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The clean slates offered in the NBA playoffs are invitations to bathe in optimism.
We’re not falling into that trap here.
Our glasses are three-quarters empty, and we’re gladly dashing dreams across the basketball landscape.
Sure, if you get creative enough, you can probably manufacture an absolute-best-case-scenario championship path for all 16 teams in the real Big Dance. But let’s be honest—the playoffs will end in disappointment for 15 outfits. You don’t have to dig too deep to find where most postseason runs can go awry.
We’re finding the vulnerabilities of each title contender—a term we’ll generously expand to teams other than just the Golden State Warriors. Any squad FiveThirtyEight projects as having at least a 1 percent chance of advancing to the NBA Finals makes our cut here.
Got it? Good.
Let the bubble-bursting commence.
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The Boston Celtics aren’t who we thought they were.
We expected machine-like precision, togetherness and a boatload of victories. We got sloppy stretches, finger-pointing and a slew of bad losses instead. The Shamrocks may have the widest gap between their whole and the sum of their parts, and we mean that in the worst way possible.
“Most teams go through a period where they have to become a team,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said in late February, via NBC Boston. “And sometimes that period takes 10 games, 20 games, 30 games, 60 games and sometimes it never happens. Those are the teams that fall short of where they want to be. And we’re not where we need to be or where we’d like to be consistently enough.”
This could already be Kyrie Irving‘s final postseason in Boston. Marcus Smart might miss a month or more. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier are all shooting worse than last season. Gordon Hayward hasn’t even approached his pre-injury All-Star form.
Boston has question marks on top of question marks, and time is running out to find answers.
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No one can tell the Denver Nuggets to act like they’ve been here before because prior to Saturday’s series-opener, a lot of them hadn’t.
Nine different Nuggets saw action in their 101-96 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Six were making their playoff debuts, including key starters Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. This was also Nuggets skipper Mike Malone’s first postseason contest as a head coach, while his counterpart, Gregg Popovich, set the record for most total victories in NBA history.
“Gregg Popovich has five [championship] rings. I have a wedding ring,” Malone told reporters before the series.
Denver only has one 30-something in its rotation, and just four players are on the wrong side of 25. That’s an asset for the future of this franchise. It might also be a hindrance on the present. The Nuggets played like a young team this season, demolishing teams at home (10.6 net rating, second overall) but struggling away from the Mile High City (minus-2.5, 14th).
The naiveté of youth can be liberating to a degree; it eases some pressure since the players can’t fully grasp the stakes of the situation. But history shows contenders must crawl before they walk, and this year feels like a foundation-setter for the organization.
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Admit it. You’ve caught yourself wondering a time or two if this might finally be the year in which the Golden State Warriors fall apart.
The players bickered. The win column (relatively) underwhelmed. The defense proved as generous as ever during head coach Steve Kerr’s tenure. Newcomer DeMarcus Cousins had a negative net rating differential. This was a bottom-five bench by points and threes per game.
If you want to be concerned about the Warriors, those are your primary worries.
But Saturday night showed why it’s so hard to question this club. The Dubs had two stars (Cousins and Klay Thompson) shoot below 36 percent, and they still went for 121 points in a Game 1 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. The other three stars (Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green) tallied 78 points on 59.1 percent shooting (61.1 percent outside). Five-star squads probably shouldn’t be possible, but here we are.
In a vacuum, the shooting/scoring depth and ongoing acclimation of Cousins are legitimate concerns. But with a historic collection of top-level talent, Golden State is a heavy favorite to take the crown as long as it remains healthy and focused.
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There are massive workloads, and then there’s the burden James Harden had to carry through the 2018-19 campaign. His was just the sixth season in which a player logged at least 2,000 minutes with a usage percentage of at least 37. (Harden, by the way, blew past both numbers with 2,867 minutes and a season-high 40.5 usage rate.)
That’s an endurance test of historic proportions. It’s also an ominous tone-setter for the playoffs. Of the five players to clear both marks before the Beard, none advanced beyond the opening round.
The fear of fatigue is real, especially considering some of the unspectacular flameouts Harden has experienced in past postseasons. His elimination-game losses in 2017 (10 points on 2-of-11 shooting) and 2015 (14 points and 12 turnovers on 2-of-11 shooting) exaggerated his playoff reputation in a bad way, but it’s worth mentioning he’s shot above 31 percent from distance just once in the past five postseasons.
Houston’s other issues forced Harden to shoulder such a heavy weight.
Chris Paul hasn’t been himself all season. The loss of Trevor Ariza was never really addressed. Eric Gordon has battled inconsistency. Clint Capela’s points are mostly spoon-fed buckets.
Following Harden’s lead is one thing. Relying on him to make magic every night is quite another, especially when he might be running out of gas.
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Head coach Mike Budenholzer’s Milwaukee Bucks embrace the three-ball like no other team outside Space City.
They went from rarely launching (25th in attempts last season) to firing with the Association’s second-highest frequency. They aren’t the sharpest of shooters (14th in accuracy), but the volume is high enough that their opponents must flood the three-point arc. That, in turn, opens the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo to do MVP things.
For all the focus on their own three-point shooting, though, they have a tendency to give their opposition too much space. The Bucks ranked dead last in opponents’ three-point makes (13.1) and attempts (36.3). While they try funneling those shots to bad shooters, they still surrender more wide-open three-point looks than anyone. Even erratic NBA shooters can knock those down consistently.
