Basketball, Basketball, Columnists, Sports

The 2-3 Zone, Five Questions from the Bubble

The “2”

Will the Milwaukee Bucks be able to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo?

Antetokounmpo is the reigning National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player and is about to be the two-time reigning MVP — he just won Defensive Player of the Year. 

But in the past four years, as Antetokounmpo has risen to greatness, the Bucks have suffered a pair of first-round knockouts and a defeat in the conference finals. And this year, they are on the brink of a second-round loss to the Miami Heat, despite being the best regular-season team in the league.

Because of all that, Antetokounmpo’s impending 2021 unrestricted free-agent status has everyone asking if the Bucks will be able to retain their star player.

This postseason has obviously done very little to help with the Bucks’ situation. Antetokounmpo’s scoring help seems to disappear during every playoff appearance, as Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe have proven themselves to be underwhelming postseason performers. Head Coach Mike Budenholzer seems scared to play the MVP in the most important games of the year. And the national media seems to want the Greek Freak out of such a small market. 

In 2021, we could see Antetokounmpo move to Miami or Dallas or any number of teams that would leave the Bucks feeling like the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010.

Is this version of Jamal Murray legitimate?

Murray has been a phenomenon for the Denver Nuggets in the bubble playoffs. He’s averaging 27.4 points per game on ridiculous 51-47-91 splits. He had two 50-point games against Utah in the first round of the playoffs. And he’s been hitting absurd shots over great defenders game after game.

But Murray has only been doing so in the playoffs. In this past regular season, he averaged fewer than 19 points per game, and he didn’t even hit 35 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Even going back to last year’s playoffs, his 21 points per game came on poor shooting splits.

Murray may look like a superstar through 10 games of this year’s playoffs, but he will have to prove that he can be a reliable pairing for Nikola Jokic for an extended run before the Nuggets emerge as true contenders out west.

The “3”

Can the Los Angeles Lakers’ supporting players be enough?

LeBron James and Anthony Davis are great. There’s no denying that. In this year’s playoffs, the two superstars are putting up a combined 56-20-13 line on a nightly basis. But questions about the Lakers’ depth have persisted throughout the team’s first two playoff series. 

Kyle Kuzma is the only other Laker averaging double-digit points, though his scoring and field goal percentage are down from the regular season. Danny Green’s shot attempts around the rim have been embarrassingly bad. Head Coach Frank Vogel and teammate Rajon Rondo seem to be the only two people in the world who believe Rondo can shoot the rock. Dion Waiters has been shunned to the bench, despite the Lakers’ clear need for another creator on offense.

The Lakers are top-heavy; and stars are the key to wins in the postseason, especially when one of those stars is the greatest player to ever grace the basketball court. But if James and Davis don’t get a little help from the rest of the Lakers, the Houston Rockets’ shooting or the Los Angeles Clippers’ depth could stop the Lakers from winning it all.

Who is the third best player in the Eastern Conference?

Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant — when he’s healthy — are obviously the absolute best. But when it comes down to No. 3 in the East, Middleton, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler and Pascal Siakam all have their hat in the ring.

When he’s on, Embiid is the best player on his team and his natural talent makes him an unstoppable, dominant force. But he’s injury-plagued, and he and Simmons cannot seem to find any playoff success. Irving also has injury issues, and this past regular season did more to hurt his case than help. Meanwhile, Middleton and Siakam have struggled in the playoffs, while Tatum is still on his rise to greatness.

Right now, the answer is Butler. His attitude, toughness, playoff greatness and ability to take over a game (as we’ve seen against the Bucks) puts him a step above the rest.

Does size matter?

Short answer, no. It’s been a question floating around as the Rockets have pioneered the small ball movement or, more accurately, long ball, with their swarming length on defense and reliance on deep shots offensively.

However, with their mostly 6-foot-7 and under lineup, the Rockets have proven that you don’t need a traditional center or any big men to find success on the basketball court.

 

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