Very rarely do I walk out of a buffet and think to myself, “That was some excellent food.” It hardly matters what type of buffet it is. Chinese, pizza, Golden Corral, whatever. It seems the typical rule is that buffets only offer an unlimited amount of mediocre food.
On the rare occasion, however, a buffet offers the glutton’s dream — an unlimited amount of supremely amazing food. Personally, the only truly great buffet I’ve found is a Chinese buffet several miles outside of Burlington, Vermont. Since finding that buffet, my life has been a fruitless venture to find crab rangoons just half as good. Walking up to that buffet and playing Tetris with about 15 crab rangoons on my plate represents one of my favorite meals in all of existence.
Such is the difference between the NCAA Tournament and the NBA Playoffs. March Madness, for all its wonderment, is a month-long showcase of largely mediocre basketball (and officiating, but that’s another story). The NBA Playoffs, however, are two months of exquisite basketball not matched anywhere else on earth.
Within the exquisiteness are plethoras upon plethoras of questions needing to be answered. Each team’s hopes of advancing can ultimately be boiled down to one question, and how well they can answer that question over the next two months.
- Chicago Bulls — Will the spacing problems that plagued the team through the regular season continue?
Frankly, the answer is yes. The Bulls obviously lack outside shooting, to say the least, and while a some hot shooting from Dwyane Wade and friends would somewhat help to alleviate those problems, they won’t be going away entirely. Jimmy Butler can carry this team to a win or two against the Celtics in the first round, but the Bulls’ lack of shooting ultimately spells an early playoff exit.
- Portland Trail Blazers — Can Jusuf Nurkic both play and be effective?
Before Nurkic suffered a fractured leg in the last few weeks of the season, the Blazers seemed to be a much more dangerous out than would have been presumed earlier in the year. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum can make it rain harder than a hurricane, and with Nurkic offering a whole mess of Bosnian toughness in the paint, the possibility of stealing two games from the Golden State seemed like a legitimate possibility. Without a down-low presence, however, the Blazers could be in trouble before they even begin.
- Indiana Pacers — Can Lance Stephenson give the Pacers enough playmaking and defense to actually make a difference?
Paul George is going to get his. The Pacers’ problem in recent years is that no one else seems to be interested in getting theirs. Now, with a seven-game series against LeBron, the Pacers are relying on the recently-returned Stephenson as one of the few defenders with the ability to defend him. Indiana’s ability to put a scare into the Cavs rests largely on George’s shoulders. But for the Pacers to do more than scare, Stephenson will have to be the reason.
- Memphis Grizzlies — Can the offense score enough?
The Grizzlies post the worst points per 100 possessions mark out of any Western Conference playoff team with 104.7. That’s tied with the New York Knicks. Whenever you’re tied with the Knicks, that’s bad. Facing the Spurs, who post the best defensive efficiency in the league, represents a daunting task for an already challenged offense.
- Milwaukee Bucks — Can the young talent show up in the playoffs?
As crazy as it sounds, there’s not a team the Bucks would face in the Eastern Conference that it would not surprise me for the Bucks to beat. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and the rest of the crew, the Bucks have the length to bother anyone. Since Middleton’s return from injury, the Bucks are 19-10. If the Bucks’ young core of talent continue their late-season renaissance, they have the ability and opportunity to throw a wrench into the Eastern Conference playoffs.
- Oklahoma City Thunder — Can someone not named Russell Westbrook contribute consistently?
Westbrook is going to put up some of the biggest numbers we’ll see in a modern NBA series. If the Thunder truly want to challenge the Rockets, however, someone else will need to step up. Whether that’s Victor Oladipo or Steven Adams or someone else, the Thunder won’t be able to put a true fear into the Rockets without it. Westbrook will only be able to keep pace with the Rockets’ high-powered offense for so long. Westbrook’s extreme disregard for human life that will be prevalent throughout this series makes every second of it must-see television, but the Thunder’s ability to pull off the upset rests outside of his hands.
- Atlanta Hawks — Can the offense score?
