The Milwaukee Bucks have taken care of business, blitzing past the Miami Heat in four games. The Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks are each one win away from joining them in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
What happens next in the Western Conference playoffs, though, is anyone’s guess.
Outside of the Utah Jazz vs. Memphis Grizzlies series, which the Jazz lead 3-1, the three remaining matchups — Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets vs. Portland Trail Blazers — are tied, with critical Game 5s ahead.
Which factors will decide the series that are locked at 2-2? How many matchups are going seven games? Can the New York Knicks send their series back to the ATL?
Our experts discuss what lies ahead in the first round.
1. Aside from Anthony Davis‘ health, what will most determine the winner of Suns-Lakers?
Tim Bontemps: The combination of Chris Paul‘s health and Deandre Ayton‘s play. I thought this was a toss-up series to begin with, and Paul’s shoulder issue swung the pendulum in L.A.’s favor in Games 2 and 3, while Anthony Davis’ groin injury helped swing it back to Phoenix in Game 4. Davis’ health will loom over the rest of the series, but if Paul continues to play like he did in Game 4 and Ayton remains an impactful player, the Suns should be favored to close this series out. Even if Davis plays, it’s hard to envision him back at 100 percent.
Andrew Lopez: Chris Paul’s right shoulder. It has been bothering him ever since the second quarter in Game 1 when he first injured it. Paul fought through the rest of that victory, but it was clearly hampering him in the following two games. After Game 4’s win, Paul told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that Suns coach Monty Williams was going to hold him out of Sunday’s game but he protested — and went on to score a team-high 18 points with nine assists and no turnovers.
Ramona Shelburne: Dennis Schroder. Schroder is supposed to be the Lakers’ third-best player. In the Lakers’ two wins, he absolutely has been, averaging 22 points and shooting 52% from the field, with the Lakers plus-11 in those minutes. In the Lakers two losses, he has been a nonfactor, averaging 11 points on 40% shooting, with the Lakers plus-8.
Brian Windhorst: Whether the Lakers can score. These guys are elite defenders, almost no matter the adversity they face. But, man, is it vital, because their offense just isn’t there many days. They rely heavily on greatness from their superstars and the occasional hot 3-point streak. (In last season’s bubble, they had tremendous outside shooting, and it eased the burden on LeBron James.) With Anthony Davis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope banged up, it’s a big lift. But they’ve had a lot of open looks in this series that they’ve missed, so the defending champs just need some better execution.
Royce Young: Paul’s right shoulder. Paul looked much more like himself in Game 4, even declaring, “I’m back,” after hitting his patented midrange leaner. But his control of the offense is critical to Phoenix’s execution, particularly late in games. Devin Booker is sensational, but Paul’s stability in crunch time — he was sixth in the league this season in clutch points — could be what decides the series.
2. What will most determine the winner of Clippers-Mavs?
Bontemps: The Clippers’ defense. Can they keep up their intensity from Game 4 throughout the rest of the series? Yes, the Mavericks were unsustainably hot from 3-point range in the first three games of this series. But the Clippers also played with a different level of energy in Game 4, led by Nicolas Batum getting four steals and two blocks while finishing a plus-27 in 36 minutes.
Lopez: The health of Luca Doncic. He acknowledged the nerve pain he was feeling in his neck, and Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle told reporters, “It appeared to me that he couldn’t turn left, couldn’t look to his left.” Aside from that, how the Mavericks continue to adjust to the Clippers’ new starting lineup with Nicolas Batum instead of Ivica Zubac also will be key here.
Shelburne: The Clippers deserve a ton of credit for how they played in Dallas after dropping the first two games at home. But Luka Doncic was the best player on the court until he hurt his neck in Game 3, and that’s saying a lot, considering how good Kawhi Leonard has been. I’d like to see this series with everyone at close to full strength, because it is a fascinating matchup. But if Doncic isn’t healthy, it’s hard to see how the Mavericks win now that the Clips are rolling.
Windhorst: Can Doncic pass? His neck injury has affected the series but especially his passing. The Mavericks crushed the Clippers’ defense in the first two games, shooting an outrageous 35-for-70 on 3-pointers. But with limited mobility in his arm and neck, Doncic just hasn’t been as effective setting up the offense. The Clippers are pushing hard now, and the Mavs need a full-powered Doncic.
