The Most Glaring Weakness for Every Remaining NBA Playoff Team

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 6, 2021

The Most Glaring Weakness for Every Remaining NBA Playoff Team

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The NBA regular season is often defined by strengths.

    Whether it's lethal long-range shooting, dominant defense, brilliant ball movement or something else that makes a squad special, it's a rinse-and-repeat process of getting to that strength over and over again.

    Playoff basketball is different.

    Because opponents have so much time to construct and implement game plans, it's a lot more difficult to get to those strengths. It's also significantly harder to hide weaknesses, which often are the things that send teams to their summer vacations.

    From injuries to inefficiencies, generous defenses to unbalanced offenses, we broke down the one thing to worry about with each of the nine teams still standing in the 2021 playoffs.

Atlanta Hawks: Non-Trae Young Offense

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    Wendell Cruz/Associated Press

    In Trae Young's first playoff series, he laid waste to the NBA's fourth-ranked defense and bombarded the New York Knicks for 29.2 points and 9.8 assists per game. His reward for that fireworks display was a second-round date with the Philadelphia 76ers' second-ranked defense and some of the best stoppers in the league.

    As stingy as the Knicks were this season, they didn't roster a suffocating defender on par with Defensive Player of the Year finalist Ben Simmons or All-Defensive team candidate Matisse Thybulle. For that matter, they weren't anchored by a 7'0", 280-pound brick wall such as Joel Embiid, either.

    Young could be up to this challenge—he did average 29.0 points on 50 percent shooting in two regular-season skirmishes with the Sixers—but solving this defense is a different kind of animal. And even if he's on his game, the Atlanta Hawks will still need to identify other reliable scoring sources.

    That's where it could get dicey.

    Bogdan Bogdanovic cooled off considerably in the first round (41.4 percent shooting, 33.3 from deep). Danilo Gallinari was downright frigid (33.3 and 32.0). John Collins shot it all right (53.7 and 38.9) but averaged only 8.2 attempts and 12.2 points. Lou Williams was nearly wiped out of the rotation, averaging 10.8 minutes and logging fewer than seven in the series finale.

    Regardless if Embiid is at full strength or not (more on that later), Atlanta can't play Young-or-bust offense.

Brooklyn Nets: Defense

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Brooklyn Nets made a calculated wager that in the modern NBA, defense doesn't actually win championships.

    They might be right. Slaying this dragon of a superteam will mean outscoring Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and—don't forget about the shooter—Joe Harris four times in seven games. Blake Griffin, a six-time All-Star who is only two seasons removed from averaging 24.5 points and 5.4 assists per game, is an afterthought.

    The firepower is ferocious.

    But the Milwaukee Bucks aren't exactly hurting in the point-production department. In fact, their offensive rating (116.5) landed within one point per 100 possessions of Brooklyn's league-leading mark (117.3).

    What if offense isn't enough to dispatch the Deer? Can the Nets rev up a defense that hasn't shown much juice all season?

    Brooklyn ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency. In its first-round series against the Boston Celtics, who didn't have Jaylen Brown and were without Kemba Walker the final two games, the Nets surrendered more points per 100 possessions than they did during the regular season (115.9 to 113.1).

    They're exploitable at so many different spots, and that will be hard to mask against Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, let alone any challenges beyond this matchup.

Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis' Inconsistency

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    The Dallas Mavericks' quest to find a third star has been well-documented. But what if they don't even have a second?

    Ostensibly, Kristaps Porzingis fills that role as the Robin to Luka Doncic's Batman. (Quick aside: Doncic turned 22 in February. You probably knew that already, but, wow, his trajectory is terrifying.)

    At times, Porzingis looks the part. Across his first two seasons in Dallas, the 7'3" shooter and shot-blocker averaged 20.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.4 triples and 1.7 blocks per game. Those qualify as sidekick credentials.

    Here's what doesn't: the 12.7 points and 4.5 rebounds he's averaging through six games against the Los Angeles Clippers. He has finished with single-digit points in three of his last four outings.

    "Just frustrated at the moment and trying to keep my head in the right place," Porzingis said after Game 3, per Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Just keep going [to do] the right things I can do on the defensive end, offensive rebounds and keep myself engaged and doing what I can do to help the team."