A repeat of the Grizzlies’ question, it’s even more so here. The Hawks hold the worst offensive efficiency of any team to make the playoffs this year, and fell behind the lowly Detroit Pistons in the same metric. The Hawks refused to go into rebuilding mode after losing Al Horford last year in free agency, but hedged their bet by trading Kyle Korver midseason to the Cavs. Those two decisions left Atlanta with next to nothing for an offense, leading to a negative point differential on the season and a team ill-equipped to advance in the playoffs.
- Utah Jazz — How far can Gordon Hayward and George Hill carry the offense?
This question is even more pronounced following Rudy Gobert’s injury on the first play of the playoffs. The Jazz offense isn’t high-powered by any means, and the playoffs will hamper that ability to score even more so. Hayward and Hill represent the Jazz’ best options with the shot clock winding down, and their performance in such situations could end up determining their first round series with the Clippers.
- Washington Wizards — Can the team stay locked in on defense?
The Wizards are at their best when the defense is engaged. Washington climbed the Eastern Conference standings throughout the regular season thanks to an incredible stretch of defensive play. The Wizards faults could also be attributed to a lack of defensive form. Such a storyline should continue in the playoffs. A first round matchup against the offensively challenged Hawks shouldn’t be to worrisome. A second round tilt versus the Celtics and a top-10 NBA offense is another story.
- Los Angeles Clippers — Will the Clippers choke?
The Clippers choke so often that we forget how good the team actually is. The talent is there for the Clips to challenge nearly every team in the playoffs not named Golden State. The ability for the Clips to actually showcase that talent in the playoffs, however, has been far from a certainty. Los Angeles could challenge the Warriors in a seven-game series in the second round. Past history suggests much to the contrary.
- Toronto Raptors — Can Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan shake off their playoff demons?
Of active players in the NBA with more than 500 attempted field goals, Lowry ranks dead last in field goal percentage in the playoffs. DeRozan is fourth-worst. This Raptors team has major Clippers-five-years-ago vibe to it. An excellent team in the regular season that fails to equal that success in the playoffs. If Lowry and DeRozan continue their poor playoff performance, that won’t change.
- Houston Rockets — Can they win if threes don’t fall?
The Rockets scored 9,458 points this year. 3,543 of those came on 3-point field goals. That’s over 37 percent of their offensive output coming from behind the arc. That is both a reason to fear the Rockets and a reason for the Rockets to fear. If the threes fall, the Rockets could beat anyone, Warriors included. If the threes turn to bricks, they could be beat by anyone.
- Cleveland Cavaliers — Is the defense fatally flawed?
The Cavaliers defense has been bad. There’s no way around that fact. The question is whether that’s due to a lack of effort and concentration or if the defense is seriously compromised. That remains to be seen. What we do know is that the Cavs surrendered 108 points per 100 possessions. We also know that’s the worst mark of any team in the postseason field.
- San Antonio Spurs — Can the Spurs withstand athleticism?
Last season’s conference semifinal series with the Thunder saw the Spurs being athletically outclassed. The postseason chaos that followed that series somewhat blurred those memories, but the issue may not be entirely fixed. Tim Duncan’s retirement and the emergence of Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons do alleviate some of those concerns, but when the Spurs square off against the Rockets or Warriors, do they have the athleticism to keep pace?
- Boston Celtics — What will we be saying about Isaiah Thomas following the postseason?
The Celtic offense is nonexistent when Thomas isn’t on the floor. So you have to have Thomas on the floor. Opposing offenses, however, will target Thomas on the defensive end of the floor like Liam Neeson targets people who kidnap his family. So you can’t have Thomas on the floor. That is, by definition, a conundrum. Whichever end of the floor speaks the loudest will decide what the public opinion of Thomas will be. It also may decide what the Celtics’ plans going forward beyond this season will be.
- Golden State Warriors — Will the Mega-Death Lineup be an effective lineup in the playoffs?
An underrated aspect of the Death Lineup of years past was Harrison Barnes ability to defend in the post. Draymond Green could play the center position well enough to get by for several minutes at a time, but Barnes presence meant opposing teams couldn’t simply pound the paint to push the Warriors out of the lineup. Durant is obviously a massive offensive improvement over Barnes, but he’ll need to show a consistent ability to defend the same post responsibility Barnes used to undertake for the Mega-Death Lineup to wreak its full havoc. Succeed, and the Warriors will be looking at a probable second title in three years. Fail, and it gets a whole lot more interesting.