RIGHT?!
The Milwaukee Bucks’ dynamic duo is kind of due for a breakout offensive game. At home, with a chance to inch one step closer to an Eastern Conference Finals berth in Game 3, perhaps this is the moment. The Celtics’ defense is good but eventually, Giannis and Jrue are going to figure something out. I bet it happens in Game 3.
Tyler Watts, The Smoking Cuban: This is shaping up to be a fun series with plenty of back and forth. The Bucks landed the first punch, but the Celtics responded with a haymaker of their own in Game 2.
Statistically speaking, Jayson Tatum shot better than 50 percent from 3-point range 17 times during the regular season and Jaylen Brown did it 22 times. Giannis Antetokounmpo made fewer than 50 percent of his field goals 21 times, while Jrue Holiday did it in 26 different games. The more likely occurrence is the Bucks duo shooting under 50 percent from the field, but that does not mean it will. Do not expect either to happen on Saturday night. Brown made more than 50 percent of his 3-point attempts just eight times on the road this season. Expect the Celtics duo to struggle from long range in Milwaukee.
Giannis is still the best player in this series, and the defending champions have no plans of losing on their home floor. The Celtics may have the best defense in the NBA right now, but the Greek Freak goes for 40 as the Bucks grab the 2-1 edge in the series in Game 3.
2. Assuming Joel Embiid can return for Game 3, how much would he have to give the 76ers for them to get back in the series?
Ben Ladner, The Step Back: More than I believe he’ll be able to, which isn’t so much a knock on Embiid it is a reflection of Philadelphia’s situation. It would take something truly superhuman for anyone to carry this roster out of a 2-0 hole against the East’s top seed, and it’s hard to imagine Embiid being fully himself after so much time off with so many nagging injuries. This might have been a compelling series if both teams were at full strength; Embiid is not only one of the three best players in basketball, but exactly the kind of player Miami doesn’t match up with very well on paper. But at this point, it seems to be heading for a fairly anticlimactic end.
Michael Saenz, Sir Charles in Charge: As Erik Spoelstra said after Game 2, it would be irresponsible to not assume that Joel Embiid is going to be back for Game 3. And assuming he is back and somewhat close to form, there’s no question that the Sixers can win both games at home. The key here is: that Embiid has to be somewhat close to his MVP form.
Embiid wouldn’t just need to give the Sixers a morale boost by playing 15-20 minutes, but he’d have to be the leader that he’s been all season long. He would have to be a difference-maker to the extent where he could take significant pressure off of James Harden on the offensive end and be an All-NBA paint-deterrent on the defensive end. More than anything, what this team needs most is its MVP back.
Tyler Watts, The Smoking Cuban: Great question! The Sixers have been dominated by the Heat in each of the first two games while getting almost zero production from their center spot. Bam Adebayo has feasted on the Sixers in Embidd’s absence going for 23.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.5 steals on 71.4 percent shooting from the field. Just getting the 28-year-old superstar back in the lineup to defend Bam would be massive for Philly.
Embiid has struggled against the Heat this season. He had 32 points and 12 rebounds on 12-of-22 shooting in a January win, but he was held to 39 points on 9-of-28 from the field combined in the two other meetings. The Sixers would need a healthy Joel Embiid to average an efficient 25 and 12 to have a chance to knock off the Heat.
3. How do you explain Chris Paul, who turns 37 today, having arguably his best postseason ever?
Ben Ladner, The Step Back: Paul doesn’t have nearly the quickness or straight-line burst he used to, nor is he the knockdown 3-point shooter he was even a year ago. But he’s smarter than ever before, which allows him to create advantages by keeping opponents off-balance. Paul has become a technical wizard, with an almost infinite number of tricks in his bag, and he knows exactly how defenses will react to his every move — be it a pass, shot or dribbling maneuver. He knows what his opponent expects him to do and, more importantly, how to manipulate those expectations into a state of confusion.
You might take away what you think Paul wants to do, but you’re really only opening the door to what he really wants. The mere possibility of one move sets up another equally lethal one, and defenders are often so afraid of being caught off-guard by some act of advanced sorcery that they unwittingly concede something basic. The improved spacing of the modern NBA also gives Paul more room to operate in the mid-range, where he’s most comfortable, and the balance of the Suns’ roster allows him to play within his limits. That and going vegan, I guess.
Michael Saenz, Sir Charles in Charge: Honestly, what Chris Paul is doing this postseason is unprecedented. It rivals what LeBron James managed to do during the regular season at his advanced age. When the Phoenix Suns needed him most (when Devin Booker went down with an injury) he stepped up in a huge way. And he’s carried that momentum to the second round in which Dallas, even with Luka Doncic, doesn’t even look like it belongs on the same court as the Suns.
What CP3 is doing is difficult to explain other than giving props to Phoenix’s medical staff, which has been praised for decades as one of the NBA’s best, and the driving force of losing in the NBA Finals last season and realizing that this might be his last best chance to win a ring.
Tyler Watts, The Smoking Cuban: The Dallas Mavericks are asking the same question after CP3 shredded them in the fourth quarter of Game 2 to put the Suns up 2-0 in the series. Paul is one of the best point guards of all time, so his performance has not exactly come out of nowhere, but doing it at 37 years old after logging over 44,000 NBA minutes is unheard of, especially for a point guard. John Stockton was still leading the Jazz in the playoffs into his 40s, but he was not averaging 22.6 points per game in the postseason like CP3.
It is easy to forget that Chris Paul was virtually written off after the Rockets traded him to Oklahoma City in 2019 for Russell Westbrook. CP3 credits going vegan with his late-career revival, and it has me thinking about making the switch. Chris Paul has been amazing, and he’s not done. The Suns look like the clear title favorites, and he will be leading their offense all the way. Do not take his performance for granted as this could be the last run for Paul at the peak of his powers.
Other NBA stories:
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Parity is the story in FiveThirtyEight’s WNBA season projections — six different teams have between a 19 and 9 percent chance of winning it all. Also, Howard Megdal has one number to pay attention to for each team.
This interactive career retrospective for Sue Bird is the perfect way to celebrate her greatness as she begins her final season.