2018 NBA playoffs: The X-factors that will shape the Western Conference playoffs

As we get set for the start of the 2018 NBA playoffs this weekend, let’s take a look at a handful of notable questions that could determine how things shake out in the Western Conference bracket:

The state of Stephen Curry’s knee

Yes, the Golden State Warriors still have three other All-Stars to lean on while Curry gets right following a Grade 2 sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. No, the Warriors haven’t really had much to play for in recent weeks, with the Houston Rockets running away with the West’s top seed and Steve Kerr’s club locked into the No. 2 spot. And yes, the Dubs have also had to deal with a bunch of other injuries down the stretch, spending time over the season’s final month without Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Patrick McCaw, among others.

But you’d be within your rights to worry that the Warriors’ underwhelming close to the season — 4-6 since Steph went down, a negative point differential, only one win over a playoff-caliber opponent — offers an indication of how vulnerable Golden State might be in the postseason without a fully operational Curry. There’s a reason why the Warriors went 41-10 with Curry in the lineup this year and 17-14 without him, and why they outscore opponents by nearly 15 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, compared to a plus-2.9-per-100 mark when he sits.

No matter how much other talent Kerr can call on, or how great Quinn Cook’s been as his understudy, Curry’s still the centerpiece of everything Golden State does. If he’s back at 100 percent for Round 2, the Warriors should still be the favorites to repeat as NBA champions. (So far, so good: no setbacks, reportedly.) If he’s not, they could be poised for their first early exit of the Kerr era. — Dan Devine

What does Oklahoma City do when teams hunt Melo?

Conventional wisdom tells us the Oklahoma City Thunder are built for the playoffs, when stars hold the cards and slimmed-down rotations mask shallow depth charts. But there’s still one glaring issue in OKC: Carmelo Anthony, a 33-year-old future Hall of Famer with 40,000 minutes logged in the NBA, isn’t that guy anymore.

Oh, sure, he’s capable of dialing up a throwback performance on the offensive end, where he’s built a 15-year catalog of buckets turned up to the highest shooting volume. But those have been fewer and farther between in a season that’s seen his true shooting percentage drop as close to 50 percent as it’s ever been. His defense has dropped even further, from indifferent to disastrous — to the point that it’s not incendiary to suggest he’s a detriment.

Carmelo Anthony figures to be tested by a Jazz team with Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio at the controls. (Getty)
Carmelo Anthony figures to be tested by a Jazz team with Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio at the controls. (Getty)

Houston’s win over OKC last month previewed what’s to come for Melo in the playoffs. The Rockets relentlessly attacked Anthony at every turn, actively seeking out his assignments when he got lost on defensive rotations and happily forcing him into pick-and-roll switches onto James Harden and Chris Paul. That’s a nightmare for any defender, and a real terror for a defense that can’t mask Melo getting spun without Andre Roberson.

Since their All-Defensive wing ruptured his patellar tendon in late January, the Thunder have dropped from a top-five defense to a middling one. In 1,561 minutes on the floor with Anthony and without Roberson, the Thunder are allowing 113.4 points per 100 possessions, according to — a figure that would rank as the NBA’s worst by a wide margin. As good as Russell Westbrook and Paul George are, and as good as Anthony might be on occasion, you’re asking too much of them to match a Golden State or Houston juggernaut that’s all but playing five-on-four offensively.

So, what does Thunder coach Billy Donovan do? He’s resisted demoting Anthony, if only because the options are few. He could ask more of Patrick Patterson, but he’s been more bust than bargain. There’s Jerami Grant, Josh Huestis and Terrance Ferguson, all of whom are younger and quicker, but even more offensively challenged. He could ride Raymond Felton in smaller lineups with Westbrook, George and Corey Brewer all guarding up a position. He could, as our own Dan Devine noted, preemptively switch Anthony as the Celtics did to avoid Jimmy Butler punishing Isaiah Thomas in the pick-and-roll last season. Or he could hope against hope that, with the added rest and motivation the playoffs provide, Anthony survives the hunt, and can turn the tables on the other end. — Ben Rohrbach

Can the Jazz score enough?

Utah’s remarkable second-half surge began with Rudy Gobert’s return to the lineup on Jan. 19 after missing a month due to a sprained knee ligament. The Jazz went 30-8 after getting their star center back, soaring from out of the playoffs to top-four contention on the backs of a brutalizing Gobert-led defense that allowed a microscopic, and league-best, 97.4 points per 100 possessions. Utah has absolutely smothered the opposition for the last three months … which has more than made up for an offense that’s been closer to average (12th out of 30 teams in offensive efficiency) than exceptional.