    Porzingis has one game with multiple blocks and two with zero. His series-high is six rebounds. He hasn't been to the free-throw line since Game 4. Despite his size, he is functioning like a shooting-specialist wing.

    Dallas can't win big if Porzingis doesn't play big.

Denver Nuggets: Perimeter Production

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    It feels funny to question anything related to offense for a team that just won its first-round series with a scalding-hot 122.9 offensive rating.

    But there are two things to know about that figure. First, it's fun to have Nikola Jokic on your side. The Denver Nuggets' MVP candidate played an MVP-caliber series, burning the Portland Trail Blazers for 33.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per night. Second, this all came against a defense that ranked 29th during the regular season and was surrounded in that ranking by lottery teams.

    In the conference semis, Denver draws the Phoenix Suns, who ranked sixth in the regular season and proved even stingier against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. This is the series wherein you start to really wonder whether the Nuggets can keep masking their myriad issues.

    Jamal Murray, their second-leading scorer this season and top scorer in last year's playoffs, is out with a torn ACL in his left knee. Will Barton, their fourth-leading scorer, hasn't played since April 23 because of a strained right hamstring.

    That makes Denver's perimeter group dangerously reliant on Monte Morris, Austin Rivers and Facundo Campazzo.

    Morris holds the highest career scoring average of the group at 9.8. Rivers lost his rotation spot with the New York Knicks, was traded to and subsequently waived by the Oklahoma City Thunder and went unsigned for three weeks before the Nuggets gave him a 10-day contract in the aftermath of Murray's injury. Campazzo is a 30-year-old rookie who put up 6.1 points on 38.1 percent shooting in the regular season.

    The Nuggets may need to squeeze a lot of scoring out of this trio, especially if Barton can't make his way back (or is limited upon his return). They were up to the task against the Blazers, but the difficulty level will go way up against the Suns.

Los Angeles Clippers: Support Scoring

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    In a win-or-go-fishing Game 6 on Friday night, Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers teammates shot a combined 18-of-52 (34.6 percent). The ones not named Reggie Jackson were 10-of-37 (27.0 percent). The ones not named Jackson or Paul George contributed 14 points on 22 shots.

    Miraculously, the Clippers aren't fishing right now. Leonard wouldn't let them. Instead, he authored an all-time performance by fending off elimination with 45 points on 18-of-25 shooting (5-of-9 from range) and silencing all scorers in front of him, including Luka Doncic.

    "He destroyed us," Doncic said, per ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk. "That's what it is. He had a hell of a game. And that's what he does."

    Leonard's work was magic. Even better than he'd been in L.A.'s first two victories (32.5 points on 75.0/62.5/92.3 shooting). It's been incredible to watch but also revealing about these Clippers. If he's not summoning 35-plus minutes of two-way greatness, they might not have enough to survive and advance.

    Only two other Clippers are averaging double digits this postseason: George, who's shooting 31.7 percent from three, and Jackson, who opened the series by scoring two points on six shots.

    Marcus Morris Sr. is shooting 37.0 percent from the field; Rajon Rondo is at 33.3. Nicolas Batum is 2-of-13 from deep over the last four games. Serge Ibaka is injured. Luke Kennard is out of the rotation.

    L.A. needs some non-Leonard consistency on offense. This would be a good time for Playoff P or Playoff Rondo to live up to their monikers.

Milwaukee Bucks: Imperfect Options to Replace Donte DiVincenzo

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    When the Milwaukee Bucks built their Big Three this offseason, attention immediately shifted to their closing five.

    The first three spots were written in permanent marker: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Another had Brook Lopez lightly scribbled in pencil or simply read: to be determined by matchup. But the last one went to Donte DiVincenzo, and there was enough confidence to pen it in non-erasable ink.

    There were two reasons to trust DiVincenzo would get that spot. First, his relentless defense and complementary offensive arsenal of shooting, slashing and ball-moving is tailor-made to support the stars. Second, the Bucks had no other obvious place to turn. Bryn Forbes and Pat Connaughton could replace the shooting all right (more so the former than the latter), but neither came close to matching DiVincenzo's defensive chops.

