NBA Playoffs: One question for each first-round series

Say goodbye to your families because the NBA playoffs have — finally! — arrived.

We have one heavy favorite in each conference, but behind that, a bunch of unknowns. Below is a breakdown of each first-round series featuring one schematic question that will likely impact the results:

How do Kristaps Porzingis‘ post-ups change Boston’s playoff offense?

The real question here should be whether or not the Heat can win a single game? But from the Celtics’ side of things, it will be interesting to see the answer to the question posed above. 

In last year’s playoffs, the Celtics averaged just three post-up possessions per game (meaning possessions that ended with a shot, assist or turnover), a miniscule mark. It’s also a mark that Porzingis eclipsed by himself this season. And the 1.30 points he produced per post possession was one of the league’s top marks.

The Celtics have talked all season about how Porzingis’ presence is going to make them more dangerous come playoff time. Now we get to see it. 

Can the Sixers successfully hunt Jalen Brunson on defense?

OK, so the obvious thing is Embiid’s health. The past few games he’s looked like he’s playing on one leg. But past that, there’s how the Sixers will attack Brunson. 

By now everyone knows how good Brunson is. He deserves all his flowers, and to be on MVP ballots. And what we’ve learned, especially since Julius Randle went down, is that there is no stopping him. He’s too good to defend one-on-one, and he and the Knicks have carved up teams that have tried throwing high traps and double-teams at him. 

The one thing you can do, though, is try wearing him down — precisely because of how dependent the Knicks are on him. When he plays, their offense scores at the rate of a top-3 unit; when he sits, that mark drops to one that would have been last in the league this season. Tom Thibodeau knows this, and will likely look to play Brunson about 40 minutes every game.

One way for the Sixers to counteract this is by making Brunson work as hard as he can on defense, both because he’s the team’s weakest defender — not because of his effort but because of his size — and because it can wear him down. Brunson won’t be slotted on Tyrese Maxey, but the Sixers should be throwing him into as many actions as possible involving their All-Star point guard. How successful they are in doing so could very well determine the series. 

Can the Bucks contain the ball?

This is another series where the thing that matters most is the health of a star. If Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t go, the Bucks are cooked.

Past that, though, do they have any answer for Tyrese Haliburton and the Pacers’ high-octane attack? Because Milwaukee’s defense has been awful all season, particularly on the perimeter, and particularly against the Pacers, who won the season series 4-1 with Haliburton going off in all five (27 points and 11 assists per game while shooting 53.2% from the field). The Bucks have one of the worst defensive backcourts in the league (and no, Patrick Beverley is not the answer). Haliburton hasn’t been the same since injuring his hamstring earlier in the season. But he gets some days off now, and you can be sure he’ll be coming out ready to attack. 

Will the Cavs have an answer for Jonathan Isaac?

If you haven’t watched Magic games this season, then you’ve missed out on seeing some of the most incredible stretches of defensive basketball in recent history. Because that’s how insanely good Isaac has been this season. He only averaged 15.8 minutes per game, but in those minutes he was insanely dominant. He’s 6-foot-10, strong, moves like a guard, has a wingspan that seems to cover half the court, and, on top of that, possesses incredible instincts.

Want to see a wild stat? The Magic finished the season with the league’s second-best defensive rating (when you don’t factor in garbage time), at 111.5 points allowed per 100 possessions. Again, that’s an incredible number — and yet when Isaac played, it plummeted down to 105.6. He’s so good that he makes an already amazing defensive unit leaps and bounds better. Oh, and he played 26 minutes in each of the Magic’s final two regular season games, which we can assume is a preview of their plans for the playoffs. That the Cavs have really struggled on offense since the All-Star break (20th in points per possession) only makes this more intriguing. 

How will the Thunder utilize Josh Giddey on offense?

Giddey is a wonderful passer and strong driver. What he is not, though, is a good shooter. For his career, he’s hit 31% of his deep looks — and most of those are wide-open shots defenses dare him to launch. 

This season, with the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren, we’ve seen opponents guard the Thunder by leaving Giddey wide-open from the perimeter. And at times the tactic has succeeded in mucking up OKC’s attack — and in the playoffs you should expect opponents to be even more aggressive with this approach.

The Thunder have spent all season preparing for this. Sometimes that means having Giddey catch-and-go. Sometimes it means turning him into a screener:

Sometimes it means taking him out of games. And Giddey had a strong finish to the season (14 points, seven rebounds and 5.4 assists per game after the All-Star break, while shooting 36% from deep) as the Thunder surged to the conference’s top seed. But he’s about to be tested more than ever before. How he responds will not only impact this series but could also determine whether he remains part of OKC’s long-term plans.

Can Anthony Davis contain Nikola Jokic one-on-one?

The last time the Lakers beat the Nuggets was Dec. 16 2022. They’ve played eight times since then. It’s safe to say the Nuggets have the Lakers’ number. In particular, the Lakers have had no answer for Jokic. In last year’s Western Conference Finals, they tried guarding him with Rui Hachimura so that AD could roam around the rim as a help defender. That didn’t work. They’ve tried sending help at Jokic — he’s picked that apart. 

Jokic is too good and too smart to slow with junk defenses. And you’re not going to confuse him with extra defenders.

The Lakers’ only hope is for Davis to take the assignment himself and make life difficult for Jokic. If he does, the Lakers can lock in on the rest of the Nuggets and keep them from going off with easy dunks or wide-open jumpers. But if Davis can’t hold his own and the Lakers have to start sending help, they have no shot.

Can the Wolves handle the Suns’ mid-range shooting?

Minnesota led the league in defense this season. Its scheme is predicated on Rudy Gobert — the likely Defensive Player of the Year winner — dropping back into the paint and shutting down everything at the rim. Which works almost all the time. But it does leave the midrange open. Only the Warriors surrendered a greater percentage of opposing shots from the midrange this season. 

The problem for the Wolves is that no team is more equipped to exploit this than the Suns. In Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal the Suns have three of the best stop-and-pop shooters in the NBA. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that only one team took a greater percentage of its shots from that area, and only the Pacers were more efficient. Will the Wolves adjust their strategy? Will they live with those jumpers? It’s going to be fascinating to watch. 

How do the Clippers defend Luka Doncic pick-and-rolls?

This might be the best matchup of the first-round slate, and it’s all going to come down to this question. We know Luka is going to hunt James Harden and Ivica Zubac whenever they’re on the floor. It will then be on the Clippers to decide how to counteract that. Is Kawhi Leonard healthy enough to guard Luka and fight through screens to prevent switches? 

Also, this is where the presence of Kyrie Irving comes into play — tilting every defender toward Luke opens up all sorts of weak side lanes for Irving. Maybe the answer is to limit Harden’s minutes. Maybe the combination of Kawhi and Paul George is enough. Maybe there’s another solution we’re not yet aware of. Either way, this is going to be a fascinating chess battle to follow.  

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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