One series-defining question facing each NBA conference finalist

NBA analyst Kenny Smith joins Tim and Sid to read into whether or not Kawhi Leonard became closer to committing to the Raptors long-term after hitting that huge shot, and getting embraced by all his teammates and all Raptors fans.

Two rounds of playoff basketball have been played. Twelve teams’ summers and self-reflections started earlier than planned. But for the four teams still vying for a chance to take home an NBA Championship, pressing questions exist too.

Here are the most significant question marks each NBA conference finalist will have to contend with this round.

Golden State Warriors

Q: How healthy will they be; how much does that even matter?

Kevin Durant‘s injured calf will loom over every game the Warriors play until he’s back in the lineup which, it seems, won’t be until at least Game 2 of this series and possibly longer. Prior to going down, Durant was submitting an all-time great playoff run featuring a career-high 34.2 points per game on better than 50/40/90 shooting splits.

But then he got hurt, and issues like the Warriors’ depth seemed like they might matter.

Shaun Livingston has shot just 39 per cent from the floor in the playoffs. Kevon Looney can be leaned on for rebounds but offensively is a non-factor — same story for Alfonzo McKinnie. Jonas Jerebko has taken a total of 14 shots all post-season in about six minutes of action per game. Of the lot, Quinn Cook‘s 36-per cent shooting from long range is the only real tangible offensive value to be found and his defensive shortcomings have led to head coach Steve Kerr playing him just 58 minutes over the first two rounds.

So is the Durant-less core from the 73-win Warriors still enough after a lot more miles and a few more years and a little less depth behind them?

Against the Houston Rockets at least, they were. Draymond Green can still wreak havoc all over the court, Stephen Curry can still do in one quarter what most players can’t do in entire games, Klay Thompson can still get hotter faster than any player in the NBA, Andre Iguodala remains one of the league’s smartest players.

Only two teams in the Durant-era — the Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers — have ever forced a series against the Warriors into a Game 6. Maybe Durant will be healthy by Game 3. If he is, a Finals berth is likely not far away. Maybe, though, it won’t ever reach a point where that question matters.

Portland Trail Blazers

Q: Can they win the battle of the league’s best back courts?

Durant’s injury may not have flung the door open for other teams, but it cracked it wide enough that scenarios exist where someone else could break through. For the Trail Blazers to be that team, they’ll need Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to win the back court duel against Curry and Thompson.

Lillard and McCollum hold a collective usage rate of 56.5 per cent in the playoffs while averaging 28.4 and 25.6 points per game respectively. In large part due to an aggressive scheme from the Denver Nuggets that saw him trapped and doubled all over the court, Lillard’s efficiency plummeted in Round 2, averaging just 28.8-per cent shooting from beyond the arc and 40.7 per cent overall.

With Rodney Hood‘s health up in the air, Jusuf Nurkic already out for the playoffs, Enes Kanter being a pick-and-roll liability and Evan Turner being invisible in all but one game this post-season, the Blazers lack the offensive tools to survive against the Warriors if Lillard struggles from the floor again.

McCollum, to his credit, capitalized on not being Denver’s focal point, shooting 37.5 per cent from three and 45.5 per cent overall. One of them at all times will, almost certainly, be forced to work for every shot against Thompson.

But with Curry’s proclivity for fouling on defence — he’s averaged about four per game for the playoffs — whichever one of McCollum or Lillard can work their way into being guarded by Curry will have a unique opportunity to take him out of the game and steal a win before Durant’s pending return.

Milwaukee Bucks

Q: Does experience matter?

There’s some symmetry between this Bucks team and the Warriors’ first championship win in the Kerr Era: A new coach comes in and installs systems that showcase their transcendent star en route to them becoming a 60-plus-win regular season team.

The question then for the Warriors was if a jump shooting team who’d never seen a deep playoff run could beat LeBron’s Cavaliers. The question for the Bucks now is if a team without deep playoff experience, and whose star doesn’t shoot threes in the three-point era, can dethrone the best team in basketball.

Only George Hill has made it beyond the conference semi-finals before for the Bucks — reaching the Conference Finals twice with the Indiana Pacers and the NBA Finals once, last season, with the Cavaliers. The Raptors, on the other hand, are led by a former Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard.

When Milwaukee is tested and pushed — which, a single night against Boston aside, they haven’t been so far — will being the best team be enough? Or will the spotlight be a little too bright for them the first time around. It wasn’t for the Warriors. It might be the only thing that can stop Giannis Antetokounmpo, though.

Toronto Raptors

Q: Who are the Toronto Raptors right now?

There’s an existential reading to that question — who are the Raptors if Leonard’s buzzer beater freed them from their post-season baggage — but also a tangible, basketball interpretation to it.

In the regular season, the Raptors were among the league’s more efficient three-point shooting teams, with 36.6 per cent of their shots falling on 33.8 attempts per game. So far in the post-season that number has fallen to 32.7 per cent — a drop off that’s been especially pronounced in the corners where the Raptors shot 42.7 per cent in the regular season and have only managed 36.2 per cent in the playoffs overall, per Cleaning the Glass.

In the regular season, the Raptors’ bench was thought to be a strong point. In the playoffs it’s been an Achilles heel. So far bench players have averaged just 21.6 points per game collectively while shooting 25.8 per cent from long range without offering much in the way of lock-down defence or playmaking to compensate.

In the regular season, the Raptors were a menacing transition team but still a stable half-court team, averaging the sixth-most points per 100 possessions (Pts/Poss) with 113.5. In the playoffs, though, that number has been erratic, ranging from 93.7 Pts/Poss to 127.2 Pts/Poss and the majority of their most impressive half-court games coming against an over-matched Orlando Magic squad.

So, who are the Raptors right now?

A deep, three-point shooting team that can consistently beat you both in transition and in executing their offensive sets? Or a team that can only confidently trot out six players, is lacklustre from long range, and unable to deliver on their offensive execution night in and night out?

Maybe the real question is, who are the Raptors going to be when it matters most?

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