NBA Playoffs Mid-Series Fear Meter 2.0

Each of the eight remaining teams in the NBA playoffs has played four second-round games, and two of the four series are tied with two games each. It’s now time to rank the level of fear each of the remaining teams should feel, both in their current series and in the future – from the least fear to the greatest:

Lane Los Angeles Lakers, 3-1

Golden State’s streak against the Lakers makes their championship run last season all the more remarkable. The Warriors are a solo act now and sometimes Stephen Curry can be enough but they’re looking 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 ages. Andrew Wiggins was OK. Not Jordan Poole. This was the backbone of last year’s resurgence.

With everyone but Curry relegated to roleplaying, there’s plenty of room for Lonnie Walker IV or D’Angelo Russell to provide enough support for Davis and LeBron James to tip the series in favor of Los Angeles.

What remains of the Golden State’s glory should be on display beginning Wednesday. The Warriors can complete the comeback, especially with Games 5 and 7 at home, but there are many 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 for one of them is a mystery more serious than it was when Green punched him for it.

Trail Miami Heat, 3-1

The Knicks also have two more games at home in the series if they make it 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 only win against the Heat came when Butler rested his sprained right ankle, and he hasn’t shown any signs of compulsion since returning from Game 3 injury. The Knicks are built on toughness, and Miami is just tougher.

It doesn’t help that New York can’t shoot (28.2% on 35.5 3-point attempts per game) and can’t generate much offense beyond Jalen Brunson’s shots to the basket. Of most concern is Julius Randle’s performance. He has been an All-NBA talent for the past two regular seasons. In the postseason, he was erosive, 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 wraps up another thrilling Knicks season that ended well short of the ultimate goal, New York has to ask itself: Has this roster with Randle as a central figure on its offense hit its ceiling?

Tie with Boston Celtics, 2-2

The 76ers should be excited about where they are right now. Boston are the better team, but James Harden has taken two games from a team that forgets how focused it takes to finish off an opponent. All you might need is a Harden masterpiece to calm the excitement, as long as Joel Embiid can continue to mend his sprained right knee enough to unlock an MVP achievement or two of his own in this three-game set.

The Sixers have also given hope to Philadelphia, and that can be a dangerous thing. Another losing streak against the Celtics — and one so winnable this time — will spark debate about Harden’s potential homecoming with the Houston Rockets, Embiid’s playoff sustainability and the viability of Doc Rivers as coach of both.

Philadelphia 76ers superstar Joel Embiid and Boston Celtics opponent Jayson Tatum have legacies at stake in what's left of their Eastern Conference semifinals series.  (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Philadelphia 76ers superstar Joel Embiid and Boston Celtics opponent Jayson Tatum have legacies at stake in what’s left of their Eastern Conference semifinals series. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

5. Boston Celtics

Tie with Philadelphia 76ers, 2-2

The Celtics could face a reality of their own if they suffer a crushing defeat. Your road to the NBA Finals has never been easier for this group. First-year head coach Joe Mazzulla’s job could be in jeopardy if he can’t fix his team’s late-game problems. A loss would only add to the noise about Jaylen Brown’s future in Boston, even if he achieves All-NBA status and warrants a maximum extension.

Brown is 26, Jayson Tatum is 25 and the Celtics can expect both stars to continue rising, but Al Horford is 10 years older than them and they can only keep Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon together that long . The window is now, and it’s closing ever faster than anyone expects.

Still the Celtics should win this series. They’re outpacing the Sixers by 11.5 points per 100 possessions — the equivalent of the mighty Warriors of 2017 — and losing by that margin is almost impossible. Nearly.

Tie with Denver Nuggets, 2-2

Devin Booker is averaging 36.3 points on a 63.7% shot percentage in this series, and those numbers have soared to 41.5 and 79.1% in the last two games (both Suns win), a playoff record any times. Even if he cools down, there’s always a chance Kevin Durant — who’s averaging 32 points per game against Denver despite shooting 25% from 3 points in the series — can get just as hot. They can be enough to win the whole damn thing.

That means pulling a shallow supporting cast past a deeper Denver roster. Deandre Ayton’s future in Phoenix grows bleaker with every no-show. Chris Paul, the 38-year-old future Hall of Famer, is injured again. The Suns are counting on Jock Landale, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Terrence Ross and more players the casual NBA fan doesn’t know to help Booker and Durant, and that’s a scary thought.

3. Denver Nuggets

Tie with Phoenix Suns, 2-2

Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray were spectacular against the Suns. Jokic has a 37-14-10 record in 57/43/87 exchanges, almost incomprehensible, and the fact that this series is a tie is thanks to the two superstars countering him at the Suns. There’s no shame in losing to two snipers, but the Nuggets may never see a clearer path through the Western Conference either, and that’s the fear.

Major changes are unlikely to be on the horizon if they suffer another round two exit. Michael Porter Jr. has his $172.6 million contract to earn, and if he never makes it, that’s the roadblock to a title — and another team won’t want to take it out of his hands. The nuggets have the talent. You just have to show it.

2.Los Angeles Lakers

Golden State Warriors lead, 3-1

At the close, the Lakers were 13th in the Western Conference, trailing the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, who had groups in the bottom 10 on both offense and defense, and LeBron James played tendon in his right foot on a torn field. The 38-year-old legend is somehow still playing with that injury, but the Lakers are 25-11 (the best team in the west) since they threw out Russell Westbrook and the equity in favor of D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik have taken over Beasley.

Anthony Davis’ health is the real difference maker. He’s capable of being the best player in a series with Stephen Curry, hitting astronomical double-doubles and forming the league’s best defense. There’s always a big concern that he’ll fall back to earth and injure himself, or James’ foot will collapse so badly this season that there’s no going back, or both. But the Lakers are just one win away from a week away from the conference finals, and it’s hard to bet against James when the road to another final lies ahead.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James and fellow Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry can both envision one last shot at a title, but only one will advance.  (Harry How/Getty Images)

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James and fellow Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry can both envision one last shot at a title, but only one will advance. (Harry How/Getty Images)

1. Miami Heat

Lead New York Knicks, 3-1

The Heat have no business here except for Butler. They lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the opening game of the play-in tournament and trailed the Chicago Bulls in the fourth quarter of their last chance at the playoffs. They lost Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo to injuries in a first-round series against the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, and Butler caused an upset in no fewer than five games. The Knicks are no sweat by comparison.

The heat isn’t inherently afraid and they have nothing to lose. The Knicks are the only team to ever reach a conference finals in eighth place, and that’s during the lockout-shortened 1999 season. The rest is just gravy for Miami, and the Heat will be buoyed by their past wins against the Celtics or the 76ers encouraged.


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