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Can Nets-Bucks Live Up To The Hype?

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer):NBA fans, we’re back with our NBA postseason chats! On the heels of the defending champions’ elimination, I’ve asked Jared Dubin, Andres Waters and Louis Zatzman to join me to discuss what in the world happened to the Knicks, how the Bucks match up with the Nets’ Big Three, who’s best-positioned to come out of the West and plenty of other questions around the NBA playoffs. It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these, so let’s start with a broad question. What’s been the most surprising thing for you this postseason?

dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The degree to which the Heat were uncompetitive against the Bucks. I wouldn’t have picked them to win this year like they did in the bubble, but I did not think they’d be the only team to get swept.

tchow: Yeah, that’s a good shout, Jared. Given how close Game 1 was, I really expected that to be a much closer series than it was.

louis.zatzman (Louis Zatzman, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think both teams are fairly different this year. Jrue Holiday changes the Bucks, and the Heat never had that top-end gear that they showed at times last year. Still, though, that doesn’t explain the Heat folding from Game 2 onward.

dubin: The Bucks won Games 2, 3 and 4 by a combined 80 points! I will have to check with the research department, but that sounds like a lot of points.

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dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I was surprised by the lack of competitiveness in the Hawks-Knicks series. Maybe competitiveness is the wrong word, but I really thought that series would have been closer.

tchow: OK, Dre. You’re going to go there right off the bat. I love it. I do want to look forward, but let’s spend a little bit of time looking back here. What the hell happened to the Knicks?

dubin: Trae Young really solved the Knicks’ defense in the final regular-season matchup between those two teams. He had 14 assists when he exited the game with an injury in the third quarter, but the Knicks came back and won after he went out. (And thus won the regular-season series 3-0.) New York (to put it kindly) did not have an answer for him in this playoff series. 

zatzman: He’s such a good passer when he gets inside the arc that it puts a ton of stress on the defense. And the Knicks just couldn’t open up the Hawks’ defense in the same way, no matter what they tried.

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dubin: In fairness, they did not try very much. Tom Thibodeau has a lot of virtues as a coach, but offensive creativity is not one of them.

dre.waters: Exactly why they were tied for the fewest points per game this postseason.

zatzman: I was sure they’d try Julius Randle at center at some point. If you can’t get a stop, may as well try to score yourself. But, nada.

dubin: They used that small-ball look briefly in Game 4, I believe. But they really did not have enough wings to go small for long stretches. But that’s because they built a roster for Thibodeau, who always wants to play big.

zatzman: Trae Young’s performance against the Knicks points to my biggest surprise of the postseason so far: the ability of playoff rookies (Ja Morant, Devin Booker as well) to adapt to playoff defenses without missing a beat. That’s something I don’t remember seeing before.

tchow: All right, enough about those Knicks. Let’s look ahead in the Eastern Conference. We know all four teams heading into the conference semifinals at this point, and the FiveThirtyEight forecast actually surprised me. It gives the Brooklyn Nets a better shot to beat the Bucks (65 percent) than it gives the Sixers to beat the Hawks (58 percent). Am I missing something here? Do you agree with the model?

dubin: I’m assuming the model knows Joel Embiid is injured and is factoring that in.

dre.waters: I was just about to say that, Jared, having spent a decent amount of time on the model. It’s definitely factoring Embiid’s injury in. 

dubin: Yep. Philly’s current roster rating is the lowest of all remaining playoff teams.

zatzman: That’s surprising to me, then! I would think the Hawks have a good shot with Embiid hurt. The Sixers were not a good offensive team with Embiid on the bench. With De’Andre Hunter back, I could see the Hawks’ defense surprising us.

dre.waters: The Hawks actually rank third in postseason defensive rating. After being among the bottom half of the league during the regular season, that’s really surprising as well. But I’m sure a big part of that was just the Knicks.

dubin: A 42 percent chance of winning is a pretty good shot! The Sixers defense should still be quite good even with Embiid out, and they have a lot of options to throw at Trae, with Ben Simmons, Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle.

dre.waters: But do you all think the Sixers without Embiid can keep up offensively?

tchow: Well, the Sixers do have Seth Curry. We were all sad about Steph Curry missing out on the postseason when Seth was sitting right there.

zatzman: They don’t really have the personnel to do the switch-switch-isolation offense that playoff teams might do to pick on Young. So a lot of the offense might be dependent on Simmons hitting the paint. Can he be the main offensive hub against a (kind of) good defense for a whole series? I am hesitant. Or, does Tobias Harris do the whole thing himself?