Young: The health of Doncic. He quite clearly didn’t look right in Game 4, and the trickle-down effect has massive implications in a number of areas for the Mavs. Doncic puts so much pressure on a defense; so, if the Clippers don’t have to be as concerned with him, they can put locks on the role players who were so good in Games 1 and 2.
3. What will most determine the winner of Nuggets-Blazers?
Bontemps: The play of Michael Porter Jr. Nikola Jokic‘s poor Game 4 was clearly an outlier, and he’ll all but certainly be great in Game 5. But the Nuggets simply have to get more from MPJ than they did in Game 4, when he scored only three points in 23 minutes. If Porter can’t provide a big offensive game alongside Jokic, this series might not make it back to Denver for a Game 7.
Lopez: Whether Nikola Jokic gets his teammates going. Portland’s game plan of letting Jokic score has generally worked. Jokic has 12 assists in the series, and he is averaging just 7.8 potential assists per game, per NBA.com stats. That’s behind Facundo Campazzo (10.8) and Monte Morris (8.3). In the regular season, when he averaged 8.3 assists per game, Jokic averaged 13.8 potential assists per game.
Shelburne: Norman Powell. He was awesome on both sides of the ball in Game 4, leading the Blazers with 29 points on 11-for-15 shooting and stout defense on the much taller Michael Porter Jr. Powell held MPJ to just three shots in Game 4. Three! Portland has never been known as a great defensive team, but if the Blazers can keep throwing different looks at Denver, they’ve got a shot at the upset.
Windhorst: The play of Michael Porter Jr. He played at an All-NBA level down the stretch of the season, elevating his output after Jamal Murray tore his ACL and becoming the type of weapon that the Nuggets believe will lead to a title someday. But the Blazers have challenged him, applying pressure to Nikola Jokic and his ability to create offense because they’re betting Porter won’t step up. Porter has shot just 41% in the past three games, and he took just three shots in Game 4. If this continues, Portland will probably win it.
Young: Whether Denver’s role players hold up. The Blazers have made a bet since Game 1 that the Nuggets’ role players won’t be able to consistently produce throughout the series. They’ve tried to make Jokic one-dimensional, turning him into a score-first center. Denver got an answer in the form of Austin Rivers in Game 3, but no one showed up in Game 4. Simply put: The Nuggets need two big games from Michael Porter Jr.
Stephen A. Smith sounds off on Julius Randle’s play throughout the Knicks’ first-round playoff series with the Hawks.
4. What’s one thing the Knicks can do to win Game 5?
Bontemps: A good game from Julius Randle would be a start. To have any chance of extending this series to a sixth game, the Knicks will need more from the NBA’s 2021 Most Improved Player, who has shot 20-for-73 from the field — including an abysmal 13-for-49 on 2-point shots — through the first four games.
Lopez: Win the non-Trae Young minutes. In their regular-season sweep of Atlanta, the Knicks were plus-42 when Young sat and minus-16 when he was on the court. In Game 2, the Knicks were plus-14 when Young was on the bench and minus-5 otherwise. In Knicks losses in Games 1, 3 and 4, the Hawks won the battle when Young wasn’t out there, although it was even in Game 4 because of garbage time stats. (Atlanta was plus-9 before the benches emptied with 3:05 left.)
Shelburne: Reggie Bullock. He has been expending so much energy defending Trae Young, it’s hard for him to get much going offensively. Normally, that’s a trade the Knicks would make. But with Julius Randle struggling too, they need to reestablish Bullock as a 3-point threat to create space and make Young have to work defensively.
Windhorst: Make some shots. The Knicks are defending well enough to win, but their offense, mostly because Julius Randle is in the middle of a gruesome slump (27.4% shooting for the series), isn’t workable. The Hawks have improved defensively under Nate McMillan, but the Knicks’ shooting deficiencies are being aired for the world to see. Only the Heat, who were swept, have been worse offensively in the playoffs than New York.
Young: Make Trae Young work. The Knicks need more from Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, but they also have to figure out a way to slow down Atlanta’s explosive offense. That starts with wearing down Young, and not just with more traps and blitzing. They need to attack him on the defensive end, running him off screens and isolating on him. The Knicks must go after Young and take advantage of the mismatches.
5. How many first-round series will go seven games?
Bontemps: I’ll go out on a limb and say none. The East series still taking place should all end in Game 5. In the West, the teams that won Game 4 in the 2-2 series — the Suns, Blazers and Clippers — seem well-positioned (in Phoenix’s case due to the Davis injury; the others because of successful changes made in Game 4) to close out their respective series in six games. However, I’ll be the first to say that I hope I’m wrong. I’ll happily take a weekend full of Game 7s.
