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Can it be as simple as saying the Boston Celtics aren’t quite ready for prime time?
That might seem like a risky conclusion, as an even younger and less star-studded Celtics team came within a win of the Finals two years ago. Jayson Tatum turned into a superstar in February, Jaylen Brown looks like a guy who’ll make a half-dozen All-Star teams before he’s done and Boston entered the hiatus ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency—the marker of a viable championship threat.
Kemba Walker’s troublesome knee is a concern, though, and Daniel Theis may not be able to keep thriving as a 6’8″ defensive centerpiece against bulkier postseason foes.
There’s absolutely a scenario in which Tatum and Brown (whose hamstring injury should be behind him) announce their arrival as top-tier stars with an improbable run through Milwaukee, Toronto and the rest of the East. But the likelier outcome is a deep run that sees the Celtics fall short of the true contenders.
If you’re a subscriber to the notion that clutch play during the regular season rarely means much in the playoffs, the Dallas Mavericks clearly belong here. Though they own the league’s No. 6 net rating (plus-5.8), they’re just 13th in winning percentage—all because they rank 27th in clutch net rating.
Maybe that abysmal close-and-late performance has connections to Luka Doncic’s wearing down over the course of a game spent dominating the ball. Or maybe there’s something in Dallas’ offense that just stops working when opponents tighten the screws down the stretch.
Or…maybe this is all a case of bad luck, and we should ignore small samples and focus instead on the metrics that say the Mavs are as good as anyone in the West outside the two Los Angeles juggernauts.
Doncic should be recovered from wrist, hand and ankle injuries that dogged him this year, and Kristaps Porzingis has a career-long habit of starting hot before fading. If he’s in peak form following several months off and comes out of the gates like he did in the early months of his pre-ACL-injury seasons, the Mavs will enter the bubble with a one-two punch few teams can match.
If you’re on the hunt for a dark horse, start with the Mavericks, whose brilliance this year doesn’t show up in their win-loss record.
Seeded third in the West and boasting a funhouse-mirror version (the slimmed, stretched-vertically kind) of Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets might seem like a team that deserved a spot in the previous tier.
For a few reasons, the conference finals feel like the more realistic ceiling.
First, it’s impossible to know how effective a skinnier Jokic will be following his recovery from COVID-19. Maybe he won’t suffer any lasting effects once the league resumes play, but we’re in uncharted territory with him and several other players who’ve tested positive in recent days.
Second, Denver is losing one of the league’s best home-court advantages. The Nuggets were 25-8 at home and 18-14 on the road before the stoppage. Among the top eight teams in the West, only the Memphis Grizzlies had a harder time winning outside their own arena.
Finally, the Nuggets aren’t elite on either end, and they looked particularly out of sorts after the All-Star break, going 5-5 with a minus-1.5 net rating. They’re balanced, which is nice, ranking ninth on offense and 12th on D for the year. And when they need a clutch bucket, they know Jokic can provide it, as he’s reliably done all year. But what about when the Nugs need to string together a handful of game-sealing stops, particularly against big wings they lack the personnel to handle? Do we really trust them to get it done?
It’s not a knock to say Denver belongs a notch below the league’s exclusive set of ring threats, and reaching the conference finals would still represent progress for a team that won a playoff round last year for the first time since 2009.
You’ve got to believe the Houston Rockets led the league in time spent gaming out the best way to exploit the unusual conditions we’ll see in Orlando. We already know they’ve got the guts to scrap centers entirely (which met with mixed results before the hiatus), and the Rockets have long been on the forefront of trusting the math.
Maybe Houston won’t approach the final eight regular-season games and playoffs any differently than it otherwise would have, but don’t be surprised if it embraces a high-variance style that gives it the best shot to advance this deep. Basically, if anyone’s going to get a little weird, it’ll be the Rockets.
What might that look like? Maybe even more deep shots from the squad that led the league with a 48.8 percent three-point attempt rate. Or an even greater emphasis on isolation ball, effectively abandoning any sets that don’t start and end with James Harden predatorily pounding that low dribble, alone at the top of the arc. Considering one of the main reasons for the Rockets’ recent playoff failures was the wearing down of Harden, the time off might disproportionately benefit him and his team.
While it’s possible Houston could hit the West with a norm-shattering style, the team is still too small and too dependent on one player to reach the Finals. The Lakers have the interior D and rebounding to destroy undersized lineups, and the Clippers’ cadre of big wings will prevent Harden from getting into a groove.
There’s not much of a statistical argument for including the Philadelphia 76ers here.
Sure, Ben Simmons’ back healed, and Joel Embiid has demonstrated before that he can control a playoff series. Conventional big men may be out of favor generally, but Embiid is a separate class of dominant when he’s in shape.
So…does anyone want to bank on his being in top condition after several months off? Not seeing any raised hands. Let’s continue to what might be the clearest sign Philly is in for a short postseason stay: its extreme home-road splits.
The Sixers went 29-2 at home but just 10-24 on the road. No team will be hurt more by a neutral site than Philadelphia.
Why, then, are the Sixers here? Top-end talent matters most in playoff series, and they’ve got a lot of it. Embiid, if in shape, should dominate. Maybe Al Horford will look like the 2018-19 version of himself after a long rest. Simmons’ five-position defense can’t be overlooked. And hey, Philly was a Leonard dagger away from overtime in Game 7 of the conference semifinals last year.
It’s not that great of a stretch to say it can advance a step beyond that with better luck.