dre.waters: I’m with you, Louis. We saw Harris have a really good game earlier, and Simmons has played well so far … except for his free-throw shooting, whew. But I don’t know if they can beat the Hawks when they’re playing like this.

dubin: I’m interested to see who they use Hunter on. Do they want to limit Harris as a scorer or Simmons as a creator? And can whichever of those guys is defended by Bogdan Bogdanović, or whoever else, do enough to make the Hawks pay?

zatzman: That’s such a good question, Jared. Does Bogdanović guard Harris?! That would be a big ask.

dubin: I’m also curious to know what Embiid looks like, and if he tries to play through the injury. I’m not breaking any news here when I say that Embiid is a different caliber of athlete than I am, but as a two-time meniscus tear veteran, I can confirm that injury is not fun. Embiid also previously had a meniscus tear in his opposite knee, for which the Sixers at first listed him as day-to-day before he eventually needed surgery.

tchow: OK, let’s dive into the matchup I think everyone is more interested in (sorry Sixers and Hawks fans): Nets vs. Bucks. The Nets looked dominant against a stubborn Boston Celtics team, but the Bucks beat them 2-1 in the regular season, and Giannis put up some pretty incredible numbers against Brooklyn in those games (39.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists). What are you all watching for in this series?

zatzman: I’m watching for Holiday to have his Fred-VanVleet-on-Steph-Curry-in-the-Finals moment, defensively. For the Bucks to win, Holiday’s individual defense has to be fantastic.

dre.waters: I’m interested to see what the Nets do to stop Giannis from having his way in the paint. If I remember correctly, the Nets weren’t too great defending in that area.

zatzman: And Giannis had the most dominant season around the rim in the NBA Advanced Stats database, since 1996-97.

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dubin: None of the BucksNets games included all three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden in the lineup, so I would just as soon throw those results out. I’m watching for, in no particular order:

  • How the Bucks deploy Jrue and Giannis on defense, and who picks up whichever star is not defended by one of those two guys.
  • How many different matchups the Nets try on Giannis.
  • Does DeAndre Jordan play at all with Jeff Green out, and does that allow the Bucks to stay big with Brook Lopez more often than Brooklyn would probably like?
  • Are the Bucks willing to leave the Nets’ shooters open like they do with so many other teams, given that those shooters are, ya know, really good?
  • Bruce Brown. (FROM? The U!)

zatzman: Re: your first point, Jared, I actually think Giannis should guard a non-star, at least to start. You can’t stonewall the Nets’ offense, so I think it would make more sense to try to cause havoc and force turnovers, and Giannis is one of the best at that in the league. Start him on Blake Griffin (if you can wiggle Lopez elsewhere) or maybe even Joe Harris, and see if you can eke out a transition game.

dubin: If he’s on Harris, how much can he really help on anyone else? And if he’s on Harris or Blake, does that mean Lopez is on KD? Or Bryn Forbes on one of Harden or Kyrie? I feel like Giannis has to just spend a lot of time on KD, because I’m not sure how else you make it work. And are they going to start Forbes or go with Pat Connaughton, instead?

zatzman: That’s where the Donte DiVincenzo injury hurts. He offered defensive flexibility to an extent that Forbes doesn’t. 

dubin: Definitely.

tchow: OK, if you were Nets coach Steve Nash, what would you try to do in order to stop Giannis from having a big series?

zatzman: That seems simpler, right? Just throw Griffin on him and hope Lopez doesn’t get too many offensive rebounds?

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dre.waters: I feel like it’s more a question of their depth, though, because you can’t really expect Blake to do that for maybe seven games.

dubin: Yeah, Blake obviously can’t handle enough minutes to spend the entire game on him. I think you’ve just got to keep trying bodies until something works for a few possessions, then change it up when he figures that out, and keep daring him to shoot jumpers. Blake, KD, Nic Claxton, Jordan, Green if he comes back, Brown, whoever can hang for a few possessions gets a turn.

dre.waters: I don’t think they would want Blake playing that many minutes, either. But Claxton and Brown are disruptive, so I could definitely see them using them in spurts.

zatzman: The “works for a few possessions” thing is important, I think. Neither team is going to stop the other’s stars for a full game, let alone a full series. The matchups are tough to jury-rig both ways, which means this thing is probably going to be won by a small handful of stops in a row, more or less. Claxton should be big for that, for the Nets. He can get stops!