Lopez: Two. I’m not sure Knicks-Hawks makes it to seven now, so that might take care of the entire Eastern Conference. I could certainly see the three West series that are all tied at 2-2 going seven, but I’ll pick two of them to do so: Suns-Lakers and Blazers-Nuggets. The winner between Phoenix and Los Angeles will come down to health, but on the court, it’s been a good series. For Portland and Denver, the Nikola Jokic-Damian Lillard battle just feels like it should go the distance.
Shelburne: Two. Lakers-Suns, Mavericks-Clippers, Knicks-Hawks and Blazers-Nuggets all feel like the kind of series that can go seven games — because of injuries to stars or adjustments being made game to game by the respective coaching staffs. I’ll say two of the four actually go the distance.
Windhorst: Two. Lakers-Suns and Clippers-Mavs. Injuries are playing big roles in these series. Uncertainty and recovery will define them and likely continue to stretch them out.
Young: Three. The Clippers and Mavs look destined for seven, especially if Doncic improves physically. The Suns and Lakers are both excellent teams, and health factors are opening doors to extend it. And the Nuggets and Blazers seem contractually obligated to play seven games in the playoffs. Everything else should be wrapped up in five or six.
Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley to miss Game 2 vs. LA Clippers
Conley, 33, an All-Star for the first time this season, has missed significant time because of injuries to both hamstrings during his two seasons in Utah. He missed six games in February and nine games in late April and May due to tightness in his right hamstring.
Conley averaged 17.4 points and 8.6 assists for the top-seeded Jazz in the first round.
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon contributed to this report.
USA Basketball sets plan for Olympic camps in Las Vegas
For USA Basketball, the last stop before the Tokyo Olympics will be Las Vegas.
The men’s and women’s national teams will hold training camps in Las Vegas in July, they announced Thursday, and they’ll be playing seven exhibitions there against other Olympics-bound national teams as well.
USA Basketball will open its men’s training camp, led by coach Gregg Popovich, in Las Vegas on July 6. The Olympic men’s teams from Australia, Nigeria, Argentina and reigning Basketball World Cup champion Spain will also be spending some time in Las Vegas; Argentina will start its training camp there this month.
The U.S. women’s training camp under coach Dawn Staley will likely open around July 12; the WNBA break for the Olympics starts after the games of July 11. The Olympic women’s teams joining the U.S. in Las Vegas are Australia and Nigeria.
It’ll all take place at the MGM Resorts, which was announced as USA Basketball’s training camp home and resorts partner with the sides having now agreed to a multi-year sponsorship deal.
“USA Basketball is proud to expand its partnership with MGM Resorts,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley said. “We’re excited to bring our national teams to their properties as we prepare for the challenging competition that lies ahead this summer.”
The U.S. men are seeking a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal, the U.S. women their seventh in a row. Both will enter the Olympics ranked No. 1 by FIBA, the sport’s international governing body — though it remains unknown who the Americans will have on their rosters for the rescheduled Tokyo Games.
Those rosters could be set by the end of June. Some top NBA players such as Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers have expressed some interest in being part of the Olympic team; others, such as LeBron James and Anthony Davis — Los Angeles Lakers teammates who were dealing with injuries when their season ended last week — are not planning to join the team.
All teams in Las Vegas will be taking part in what USA Basketball described as “comprehensive health and safety protocols … including mandatory and regular COVID-19 PCR testing, administered to athletes, coaches, officials and staff in accordance with FIBA and USA Basketball recommendations and CDC guidelines.”
Those concerns are why the international teams opted to spend time in Las Vegas. Argentina’s men’s team is conducting the entirety of its three-week camp there before flying to Tokyo, simply because it believes a controlled environment and less traveling between different countries will minimize virus-related risks before the Olympics.
“We were lucky and, at the same time, we deserved it to get an organization like USA Basketball to extend this invitation to us,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said. “In such a complicated context it doesn’t get better than this.”
The games are set up as part of five doubleheaders, and fans will be able to attend the matchups at MGM’s Michelob Ultra Arena. Tickets go on sale next week.