    With DiVincenzo since lost for the postseason to a torn ligament in his left ankle, Milwaukee is about to see how quietly costly his absence could be. It's especially worrisome ahead of this second-round tussle with the Brooklyn Nets, as Forbes and Connaughton simply can't stay in front of a Kyrie Irving or James Harden the way DiVincenzo can.

Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid's Knee

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Injuries are the worst.

    Joel Embiid might have been this season's most dominant player. That's a subjective debate, of course, but here's an objective truth: He missed nearly 30 percent of the regular season and still wound up as an MVP finalist. He might end up with an All-Defensive honor, too.

    The Philadelphia 76ers have a strong supporting cast around him, but he's the reason they snared the Eastern Conference's top seed and the reason they're firmly in the championship chase.

    He's also the biggest wild card in this postseason, because a meniscus tear in his right knee gave him the hazy "day-to-day" classification. He couldn't go in Game 5 of Philly's first-round series with the Washington Wizards, and he might not be ready for Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks.

    "He's got to go through his treatment," Sixers coach Doc Rivers told reporters Friday. "... It's too early [to rule him out]. I don't want to say one way or the other. We'll just find that out."

    Hopefully, Embiid is fine and makes us look silly for singling this out as Philly's top weakness instead of limited shooting depth or Ben Simmons' wavering aggressiveness on offense. But given how much Embiid means to this team (playoff-high 35.2 usage percentage) and how detailed his injury history is, this knee issue is the Sixers' biggest problem until it's not.

Phoenix Suns: Chris Paul's Shoulder

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Deep sigh. Injuries are still the worst.

    Chris Paul hurt his right shoulder in Game 1 of the Phoenix Suns' first-round series with the Los Angeles Lakers and then reaggravated the injury in Game 5. After topping 36 minutes in the series opener, he averaged only 26.7 minutes and cleared 30 minutes once over the final five contests.

    Since age has done nothing to rob the 36-year-old of his point god powers, he predictably still shined as the Suns' offensive organizer. He had 46 assists and only nine turnovers against this season's No. 1 defense, and at less than 100 percent. He embodies the term floor general like very few players ever have.

    So, what's the issue? Well, it's a right shoulder injury for a player who shoots right-handed, and it sabotaged his shooting rates in the first round.

    He shot 38.6 percent from the field, 20.0 percent from three and 75.0 percent at the line. For context, his career conversion rates are 47.2, 37.1 and 87.3. This season, they were 49.9, 39.5 and 93.4.

    He could mostly resemble himself when running offense or pestering someone on defense, but when he went to shoot, he couldn't hide the hindrance. If he can't shake this funk, he could spoil the Suns' spacing and put an even heavier burden on Devin Booker.

Utah Jazz: Perimeter Stopper

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz's whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And considering those individual parts include three All-Stars (Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley), the whole is pretty spectacular.

    But sometimes in the postseason, stars need to break out of the system and control a contest on their own. If that star shines bright enough, they can cause the opposing machine to malfunction.

    What that means specifically in Utah's case is when an elite perimeter scorer gets going, the Jazz can't count on their system to stop him. They need a shutdown defender to do the job, and they don't always have an answer.

    The job almost always goes to Royce O'Neale, the living embodiment of perseverance and someone who almost always plays mistake-free defense. But the 6'4" wing isn't an imposing figure physically, nor is he an elite athlete. The top-defender role is his, though, because Utah doesn't have anyone who checks those boxes.

    Conley and Mitchell stand 6'1". Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson fall short in quickness or length. Gobert can clean some stuff up at the rim, but he isn't the fleetest of foot away from the basket.

    Again, the system and collective skill level can take care of a lot for this team. But they weren't enough to stop Ja Morant from averaging 30.2 points and 8.2 assists in the first round, just like they couldn't keep Jamal Murray from running wild last year (31.6 points and 6.3 assists).

    Off-the-dribble, three-level scorers have proved capable of dismantling this defense. The Jazz will see more of them as long as they're alive this postseason.

                    

    All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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