Today opens the NBA playoffs. No more hearing about players resting anymore, which should be music to people's ears. Now that the regular season is over, this is when we really get to see what these teams are made of. Some teams will show up and continue to show the grit that got them as far as they are now, while others will shrink in the moment. The beauty of the playoffs is that some legends will be born and others could take a hit and no one knows which will happen to each individual player or team. That kind of uncertainty will keep fans on the edge of their seats during the entire playoffs hopefully. But while these playoffs are going on, there are some questions that each team has to answer. While some will try and communicate the answer to us, their words don't matter as much as the action on the court. After all, the actions are what determine things, not the talk. As you watch the playoffs, look for these things to play a key role.
The Hawks have been a little bit different than they were last year. Gone is the team that shot tons of threes. They are a pretty good defensive team when they want to be, but their issue is on the offensive end and more specifically with point guard Dennis Schroder. The young point guard had an excellent season in his first year as a starter (17.9 points per game and , but he also had some inconsistencies that plagued him. If the Hawks are to go as far as they want to go, Schroder has to be special and cut down on the 3.3 turnovers he averaged all season. If he is able to do that, then the Hawks will be a little better than a lot of people think in the playoffs. If not, then that offseason vacation comes faster than some Hawks players want it to come.
The Boston Celtics have played extremely well as a team this year and captured the number one seed in the NBA's Eastern Conference away from the Cleveland Cavaliers. One big reason the Celtics earned homecourt advantage in the Eastern Conference this year is guard Isaiah Thomas. The diminutive guard has shown up big in the regular season and in every single fourth quarter (led the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring). Thomas has been excellent for Boston. But the question with the Celtics is who can take pressure off of him on the offensive end of the court as a scorer and playmaker? As it currently stands, prized free agent Al Horford has not really lived up to what some thought he would bring (averaging his lowest scoring output since the 2011-2012 season when he averaged 12.4 points per game). Outside of Horford, there are a bunch of players that are limited in what they can do as a scorer and playmaker. We shall see if someone decides to step up and answer the call. If no one answers, then we know where they could be headed.
The Chicago Bulls were very inconsistent this season. They would beat the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and then turn around and lose games like they did to the Philadelphia 76ers at home in March. Nevertheless, they got it together enough to make the playoffs behind the strength of their superstar, small forward Jimmy Butler. Their talented swingman hit big shots and made good defensive plays. But unfortunately for them, the consistent defense left the Bulls a while a go. They are a bad shooting team and that's a fact that will not change on a consistent level come playoff time. But what has to be concerning is the defense of this team. The Bulls have not been great defensively as a team and if they plan to go far, they have to defend. Will they dig in and defend consistently or will they continue to have the peaks and valleys on that end of the court that lead to their demise?
The Cavs are finally back to the playoffs. Last season they got it going and rode that wave of energy all the way to the NBA Finals, where they were able to overcome a 3-1 deficit to beat the Golden State Warriors. This season, the Cavs have been coasting for the most part, turning it on during select times. While LeBron James and Kyrie Irving may be talented enough to turn it on and turn it off, the Cavaliers team is not one that can continue to operate in that mode. Will they finally decide to turn it on and play like they are capable of? Or will they continue to play in the peaks and valleys that they have been? If they continue to play in peaks and valleys, then they could be in trouble. Effort is the key word here for Cleveland because when they are clicking on all cylinders, they are still the best team in the Eastern Conference.
Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors were smarting from the loss last season to the Cavs in the particular way they lost the NBA Finals. So instead of dwelling on it, the Warriors went out and got one of the top players in the NBA in Kevin Durant. The result has been an offense that is very hard to stop as well as entertaining when it is clicking on all cylinders. Even with Durant missing some games this season, the offense still kicked it up with Curry assuming the leading man role. But even though the Warriors offense dominating teams, the bench will be key in how far they go. Last season, they had strength in numbers. But that diminished some since Durant was brought in. With that being said, Andre Iguodala and Ian Clark are still there along with veteran additions Matt Barnes, David West and JaVale McGee. Will these pieces be enough and have enough key moments to get the Warriors the championship back in Oakland?
The Houston Rockets have been better than expected this year. Many thought they would be close or make the playoffs, but no one expected 55 wins from them. They have been led by MVP candidate James Harden all year. Coach Mike D'Antoni moved Harden to point guard and he had one of his best seasons in the NBA. The Rockets lit it up from three-point range all season long. The penetration of Harden along with the shooting was hard to defend all year long. But one thing that was always taught to me growing up was "if you live by the jumper, you die by the jumper". The Rockets either shoot the three or drive to the basket. There is not in between. So of course, they hoist up a lot of shots from deep. If they are hitting them, they are extremely dangerous. But when they aren't hitting them, then there could be problems. Which one will it be for Houston?
The Pacers have been up and down all season long. They thought that firing Frank Vogel and promoting assistant coach Nate McMillan would take them to a new level. Well, they struggled to figure it out consistently and had to work until the last day to make the playoffs. Paul George was excellent and played like the star he is. Now that he and the Pacers are in the playoffs. the next question is the point guard play. Jeff Teague was already a point guard plenty were not sure about before his ankle injury in the season finale versus the Atlanta Hawks. But with his injury, that further makes it tougher on the Pacers. If Teague is not able to go, then more than likely Lance Stephenson will join the starting lineup as the point guard. Either way, the Pacers need solid point guard play to survive. Will Teague, Stephenson or both give Indiana that? Only the playoffs will tell us that.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have been down this road numerous times. Last year, everyone thought they would break up this team after another disappointing finish. But they kept them together and this year could truly be it for them as they currently stand. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and JJ Reddick are all free agents this offseason and there is no guarantees all will be back. So for them to make it further, they need Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to stay healthy and be dominant. The question is can either control a series anymore as a duo? It seems that one has a moment while the other is stuck in neutral at times. That cannot happen for both of them to push this team deep into the playoffs. The Last Ride for this team could be a short one or a long one depending on their two stars.
