The first round of the NBA Playoffs has suddenly become very interesting. Thanks to upsets and injuries, several series that seemed like foregone conclusions a week ago have become much more uncertain. It’s too early for most teams to hit Code Red just yet, but certainly, there are a lot more butterflies in a lot more stomachs today. Who is feeling Pan’s touch?
Panic Level: 4
The Suns are going to beat the Pelicans, one way or another. The Pels have a lot of belief in themselves, and they are rightfully riding high after snatching Game 2 in Phoenix. But even without Devin Booker, who suffered a hamstring strain, the Suns are a murder machine designed to annihilate slightly-better-than-mediocre teams like New Orleans. The Internet seems convinced of a Zion return (for the umpteenth time this season), but a not-in-game-shape Zion is likely harmful to winning right now if he even does play.
Instead, the panic comes from the injury. Chris Paul, of course, has never made it through a postseason unscathed, but his running mate has been dealing with hamstring problems since at least last year’s Finals and had a flare-up in November this season.
Hamstrings are notoriously finicky and prone to acting up at inopportune times. Booker will reportedly miss two-to-three weeks, which means he could miss the start of the second round, too. Hamstrings cannot be rushed back, either, for risk of aggravation.
Suns fans don’t need to worry about the Pelicans. They might even have enough to beat the crying-cat-face-emoji Jazz or the Mavericks in the second round; that’s how good they are even without Booker. But you’d better believe they’ll need everyone at full strength to keep pace with a resurgent Golden State Warriors team if both make it to the Western Conference Finals.
It doesn’t seem like Booker’s issue should linger that long, but hamstrings are the last muscle group Suns fans want to be thinking about right now.
Panic Level: 5
On the one hand, it’s tough to panic when you’re the seven-seed going up against a heavily favored two-seed. External expectations weren’t high.
On the other hand, the Wolves had Game 3 in the bag — twice! — and somehow blew it to give up the 2-1 series lead to Memphis.
In summary, the Wolves had a 27-point lead in the second quarter. Memphis cut it down to seven by halftime, but the Wolves went on another massive run and led by 25 late in the third quarter. Sounds pretty good!
Then, the Wolves just… stopped playing. Memphis ripped off an astonishing 50-13 run to win the game. The Wolves scored just 12 points in the second quarter and the fourth quarter. Karl Anthony Towns, who will likely be an All-NBA center this season, attempted just four shots from the field as he was swarmed by pressure and double-teams all game, and the rest of the team was unable to capitalize on their opportunities.
Again: if you had told Minny fans a week ago their team would be down 2-1 going into Game 4 in Minnesota, I think they would be perfectly ok with that outcome, and they might even feel some cautious optimism. But the way in which they lost Game 3 was brutal, and it might be tough to shake off.
Even worse, Game 3 was another in KAT’s growing list of disappointing playoff performances. He’s struggled with inconsistency and foul trouble all series. He doesn’t bring enough defensively to make up for any offensive shortcomings, so Minnesota fans can’t be feeling great about their star right now.
Panic Level: 6
Being down 2-0 in a series is never ideal. As I mentioned earlier this week, a seven-seed has only beaten a two-seed once since 2003, but these Nets aren’t your typical seven-seed, and they were one of the three betting favorites to win the championship just a few short weeks ago.
Kyrie Irving had a tremendous Game 1 and a terrible Game 2. Durant had a bad Game 1 and a mediocre Game 2 (27 points on 17 shots sounds reasonable, but he still shot 23.5% from the field). The supporting cast has been largely uneven (outside of a resurgent Goran Dragic, who has miraculously found his Heat form and easily been Brooklyn’s steadiest offensive player).
KD has looked flummoxed by a young, athletic Celtics team hellbent on keeping him from getting comfortable. He’ll break out eventually, but the Nets now have to win four of the next five against a hungry Celtics team that smells blood in the water.
Brooklyn’s season has been snakebit from the beginning, but they’ve largely been self-inflicted wounds outside of Durant’s injury (his health is increasingly problematic). It will be interesting to see what happens in the offseason with these Nets. Brooklyn reportedly did not offer Kyrie an extension earlier this season. With his mercurial nature, unexpected absences, and injury history, Kyrie has not endeared himself to Brooklyn’s management. He may suit up in another uniform next season.
The Nets super team, arguably the greatest collection of offensive players in history, will likely end their time without even a single Conference Finals to show for it.
Panic Level: 8
The Bucks are in a similar situation to Phoenix but with less margin for error.
Milwaukee is currently tied 1-1 with a surprisingly resilient Chicago Bulls team, but they’re still expected to steamroll the Bulls the rest of the way. However, that task has been made more difficult with the news that All-Star wing Khris Middleton has sprained his MCL and will miss several weeks.
Middleton is the ultimate pressure release valve. When teams load up on Giannis to stop his rampages to the basket, the ball inevitably finds Middleton for a high-arcing splash from outside. His shooting and steady defense make him the perfect complement to Giannis’ downhill playstyle, and his absence will hamstring a Bucks offense that has already struggled this series.
The Bucks have turned the ball over at an alarming rate and have struggled to score from anywhere on the court. Giannis has battled offensive fouls (Alex Caruso has been doing incredible defensive work), and the Bucks have looked listless. Taking away their steadiest outside shooter isn’t going to help.
If the Bucks do get past the Bulls, Middleton could miss most of a second-round series against Brooklyn or Boston. Even with Khris, the Bucks may not have been favored against Boston (and, due to some late-season maneuvering, the Bucks willingly gave up home-court advantage in that series to avoid Brooklyn in Round 1). Without him, they’ll be serious underdogs.
Milwaukee fans must be flashing back to last season when offensive struggles early in series were the norm. The Bucks relied upon gritty defense to carry them all last postseason, but they’ll now be replacing Middleton’s minutes with some combination of Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, and maybe Jordan Nwora, none of whom bring the two-way excellence that Middleton provides.
The Bucks can still make it past Chicago and Boston, but the path is much more uncertain than it looked previously.
Panic Level: 9
Maybe panic isn’t the right emotion; what we’ve seen on the court looks more like apathy.
The public sniping all season between center Rudy Gobert and star shooting guard Donovan Mitchell had shown the cracks in the foundation. Without the injured Joe Ingles to mediate on and off the court, the Jazz have broken apart like an iceberg in the warming Arctic oceans.
Utah has lost two straight to a Mavericks team missing Luka Doncic, and it’s clear the players don’t care anymore. Watch as no Jazz even bothers guarding Spencer Dinwiddie, who’s faced tighter defense playing by himself in a gym:
Poor Gobert tries to get there but can’t, and he gets obliterated. I’ve said this before, but I dream about what Gobert might look like in Dallas, with credible perimeter defenders around him and Luka throwing lobs.
There’s a world where the Jazz come out, dominate Game 4, and win two of the following three even after Luka returns. These two teams split the season series, after all. But it sure looks like the Jazz have lost their fighting spirit, and significant changes are in store.
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