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The NBA’s conference semifinals are in full swing. The Milwaukee Bucks simply saved their postseason with a nail-biting Game 3 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz simply put the LA Clippers in one other 2-0 gap.

In Friday night time’s matchups, the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks wrestle for command of their sequence in Game 3 whereas the Phoenix Suns look to seize a commanding 3-0 lead on 2021 MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.

How a lot do the Nets want James Harden, who’s nonetheless sidelined with hamstring tightness? What’s probably the most spectacular a part of the Suns’ 2-0 sequence lead? What participant or adjustment will resolve the Jazz-Clippers sequence? Which potential Finals matchup would offer the juiciest storylines?

Our panel of specialists is answering among the playoffs’ biggest questions forward of two huge Game 3s.

MORE: Matchups, schedules and information for each sequence

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Fact or fiction: The Nets ought to be the favorites to win the NBA title, even when James Harden would not play once more this postseason.

Tim MacMahon: Fiction. Kevin Durant as soon as once more appears to be like like arguably the world’s greatest participant and Kyrie Irving is a confirmed championship-caliber sidekick, however my intestine feeling is the Nets will want Harden to get previous the 76ers and/or whoever comes out of the West. Nets GM Sean Marks clearly thought as a lot when he pulled the set off on the picks-loaded deal to deliver Harden to Brooklyn.

Kevin Pelton: Fiction. Harden’s absence is placing strain on Brooklyn’s different stars to play enormous minutes. After enjoying 44:35 in Game 1, Irving was on the courtroom for 44:57 in Game 3. Durant performed 40:06 and 42:52 in these two video games, respectively. That may not be sustainable over three full rounds — particularly given their very own battles with accidents throughout the common season.

Jorge Sedano: Fact. Despite all their lineup shuffling, the Nets had a league-best offensive score of 117.3 this season. Interestingly sufficient, when Durant and Irving have been on the courtroom collectively with out Harden, that quantity elevated to 120.6. Couple that with Blake Griffin‘s reemergence and Joe Harris‘ regular capturing and it is not out of line to assume they will win all of it with out Harden.

Brian Windhorst: It’s reality. But it is not an enormous reality. The Nets have been principally a .500 crew this season when Harden did not play. They have nice expertise and their function gamers have been robust to this point, but it surely’s onerous to wager on them.

Royce Young: Fact. The motive is fairly easy: Even with a slew of proficient famous person gamers remaining within the postseason, Durant is in a category of his personal. He’s one of the best participant enjoying right now, a whole matchup nightmare who impacts each ends of the ground. Harden or no Harden, Durant goes to effectively dominate video games.

What’s been most spectacular concerning the Suns’ 2-0 lead over the Nuggets?

MacMahon: Chris Paul has been in full management of the sequence up to now, however he has dominated playoff sequence earlier than, regardless of by no means having superior all the best way to the Finals. How Deandre Ayton would deal with his matchup with MVP Nikola Jokic was the Suns’ biggest query going into the sequence. The 22-year-old Ayton has greater than held his personal. He has averaged 17.5 factors and 10.0 rebounds whereas capturing 65.2% from the ground within the two wins. More importantly, Ayton has made life tough on Jokic, who’s 11-of-26 from the ground with solely 4 assists when Ayton has been the first defender on him, based on NBA Advanced Stats.

Sedano: It’s Paul. Let’s be actual, there weren’t many on the market who did not really feel he was snake-bitten once more after his damage within the first spherical. He battled by that and has regained his type to take a commanding 2-0 lead over Denver. His Game 2 efficiency was masterful. His 17-point, 15-assist, zero-turnover night time was the primary playoff sport with 15-plus factors, 15-plus assists and no turnovers since 2014. The participant who achieved that feat in 2014? Chris Paul. Before 2014, the final time it occurred was 2008 … by Chris Paul.

Young: The poise of the younger Suns. Paul is a weighted blanket for the remainder of the roster, offering the safety the Suns want in tight conditions. But as regular as he has been — 26 assists to 1 turnover is absurd — the remainder of the Suns’ children have performed their elements splendidly. Ayton is as much as the problem towards Jokic. Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson look comfy of their roles. And Devin Booker seems constructed for any postseason second thrown his method.

Pelton: Ayton’s protection towards Jokic. Despite early foul hassle in Game 2, Ayton has nearly matched the MVP minute for minute (Jokic has performed 4 minutes with Ayton on the bench, per NBA Advanced Stats) and deserves nearly all of the credit score for holding Jokic in test as each a scorer (23 PPG on 47.5% capturing) and distributor (4.5 APG).

Windhorst: Phoenix’s depth. Paul has been otherworldly throughout the Suns’ five-game win streak and he is bought an unbelievable 53-4 assist-to-turnover ratio in that span. But in each video games this sequence, the Suns have had 5 gamers in double figures. Ayton is enjoying one of the best ball of his life, Cameron Payne is electrical off the bench and the Jae Crowder/Bridges 3-and-D combo has been excellent.

What has been the biggest shock up to now in 76ers-Hawks?

MacMahon: Just how dominant Joel Embiid has been, regardless of the meniscus tear in his right knee. It’s spectacular to common 39.5 factors, 11.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks within the conference semifinals underneath any circumstances. It’s completely wonderful to do it regardless of nursing a knee damage that put Embiid’s availability in query till simply earlier than the Game 1 beginning lineups have been introduced. And he is doing it towards one of many NBA’s greatest defensive massive males in Atlanta’s Clint Capela.