As electric as Donovan Mitchell has been throughout a Rookie of Year-worthy campaign, Utah’s leading scorer is a 21-year-old who’s about to be game-planned against as such at the professional level, and perhaps have to wear Paul George for two weeks straight, for the first time. Yes, Ricky Rubio has made 40 percent of his 3-pointers since Christmas; now, at long last, we find out if he’ll be able to do the same when a postseason opponent looks him in the eye and dares him to do it again, and again, and again.

Donovan Mitchell can bank on a lot of attention from Paul George, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the Oklahoma City defense. (Getty)
Donovan Mitchell can bank on a lot of attention from Paul George, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the Oklahoma City defense. (Getty)

Late-season addition Dante Exum is about as X-factor-y as it gets, a dynamic two-way athlete who can get to the basket and facilitate. A Utah team with capable finishers inside (Gobert, Derrick Favors) and out (Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko) figures to need all the help it can get creating good looks against a locked-in playoff defense, even if OKC’s been much more vulnerable on that end since Roberson went down.

The Jazz have a meat-grinder of a lineup that should be able to throw a monkey wrench into the works of even the West’s top offenses; this time around, though, they won’t have Joe Johnson in the closing seconds. How well Quin Snyder can gin up generation could determine whether Utah can make the franchise’s first deep run since the heyday of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. — DD

Whither Kawhi?

The Spurs are operating under the assumption that Kawhi Leonard will not return this season. They have been, really, since Manu Ginobili said last month that holding out hope — or buying into media reports that the star forward was nearing a return — wasn’t helping.

“We’ve got to think that he’s not coming back,” Ginobili said. “That we are who we are and that we’ve got to fight without him.”

The Spurs also haven’t ruled Leonard out for the season, though, leaving the door ajar for a miraculous return that transforms San Antonio back into a legitimate threat in the West again.

Since Leonard vowed in early March to return “soon” from the right quadriceps tendinopathy that kept him from all but nine games this season, and suggested that he “for sure” wants to remain a Spurs lifer, the strange saga that has been his 2017-18 campaign has only gotten stranger. Teammates called a players-only meeting asking for an answer one way or another — Is he coming back or isn’t he? — and Leonard remained noncommittal, instead returning to New York to continue rehabbing away from a San Antonio training staff that had reportedly already cleared him to play. This has opposing teams hovering overhead, waiting to swoop in if the divide between Leonard and the Spurs ever widens to the point he becomes available.

It’s clear there is some disconnect between the Spurs and Leonard. What isn’t clear is whether they will reconnect before this summer. Without him, San Antonio is a well-coached team full of overachieving role players around surefire All-NBA big man LaMarcus Aldridge capable of competing against anyone, as they’ve proven all year and as they showed in a closeout Game 6 win against the Rockets in last year’s conference semifinals. With the two-time Defensive Player of the Year at full strength, though, the Spurs are a contender.

It’s hard to imagine Leonard being at full strength even if he were to return. Still, until they rule him out for good, in the back of everyone’s mind, you have to be wondering. If ever there were a team to quietly unleash a playoff-altering bombshell on the league, it’s this superstar, under this coach, on these Spurs. — BR

MVP candidate Damian Lillard (second from left) will need some help from the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu (left), Jusuf Nurkic (third from left) and Evan Turner for Portland to make a deep postseason run. (Getty)
MVP candidate Damian Lillard (second from left) will need some help from the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu (left), Jusuf Nurkic (third from left) and Evan Turner for Portland to make a deep postseason run. (Getty)

Can Portland’s “others” hold up their end of the bargain?

We know what we’re getting from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Or at least we think we do. They’ve averaged 50 points combined per game or close to it in each of their last two trips to the playoffs. Questions about the Blazers are more focused on their supporting cast — a group that passed the regular-season test this time around.

Jusuf Nurkic found his way after last year’s midseason trade. Evan Turner settled into the little-bit-of-everything role he enjoyed in Boston. Shabazz Napier emerged as a reliable backup point guard. Rookie Zach Collins flashed occasional floor-stretching and rim-protecting potential. Then, there’s Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, lengthy defense-first forwards who have combined to shoot 38 percent on seven 3-point tries per game. Harkless, though, will miss the start of the first round with a knee injury.

The Blazers got next to nothing from their role players in a first-round sweep at Golden State’s hands last season, save for someone showing up on occasion — too little, too late. In 2016, the contributions of Aminu and Harkless were consistent enough (25.6 points per game combined in 11 playoff games) to help carry them to a second-round exit against the Warriors. How those tentpoles of a defense that climbed into the league’s top 10 this season hold up offensively will tell us as much about the Blazers’ playoff success as anything outside of which version of Nurkic shows up: the beastly Bosnian capable of controlling the paint on both ends, or the dude who’s looked downright disinterested on many a night during a contract year. They just need those guys to keep the door open long enough for Lillard and McCollum to close it behind them. — BR

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