The Whiteboard: What does Ja Morant have in store for his NBA Playoffs encore?

Memphis Grizzlies, The Whiteboard

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The second round of the playoffs will kick off this weekend, with the Timberwolves and Grizzlies as the lone first-round series still in progress. To break down some of the biggest questions in the NBA this week, I tapped in some of the best minds from The Step Back and FanSided’s NBA network.

1. Ja Morant has had two days to rest and recover from his masterful 18-point fourth quarter in Game 5. What do you expect to see as an encore?

Jack Simone, Hoops Habit: Ja Morant is electric, but while that may be true, I don’t expect the Minnesota Timberwolves to go down without a fight. I think Morant will try his hardest, but I don’t expect anything crazy. After how badly he torched the T-Wolves the other night, expect Patrick Beverley to take things personally. Morant might struggle, and I think the T-Wolves are going to win because of it.

Ben Ladner, The Step Back: Morant and the Grizzlies seemed to have figured out Minnesota’s defense to some degree, and I don’t know that the Wolves have the personnel to stop an offense that now knows what it’s up against. Irritants like Patrick Beverley tend to be pretty effective early in playoff series, but their impact wanes once elite point guards like Morant figure out how to attack them and get to their spots. Morant might have finally reached that point in Game 5, which will only cause the Wolves to devote more attention toward stopping him, thereby allowing Morant to beat them with his passing.

Micah Wimmer, The Step BackPredicting game-by-game results in the NBA is a fool’s errand. There’s so much variation from night-to-night, that I feel a bit silly making any definitive claims about what we may see tonight. Maybe he’ll be hot, maybe he’ll be cold — who knows? But I will quit hemming and hawing in the hopes of avoiding looking foolish to say this: Ja Morant is one of the most spectacular and thrilling athletes I have ever watched in my life and regardless of what he actually achieves. Whether he leads the Grizzlies to a victory with another astonishing fourth quarter or not — he will be breathtaking. He will contort his body around rim protectors while attempting one of the more absurd lay-ups of the postseason so far. He will push the ball in transition every chance he gets. He will try to embarrass at least one Minnesota defender and probably succeed. After watching him play so much these last few years, I know what to expect generally. I can’t wait to see what it looks like specifically.

2. What, if anything, have we learned about the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs?

Jack Simone, Hoops Habit: The Philadelphia 76ers are not a championship contender. Before the Joel Embiid injury? Sure, maybe. After it? No shot. Embiid has to be the driving force for them if they want to win a title. They cannot do it with James Harden being relied on as the main guy. He’s just not built like that anymore. Embiid being injured changes everything, as seen with how their series against the Toronto Raptors played out. It’s not their year.

Ben Ladner, The Step Back: We’ve learned that Joel Embiid can be the best player in any series he plays, but needs to be healthy for the Sixers to have a chance at the title. Embiid dominated the first three games of the series before a torn ligament in his thumb limited him over the next three, and the Raptors had much more success mitigating his impact as a result. Embiid’s combination of unstoppable interior scoring and dominant paint defense effectively neutralized Toronto for the first half of the series, and by the time the Raptors fine-tuned their approach and Embiid’s thumb started to affect him, Philly had given itself enough of a cushion to survive. The Heat will deploy many of the same defensive stratagems Toronto did, only with a defensive center who is at least somewhat capable of standing up to him one-on-one. The apex version of Embiid has the ability to power his way through Miami’s defense, but how much of that player will we actually see?

Micah Wimmer, The Step Back: I understand the hand-wringing about the Sixers’ first-round performance and I am not altogether hesitant to participate in it myself. However, I don’t feel like we learned anything all that new about Philadelphia in this first round. We already knew that Doc Rivers is better at blowing series leads (or at least flirting with doing so in this case) than anyone else alive. We were all aware that Joel Embiid was one of the most dominant players in the NBA, a force that can practically win games on his own. It is not news that James Harden appears to have lost a step and only intermittently looks like the player the Sixers hoped that they were acquiring when they traded for him. And finally, it is not news that Tyrese Maxey is an absolute dynamo. What we saw in the first-round series was one way these different things may come together, the team’s many advantages fighting not just the Raptors but themselves and their own worst impulses as well.

What we have yet to learn is what exactly all this means for them moving forward. Can this combination of strengths and weaknesses propel them past the Miami Heat and into their first Conference Finals since 2001? If they can find a way to do that, then I believe we will almost certainly learn a few new things about them in the process.

3. Can Phoenix win a second-round series with Devin Booker less than 100 percent?

Jack Simone, Hoops Habit: If Devin Booker can’t be the player he was in the regular season, the Suns are going to have to rely on what’s won them games all season long — team basketball. They have a ton of guys who play their roles to perfection like Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and even JaVale McGee. Playing team basketball will be the key. Although, and this is a hot take, I have the Dallas Mavericks taking them down. They’re my pick to come out of the West this year.

Ben Ladner, The Step Back: Sure, but it feels unlikely. As overrated as I think Booker became toward the end of the regular season, the ease and variety with which he generates shots is a crucial part of the Suns’ playoff formula. The eighth-seeded Pelicans managed to take Phoenix out of its offensive flow and deny easy looks, and the Mavericks will likely do an even better job of that. That makes Booker’s ability to create at least a semi-efficient look at any given time all the more important. Chris Paul can reach back and uncork his fastball every once in a while, but expecting him to serve as the team’s lone playmaker is unrealistic at this point in his career.

Booker takes some of the weight off of his shoulders, within both individual possessions and the broader scope of the season. Defenses can’t lock in on Paul as easily when they also have to account for a dynamic three-level scorer on the weak side, which gives Paul more space to work when he has the ball, and Booker’s ability to run the offense helps preserve Paul’s energy over the course of a game or series. Suns-Mavs should be a competitive series with both teams at full strength; I just hope we get to see it.

Micah Wimmer, The Step Back: I certainly struggle to imagine the Suns winning a championship if Booker is not back on the floor close to 100p percent, but I still think Phoenix is better than either Dallas or Utah, with or without Booker. I do not mean to undersell Booker and his abilities as a scorer, but Chris Paul remains the straw that stirs the proverbial drink for the Suns. Also, as important as Booker is to the Suns, they were the best team in the league in large part due to their depth (eight different players averaged at least 9 points per game) and stalwart defense (third in the NBA). Losing Booker hurts, but they still have those things without him.

I think that the combined efforts of Paul, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Cameron Johnson can propel the Suns to the Western Conference Finals. There, they will almost certainly need a healthy Booker. But even if he isn’t fully healthy in the second round, I think they can weather the storm thanks to their depth and their already strong defense.

Other NBA stories:

This week on The Long Two, Ben Ladner breaks down how Tyrese Maxey and Jordan Poole have become emerging stars in the NBA playoffs, and how Luka Doncic’s return throws the Mavericks into a mini-identity crisis.

Lots of great fallout from the Suns finally closing out the Pelicans, including Seerat Sohi on Deandre Ayton and Dan Devine on Chris Paul’s masterpiece.

There will be a million post-mortems on the Brooklyn Nets’ failure but I’m partial to this look at their deeply flawed roster from Jared Dubin.

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