The Grizzlies thought they were getting a dynamic duo in Chandler Parsons and Michael Conley Jr. Well, Parsons has not been healthy all season long, so there's that. But Conley Jr has been excellent for the Grizzlies as they continued their streak of seasons making the playoffs. The team is excited and looking to make some positive strides. But one issue that we always see from Memphis is the outside shooting. Who shoots the ball outside of the three-point line well on this team besides Conley? Well, Troy Daniels is known to get on a roll sometimes and Conley Jr can do so as well. But in order for them to go as far as they want to go, they need to find that consistent deep threat that compromises defenses. Where are those coming from?
The Bucks started off a little rocky but got the ship righted as time went on. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been excellent for Milwaukee and he sets the tempo for this team. With him playing well and Khris Middleton back, the Bucks can be scary. But the question about the Bucks is do they have enough shooting to hurt people? Tony Snell can shoot for them, but he can also be very inconsistent. After that, who can you count on to spread the floor for The Greek Freak besides Middleton? If they are to make a serious run, Snell and some others have to shoot the ball well and allow The Greek Freak to do his thing, especially when they have to run halfcourt offense.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder are another team that people thought would not make it as far as they did. But behind the incredible season of Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are playing postseason basketball yet again. But this time, the scene is a little different. No longer is Kevin Durant there and that could prove to be an issue in the playoffs. Besides Russell Westbrook, where is the other playmaker and scorer? They have not had one all season and in the postseason, that question has not gone away. We know Enes Kanter will bring his usual off the bench in terms of scoring, but Steven Adams or Victor Oladipo are the wildcards. Will one of them step up and score to help Russell or not? Only time will tell.
The Trailblazers seemed to be dead in the water after having an unexpectedly good season last year that led them to the playoffs. But after a trade for Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers began to surge towards the playoffs. The big man made a huge difference for Portland and gave them someone they could depend on inside. But as of now, they are not sure they will have him in the playoffs due to a leg injury. With that being said, who gives them that inside scoring punch? Myers Leonard is too busy trying to be the NBA's best seven-foot three-point shooter to even touch the paint and Noah Vonleh is still very raw. Lilliard and McCollum are a tough tandem, but they need someone to score in the paint since it looks like Nurkic may not be back. If he is able to come back at some point in the playoffs, then that makes Portland more interesting. But it does not look good.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are always the model of consistency. They play hard, smart and Poppovich uses his entire bench all year long. But along with that, they are always there at the end of the year, right near or at the top of the standings. This year is no different, as Kawhi Leonard took over the reigns as the franchise player officially this year and led them well. But for them to go further, they need another high-priced player on their team to step up. LaMarcus Aldridge seems to have found his groove a little bit towards the end of the season, but he has been pretty inconsistent for most of the season. The question for the Spurs is which Aldridge will show up in the playoffs? Will he be the guy that dominated with that midrange jump shot, occasional three-pointer and some post game when he was a member of the Trailblazers or will he be the guy that blends in and watches Kawhi try to do it on his own? We don't know but one thing we do know is for the Spurs to go as far as they want to go, they need more from Aldridge.
The Raptors again make the playoffs, but expectations don't seem to be as high as they were in the past for this team. Kyle Lowry's injury had something to do with that, but even without that the Raptors seemed to be missing something. They added toughness at the trade deadline with Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker, but the key guy here is Ibaka for a couple reasons. Ibaka gives the Raptors shot-blocking they did not have before. Now when someone drives to the basket, they have to know where Serge is. But on the offensive end, he gives them floor spacing. Ibaka can shoot the three and that means more space for DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry to operate if he hits those shots. The question is which Serge will show up? Will they get the guy that was a very good third option in Oklahoma City or the guy that languished in Orlando? We shall indeed see.
The Jazz have taken that next step as a team this season. Behind star forward Gordon Heyward, the team has finally made it back to the playoffs. The roster is deep and has players that can do a multitude of things. But the question about this team is the play of George Hill. The point guard that Utah traded for this offseason has been oft-injured and that has disturbed the rotation at times at that position and made them have to start Dante Exum. If Hill is indeed healthy and plays to his capabilities, then Utah will be even tougher than they were before. If not, then there will an issue at the point guard position. To say there is a lot riding on this playoffs is an understatement for Hill. He is also a free agent this offseason. Which George Hill we shall get is a big question mark for this Jazz team's immediate playoff future.
The tandem of John Wall and Bradley Beal along with some great shooting from Otto Porter have some believing the Wizards are a team that could come out of the NBA's Eastern Conference. The additions of Brandon Jennings and Bojan Bogdanovic helped bolster their bench as well. But the key guy away from those five gentlemen that have been mentioned is Marcin Gortat. The Polish Hammer has been solid this season, but the Wizards need him to be even better in the playoffs for them. Can he show up and give them some scoring punch inside along with some toughness? Only time will tell when they begin their playoffs. But he will definitely be a key figure for them.
Sixteen teams. Sixteen questions. We shall see which teams are able to answer their question marks and what teams are not able to answer the bell. The time for play is over and now comes the real action. Playoff time has arrived!