dubin: This series is kind of why Nash spent the whole season experimenting with different stuff. When they have to do it now against an opponent for whom there’s not an obvious matchup, they’re used to it and won’t spontaneously combust, perhaps like a team that was knocked out of the last two postseasons because it couldn’t make adjustments because it spent the whole year playing the same way. (And changed that this year!)

tchow: OK, let’s flip it now. Like you said, Jared, the Bucks never had to face KD, Kyrie and Harden all together during any of their regular-season games. What do you all expect to see from Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer to stop the Nets’ offense?

zatzman: They’ll probably start Lopez, playing drop defense, and following the script they perfected for two seasons. But as Jared said, they have more options now! If Lopez’s weaknesses start to outweigh his strengths, defensively, you can turn to Giannis at center or even P.J. Tucker and start switching to grind things down. I think the Bucks’ matchups will be fluid, at least for stretches of games, with all of Jrue, Khris Middleton and Giannis spending time on all of the Nets’ stars.

dubin: I think using Jrue as a sort-of fire extinguisher makes sense. Start him on whoever of those guys is going off, but if another gets it going, make them deal with Jrue for a few possessions and see what happens.

dre.waters: I would think they might go with Middleton on Kyrie and put Holiday on Harden if he’s still the main ball-handler, while perhaps Giannis is on KD.

dubin: Yeah. Or like Louis said, bring in Tucker and maybe put him on KD, with Giannis helping off of Blake or Brown or Claxton or whoever else is out there.

tchow: I love this imagery of Holiday as a fire extinguisher. It immediately made me think of that video game, Overcooked, where you sometimes have to run around putting out fires.

zatzman: Jrue is the “break in case of,” but for every possible disaster. Poor guy. If there’s anything more stressful than cooking in a kitchen that’s on fire, it’s having to switch between guarding Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin freaking Durant. So you’re onto something here, Tony. But as for the basketball, I like that compromise, Jared. Maybe Giannis can’t guard a non-star when Lopez or Forbes is out there (especially both), but there are lineups that would allow it, and Tucker helps there.

tchow: OK, before we wrap up this chat, let’s talk about the West briefly. The FiveThirtyEight model gives the Jazz a 27 percent chance of winning the Finals, while the Western team with the next-best odds is the Suns with a 12 percent chance after dispatching the Lakers on Thursday night. (Even after wrapping up the Trail Blazers, the Nuggets are still at only 5 percent to win it all.) But what do you make of that conference? Which team do you see coming out and making it to the Finals?

dubin: Definitely the Los Phoetah Mavgets.

dre.waters: I second that pick!

dubin: Guaranteed to be both right and wrong.

dre.waters: In all honesty, though, if I HAD to make a pick right now, I like Utah.

zatzman: That’s fun to hear! I haven’t heard a lot of confidence in Utah, particularly before the playoffs started. Did their performance against the Grizz change your perception of them, Dre?

dre.waters: Yeah, it definitely helped, Louis. I don’t know if they would have been my pick at the start of the postseason. But once they got Donovan Mitchell back, they have been lights out. And they were good on both sides of the ball in the regular season. 

dubin: Do we know how serious Mike Conley’s hamstring injury is? He was supposed to get an MRI today. It would be extremely beneficial for Utah if somebody knocked off the Suns before the conference finals, because Chris Paul and Devin Booker against drop coverage is … not ideal for the Jazz.

zatzman: Jared, you have a point there. They couldn’t have had a more beneficial matchup than the Grizzlies, in terms of a team that’s not built to capitalize on the Jazz defense. But a lot of teams in the West could hurt the Jazz for playing defense like that — the Suns, Clippers, Mavericks, for example.

dubin: Chris Paul and Paul George have already torn that coverage apart in previous playoff series.

zatzman: Speaking about putting out fires, the West has in large part been a bunch of teams that are scrambling to win rockfights, plus Utah. Whereas the East has been smooth sailing for everyone left. I can’t tell if it means the best teams are more dominant in the East (it probably doesn’t mean that) or the worst playoff teams are better in the West (this is probably true). But it makes me feel like the Nets-Bucks series has more importance than any other right now.

dubin: Given Embiid’s injury, I feel pretty good about “the winner of Nets-Bucks will win the Finals.”

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Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.