Windhorst: How good Embiid has been regardless of having a reasonable knee damage. The concept that he’d play in Game 2, a lot much less put up 40, appeared wild only a few days in the past. That stated, the best way the Hawks performed within the first half of Game 1, leaping out to an enormous lead, was fairly shocking and deserves particular point out.

Young: Embiid. Obviously, it is not a shock Embiid would play nice in a playoff sequence. But underneath these circumstances, his well being was the biggest query going into the sequence. It appeared admirable he was going to attempt to play by a meniscus tear, however how restricted he may be, or the challenges he would possibly face, was a key storyline. Instead, after two video games, the one query round Embiid is, how on Earth are the Hawks going to cease him?

Sedano: How poorly the Sixers’ bench has performed. Philly was a middle-of-the-pack bench scoring unit this season, but it surely’s been downright dangerous this sequence. (And the numbers would look so much worse had Shake Milton not given the Sixers an enormous increase within the second half of Game 2.) Their bench gamers all had a unfavorable plus-minus in Game 1 and had zero factors within the first half of Game 2 previous to Milton setting the tone. That is not a sustainable recipe for fulfillment.

Pelton: Besides Atlanta stealing Game 1 on the highway, I’d say the efficiency of Kevin Huerter off the bench. Huerter has made greater than half his 3-pointers (6-of-11) and is an ideal 8-of-8 from contained in the arc, an enormous motive the Hawks are plus-12 with him on the courtroom and minus-24 with him on the bench by two video games.

What will most decide the winner of Jazz-Clippers?

MacMahon: Can the Clippers determine a approach to cool off Donovan Mitchell? LA has no likelihood on this sequence if Mitchell retains scoring within the 30s or 40s effectively. The Jazz aren’t as reliant on Mitchell because the Mavs have been on Luka Doncic — and Utah is a a lot better defensive crew than Dallas — so the Clippers aren’t going to outlive this sequence in the event that they by no means discover a sustainable resolution for the opponent’s go-to man.

Sedano: Mitchell’s success — or lack thereof — will decide who wins this sequence. Particularly, how efficient he’s within the pick-and-roll. For the Clippers to succeed, they should comprise the perimeter with a mix of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Nicolas Batum or Terance Mann. Luke Kennard definitely helps them on offense, however he was being focused on protection by Mitchell. If Mitchell is allowed to feast, then the Jazz will win the sequence.

Pelton: The capability to create off the dribble. The assumption was that might favor the Clippers, however I feel Utah’s capability to attain self-created buckets is wildly underrated. In reality, the Jazz’s 50.3% efficient discipline objective proportion on pictures with greater than two seconds of contact time — sixth within the league throughout the common season, per Second Spectrum monitoring — was really higher than the Clippers’ 49.4% mark (eleventh). Playing towards the Clippers’ junk defenses, Utah had simply 15 assists on 40 discipline targets in Game 2 however received anyway thanks largely to Mitchell’s creation.

Windhorst: The Jazz within the fourth quarter. They’ve blown some leads (do not ask about final yr) however, whoa, have they seemed like a championship crew within the fourth quarter throughout this six-game playoff win streak. Games 3 and 4 within the Memphis sequence and Games 1 and 2 towards the Clippers have been all broad open within the fourth and the Jazz’s mixture of lively protection, nice capturing and Mitchell have secured 50/50 video games repeatedly. It’s championship stuff.

Young: George. The secret of the story of Playoff P is that he is really fairly much like Regular Season P. George’s complete historical past as a star participant is a capability to succeed in a peak stage, on par with the best possible on the earth, however then observe that with a puzzling, wandering efficiency two nights later. The Clippers want one of the best model of George solely 4 occasions, and if they will get it, they will beat the Jazz.

The Finals matchup with one of the best storyline is …

Young: Suns vs. Hawks. After we bought past all of the big-market handwringing that might go on, the main target may shift towards the fact that the league would have a chance to showcase two stars who could possibly be featured gamers for the subsequent decade. Giving Trae Young and Booker the large stage may pay long-term dividends for the NBA. And I’m additionally a serious sucker for overcoming lengthy title droughts, or profitable your first, and seeing Paul within the NBA Finals simply appears lengthy overdue.

Pelton: I like Brooklyn’s massive three vs. Utah’s homegrown core as a storyline, however I feel the reply needs to be Nets vs. Clippers for the chance to see Durant vs. Leonard in a battle with each of them enjoying at a excessive stage. Kawhi wasn’t fairly there but in 2016 when Durant’s Thunder upset Leonard’s Spurs, and we have been denied this matchup within the 2019 NBA Finals by Durant’s accidents. This can be a becoming fruits for OkayD’s unbelievable comeback.

Sedano: It’s any sequence that entails Paul. The solely issues lacking from his résumé are a Finals look and subsequently a championship. Particularly, if the Nets have been the opponent. CP3 vs. Kyrie? A dream level guard matchup. Not to say doubtlessly squaring off versus his outdated teammate in Harden. Having him and this younger/enjoyable group of Suns face a Nets crew that appears like a juggernaut can be must-see TV.

MacMahon: Suns vs. Nets. Don’t rely on Paul and Harden going out to dinner between video games in the event that they face one another within the Finals a few years after their two-year tenure as Rockets teammates ended. Harden wasn’t the one one in Houston who wished to commerce Paul and a bundle of picks for Russell Westbrook, however that deal would not have been achieved except Harden pushed for it. Paul has proved past any affordable doubt that it was a nasty transfer, and main the Suns to an upset over Harden’s superteam can be the sweetest revenge. (Another storyline: Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni attempting to lastly win a title on the Suns’ expense.)

Windhorst: Suns vs. Nets with Harden and Paul wholesome. The Rockets can cry within the nook.

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