While every team has a weakness, any tied to three-point defense can be particularly problematic in the modern NBA. So many different offenses are built around quality-plus-quantity outside attacks, and most of them are in this playoff field. The Bucks are one of eight different playoff teams to finish among the top 10 in three-point makes. Between the two conferences, five are seeded fourth or higher.
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What a bizarre season for Russell Westbrook.
He averaged a triple-double for the third straight year. We weren’t sure anyone would do that once in our lifetimes, and he does it so often we’ve become numb to the achievement. Big hat tip to the Brodie on that.
But…he might’ve been the league’s worst jump-shooter, as NBA.com’s John Schuhmann explained:
“On shots from outside the paint, Westbrook had an effective field goal percentage of 38.1 percent, the second lowest mark (higher than only that of Giannis Antetokounmpo) among 218 players with at least 200 field goal attempts from outside the paint. He shot 31.8 percent from mid-range, the worst mark among players with at least 200 mid-range attempts, and 29.0 percent from 3-point range, the worst mark among players with at least 250 3-point attempts.”
Westbrook’s shooting woes are troubling on their own, but they emerge as a possible fatal flaw when viewed from the team level. The Oklahoma City Thunder can’t shoot. They finished 23rd in three-point percentage and 28th in accuracy from the stripe. Ten different players attempted at least 50 threes, and only three of them connected on 35-plus percent: Paul George (38.6), Jerami Grant (39.2) and Terrance Ferguson (36.6).
OKC’s wins or losses are often determined by whether its shots are falling. It posted a respectable 47.2/38.0/73.8 slash line in triumphs but saw the bottom drop out with a 42.8/30.7/67.6 mark in defeats.
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The Philadelphia 76ers are banking on talent winning out.
On paper, their revamped starting group of Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick looks like the NBA’s fiercest outside Oakland. But it’s also light on shooting, maybe too heavy on ball-dominance and racing against time to mask the fact it only suited up 10 times together in the regular season.
“We’ve had so many setbacks since the … trade, since we got all together. We haven’t really gotten the rhythm that we hoped, but it’s basketball,” Embiid said, per The Athletic’s Michael Lee. “We’re all so talented, so it’s on us to figure it out.”
No pressure, fellas, but there might not be another one for this nucleus if it doesn’t happen this postseason.
From Embiid’s health and Simmons’ limitations to Harris’ disappearing act and an impossibly bad shooting effort (3-of-25 from three), everything that could go wrong did go wrong in Philly’s Game 1 loss to the Brooklyn Nets. It seems like they have enough talent to overcome a rocky start, but the Sixers also have enough big-picture issues to worry their dud of a debut was symptomatic of roster pieces that don’t fit.
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Kawhi Leonard’s postseason debut for the Toronto Raptors wasn’t perfect. During the contest’s final five seconds, he was involved in a defensive miscommunication that allowed the Orlando Magic to grab a three-point lead and air-balled the potential tying shot.
But he looked like the game’s best player more often than not, netting a team-high 25 points on an efficient 10-of-18 shooting (3-of-5 from outside). Unfortunately, he also looked like he might be the solo star on a championship hopeful.
Kyle Lowry, Leonard’s only All-Star teammate, played 34 scoreless minutes, misfiring on all seven of his shots. His floor game was fine (eight assists, seven boards and a team-high plus-11), but postseason goose eggs shouldn’t happen for high-level sidekicks.
“We need to get him involved a little bit offensively, and we need some points from [him],” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said, per The Athletic’s Eric Koreen.
Pascal Siakam is a great glue guy, but he’s not a star. Marc Gasol hasn’t worn that label in a little while now.
For Toronto to make a lengthy run, Lowry needs to be great. He has that in him, but he’s also coming off his worst scoring season since 2012-13. That his career averages show worse shooting rates and per-36-minute production in the playoffs than the regular season doesn’t inspire confidence he can flip the switch.
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Donovan Mitchell might be awaiting his first All-Star Game invitation, but he’s already giving the Utah Jazz star-level production.
In particular, his post-break play this season was phenomenal. He cleared the 30-point mark in one-third of his outings, tied for ninth overall with 26.7 points per outing, assembled a scorching 46.1/45.1/82.7 shooting slash and was one of only 11 players to average 25 points, four rebounds and four assists.
“He’s skilled, very skilled, very talented,” James Harden said, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “He can do a lot of things with the basketball. Very, very good shooter, off the dribble and catch-and-shoot. No matter who’s guarding him, you have to make it difficult on him, contest his shots, contest at the rim and make him a playmaker.”
We know what you’re thinking: What’s the problem with too much Mitchell, then? It’s that Utah has yet to find suitable safety valves to ease the burden on its second-year scoring guard.
Rudy Gobert was the Jazz’s second-best scorer at 15.9 points per game, which ranked 58th throughout the NBA. Ricky Rubio, a career 38.8 percent shooter, is ostensibly the third option at 12.7 points per game (90th in the league). Joe Ingles has more offensive tools than the other two, but he’s also a 31-year-old who just averaged a career-high 12.1 points. His high floor is nice, but his low ceiling saps his growth potential.
Mitchell, a streaky shooter, might face an impossible task while trying to carry an undermanned offense against playoff defenses game-planning specifically against him.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.