July 10 — U.S. men vs. Nigeria, Argentina vs. Australia
July 12 — Argentina vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Australia
July 13 — U.S. men vs. Argentina, Australia vs. Nigeria
July 16 — U.S. women vs. Australia, U.S. men vs. Australia
July 18 — U.S. women vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Spain
The Nigeria-U.S. women’s game will be a prequel to the teams’ Olympic meeting on July 27 in Tokyo, the first game there for both of those teams. Nigeria and the U.S. are both in Group B at the Olympics, along with Japan and France.
The Australia-Nigeria men’s game is also the warmup for an Olympics-opening matchup. They’ll play in a Group B game on July 25.
The men’s teams from Spain and Argentina — the teams that played in the World Cup final at Beijing in 2019 — are both in Group C for the Olympics. They’ll both spend some time in Las Vegas but are not scheduled to face off there before flying to Japan.
Las Vegas will see the top four men’s teams in the FIBA rankings there for the exhibitions: The U.S. is No. 1, Spain No. 2, Australia No. 3 and Argentina No. 4. Nigeria is ranked No. 22.
The U.S. women also hold the No. 1 FIBA ranking, and their July 16 opponent Australia is ranked No. 2 in the world. Nigeria’s women are ranked No. 17.
Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul ‘makes it look normal’ after notching 15 assists, zero turnovers in win vs. Denver Nuggets
It had been seven years since a player had a game in the postseason with 15 assists and no turnovers, but Chris Paul accomplished the feat on Wednesday as the Phoenix Suns routed the Denver Nuggets 123-98 to take a 2-0 series lead.
The last player to post a 15-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio in a playoff game? Paul, in 2014, with the LA Clippers.
“Guys are open. I got the easy part. All I got to do is find them,” said Paul, who had 17 points. “They got to make the shots. It’s a credit to our coaching staff to tell you the truth. Things we’ve drilled all season long, it’s nice to see it come into play in game form, especially in the playoffs.”
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Paul had the 10th playoff game with 15 assists and zero turnovers since assists were tracked in 1977-78. And Paul has accounted for three of those games himself.
“Obviously 15 assists, zero turnovers is unheard of,” Devin Booker said, “but for Chris Paul, it’s a thing that he does, and makes it look normal.”
In the two games in the series, Paul has 26 assists to just one turnover. Going back to his last three playoff games, that ratio gets even more ridiculous, sitting at 38-2. He’s the first player with 10 or more assists and one or fewer assists in three straight playoff games since Maurice Cheeks in 1989.
The Suns showcased their impressive balance with six players in double-figures, including all five starters. But even with 123 points, no player scored more than 18 (Booker). It was a clinic in distribution, particularly in a raucous second half, as Paul carved the Nuggets, finding efficient possessions nearly every trip down the floor. In Game 2, the Suns shot 15-of-24 off Paul passes. Of the 15 makes, 11 were uncontested looks.
“I’m telling you man, I’ve never been on a team quite like this where everybody can shoot it the way that they do,” Paul said. “You don’t have to try to find a certain guy.”
Like in Game 1, Paul found his spots to assert himself offensively, too, hitting a flurry of shots early in the fourth quarter as the Suns put the game away. It’s one of Paul’s many rare talents, an ability to sense moments and pick his spots to attack the game himself, or get teammates involved.
When Paul joined the surging young Suns in the offseason, there was a lot of talk about his role as a mentor, as a leader, as a culture cultivator. At age 36 and plenty of tread on his tires, Paul’s cerebral presence was thought to be something that could boost the Suns just as much as his play. But as he’s shown this postseason, there’s still plenty left in the tank.
“I would never doubt Chris,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “His ability to manage the team, his track record, has success all over it and everywhere he’s been he’s been successful. He works his tail off and yeah, he’s 36 years old but he’s doing a lot of stuff off the floor so he can be effective on the floor.”
The series now turns to Denver, where the Nuggets are desperate for a response. Paul has been using his experience as a motivator, recounting the 2007-08 second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs where the New Orleans Pelicans took a 2-0 series lead, winning the opening two games by a combined 37 points.
“We’re cool. We’re cool. We’ve got a great locker room, guys that understand the moment. A guy like Jae Crowder, who’s been to the Finals,” Paul said. “I’ve played a lot too. I’m always talking about 2007-08, we played against the Spurs when I was in New Orleans and we won the first two games, beat the brakes off of ’em. I remember looking over there at Tim [Duncan] and all them and they weren’t fazed. It was just one game. That’s what we talk about as a team too. It’s just one game.”
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