NBA playoffs mid-series fear meter 2.0: Ranking the 8 teams from least to most afraid
Each of the eight teams left in the NBA playoffs has played four second-round games, and two of the four series are knotted at two games apiece. It is time now to assess the level of fear each of the remaining teams should be feeling both in their current series and going forward — ranked from least to most afraid:
8. Golden State Warriors
Trail Los Angeles Lakers, 3-1
Golden State's series against the Lakers makes its championship run last season all the more remarkable. The Warriors are now a solo act, and sometimes Stephen Curry can be enough, but they are searching for answers against Anthony Davis and company, trying JaMychal Green and Gary Payton II in a starting lineup that was once the least of their problems. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are showing their age. Andrew Wiggins has been OK. Jordan Poole has not. This was the backbone of last year's resurgence.
When everyone but Curry is relegated to a role player, that leaves enough room for Lonnie Walker IV or D'Angelo Russell to offer Davis and LeBron James enough support to tilt the series in Los Angeles' favor.
What is left of Golden State's glory better be on display starting Wednesday. The Warriors can complete the comeback, especially with Games 5 and 7 at home, but there are a lot of questions about a dying dynasty on the other side of another loss. Green can become a free agent. Thompson wants an extension. Paying Poole $128 million over either of them is a conundrum that is weightier than when Green punched him for it.
7. New York Knicks
Trail Miami Heat, 3-1
The Knicks also have two games left at home in the series if they can get to a Game 7, but Miami's Jimmy Butler is on another playoff rampage, and they have no answer for his ferocity. New York's lone victory against the Heat came when Butler rested his sprained right ankle, and he has shown no sings of constraint since returning from the injury in Game 3. The Knicks are built on toughness, and Miami is simply tougher.
It does not help that New York cannot shoot (28.2% on 35.5 3-point attempts a game) and cannot generate much offense beyond Jalen Brunson's drives to the basket. Most concerning is the performance of Julius Randle. An All-NBA talent for the last two regular seasons, he has been erosive in the postseason, shooting 34.1% from the field and averaging more turnovers (3.9) than assists (3.7) in his only career playoff action.
Whenever Butler mercifully ends another thrilling Knicks season that ended well short of the ultimate goal, New York must ask itself: Has this roster reached its ceiling with Randle as a central figure in its offense?
6. Philadelphia 76ers
Tied with Boston Celtics, 2-2
The 76ers should be thrilled with their current standing. Boston is the better team, but James Harden has taken a pair of games from a team that forgets how focused it needs to be to finish off an opponent. They might only need one more Harden masterpiece to pull off the upset, as long as Joel Embiid can continue to rehabilitate his sprained right knee enough to unlock an MVP effort or two of his own in this three-game set.
The Sixers have also given Philadelphia hope, and that can be a dangerous thing. Another lost series to the Celtics — and one so winnable this time — will prompt debate about Harden's potential homecoming with the Houston Rockets, Embiid's sustainability in the playoffs and Doc Rivers' viability as the coach of both.
5. Boston Celtics
Tied with Philadelphia 76ers, 2-2
The Celtics could be facing a fraught reality of their own if they suffer what would be a crushing defeat. Their path to the NBA Finals will never get easier for this group. First-year head coach Joe Mazzulla's job may be in jeopardy if he cannot solve his team's late-game woes. A loss would only increase the noise around Jaylen Brown's future in Boston, even if he achieves All-NBA status and warrants a max extension.
Brown is 26 years old, Jayson Tatum is 25, and the Celtics can expect both stars to continue ascending, but Al Horford is 10 years their senior, and they can only keep Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon together for so long. The window is now, and it always closes faster than anyone anticipates.
Still, the Celtics should win this series. They are outscoring the Sixers by 11.5 points per 100 possessions — the equivalent of the mighty 2017 Warriors — and to lose in those margins is almost impossible. Almost.
4. Phoenix Suns
Tied with Denver Nuggets, 2-2
Devin Booker is averaging 36.3 points on 63.7% shooting in this series, and those numbers have escalated to 41.5 and 79.1% in the last two games (both Suns wins), an all-time playoff heater. Even if he cools off, there is always the possibility that Kevin Durant — averaging 32 points per game against Denver despite shooting 25% from 3 in the series — can get just as hot. They can be enough to win the whole damn thing.
That means dragging a shallow supporting cast past a deeper Denver roster. Deandre Ayton's future in Phoenix gets grimmer with each no-show. Chris Paul, the 38-year-old future Hall of Famer, is injured again. The Suns are banking on Jock Landale, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Terrence Ross and more players the casual NBA fan does not know to give Booker and Durant any help, and that is a frightening thought.
3. Denver Nuggets
Tied with Phoenix Suns, 2-2
Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have been spectacular in their own right against the Suns. Jokic is posting a 37-14-10 on 57/43/87 shooting splits, almost beyond comprehension, and the fact that this series is tied is a credit to the two superstars countering him on the Suns. There is no shame in losing to a pair of snipers, but the Nuggets might also never see a clearer path through the Western Conference, and that is the fear.
It is unlikely major changes are on the horizon if they suffer another second-round exit. Michael Porter Jr. needs to earn his $172.6 million contract, and if he never does, that is the roadblock to a title — and one other teams will not want to take off their hands. The Nuggets have the talent. They only need to show it.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
Lead Golden State Warriors, 3-1
At the trade deadline, the Lakers were in 13th place in the Western Conference, trailing the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, owners of a bottom-10 outfit on both offense and defense, and LeBron James was playing on a torn tendon in his right foot. The 38-year-old legend is somehow still playing on that injury, but the Lakers are 25-11 (the West's best team) since discarding Russell Westbrook and draft equity in favor of D'Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley.
The health of Anthony Davis is the real difference-maker. He is capable of being the best player in a series with Stephen Curry, logging astronomical double-doubles and anchoring the league's top defense. There is always real concern that he falls back to earth and hurts himself doing it, or that James' foot breaks down beyond the point of no return this season, or both. But the Lakers are one win away from a week's rest before the conference finals, and it is hard to bet against James when the path to another Finals lies ahead.
1. Miami Heat
Lead New York Knicks, 3-1
The Heat have no business being here but for Butler. They lost to the Atlanta Hawks in a play-in tournament opener and trailed the Chicago Bulls in the fourth quarter of their last chance to make the playoffs. They lost Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo to injury in a first-round series against the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, and Butler willed them to an upset — in five games, no less. The Knicks are no sweat by comparison.
The Heat have no fear by nature, and they have nothing to lose. The Knicks are the only team ever to reach a conference finals as an eighth seed, and they did it in the lockout-shortened 1999 season. The rest is just gravy for Miami, and the Heat will be emboldened by their past success against either the Celtics or 76ers.