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Playoffs Notebook: Are the Suns contenders and other thoughts from around the NBA

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Four

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 22: Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns reacts to his three pointer during a 112-100 Suns win over the LA Clippers in Game Four of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Crypto.com Arena on April 22, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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While watching a second weekend of NBA playoffs — both in person and on television — I filled my notebook with thoughts from all eight series. Starting with the fact I still feel good about my pick of Boston in the East, but picking the Suns in the West... not so much.

• The first round has been a reminder that the playoffs often are less about how good your stars are and more about how glaring and exploitable your biggest weakness is. The Cavaliers, the Hawks, and the Timberwolves have gotten in trouble because of the places to attack in their rosters, the lack of depth their coaches can trust more than their stars.

• Along those lines, having watched the Suns in person for the last two games I’m having buyer’s remorse picking them to come out of the West (even if it was a “best of the bad options” pick). Devin Booker has been brilliant and Kevin Durant has been himself, and with that duo they can win any one game. But Chris Paul has looked old for stretches and Deandre Ayton is, well, Deandre Ayton. Monty Williams is still trying to figure out what rotations work and, despite some solid counting stats from Torrey Craig, nothing has worked consistently. The Suns are still dangerous, but their struggles against a shorthanded Clippers squad that often outworks them and plays with more cohesion speaks to inconsistency and a lack of depth. The Suns simply do not look like a Finals team.

• For the Cavaliers, there are holes but it’s also a little about the star — Donovan Mitchell was supposed to be the best player in this series but it has been Jalen Brunson and it’s not even close. Mitchell isn’t even the best player on his own team (Darius Garland was better on Sunday). Mitchell is averaging 22 points a game (down from 28.3) but his below-average 52 true shooting percentage (down from 61.4 in the regular season) is the real issue. Mitchell has played a slow game, pounding the ball while overlooking the defense, initiating the offense too slowly and relying too much on isolation and step-back 3s. He’s not attacking, he’s not breaking down defenses.

• The Cavaliers’ offense in general has been a mess, with their unimpressive 103.3 offensive rating on Sunday being the best of their three losses (they had a 115.5 offensive rating for the regular season, for comparison). Give the Knicks’ defense credit for some of that, but while J.B. Bickerstaff has talked about ball movement and second-side actions his shot creators dominate the ball and the offense is stagnant.

• On top of all that, the real advantage the Cavaliers were supposed to have was in the front court with Evan Mobley (third in Defensive Player of the Year voting with a growing offensive game) and former All-Star Jarrett Allen. But for most of this series, Mitchell Robinson has dominated them.

• Here’s what worries me about the Bucks (other than they are down 2-1 heading into Monday night, with Giannis Antetokounmpo expected to return): The Heat have a 124.3 offensive rating in this series. Just for comparison, the Kings led the NBA this season with a 119.4 offensive rating. The Bucks’ defense has looked lost and not championship ready.

• Denver looks like the front runners in the West for two reasons. The first is simple, they are healthy.

The second is they have figured out how to win the minutes Nikola Jokić is on the bench (their biggest issue for years). The Nuggets were +8 Sunday in those minutes and are +27 for the series. The Aaron Gordon at the five minutes has been solid. If Denver can sustain that next round — likely against Phoenix — they will be the team to beat in the West.

• Warriors fans will tell you they could be up 3-1 in this series if Andrew Wiggins had hit an open 3-pointer near the end of Game 1. Kings fans would say they could be going home up 3-1 if Harrison Barnes had hit a 3-pointer late on Sunday. Both are right, that’s just how close this series is.

• The Warriors know two things: 1) They have to win a game on the road this series; 2) They want no part of the randomness of a Game 7, especially in a place where the rabid fans pump up the Kings. Game 5 is their Game 7, expect the best these Warriors can give on Wednesday.

Will their best be enough? Before Sunday I would have said yes, but now I’m less convinced.

• Whatever happens the rest of this series, nobody sane is looking back at their “the Kings are the easiest path through the West” comments with any pride. This team is legit (and Lakers fans better be careful what they wish for).

• I understand the NBA wants four games a day on the weekend for television, but those early starts lead to some horrific shooting and decision making both days. We saw it clearly with the 76ers and Suns in the first halves on Saturday, and with the Knicks and Cavs on Sunday.

• Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins on their disaster of a first quarter Saturday night, where they looked rattled by the moment: “Hopefully our guys are learning from this. I mean, there’s no excuses. When you come in here on the road, we know we were walking into. We’ve just got to play better. That’s what it came down to. I thought we executed our coverages. well defensively, but when you’re missing shots, and we had turnovers, and they’re just thriving and transition, and you’re missing at that rate — I think we shot 12% or something like that in the first quarter — that puts you out behind the eight ball.”

• Back to the first point of this entire post, the playoffs are about weaknesses, and Dillon Brooks shooting 3-of-13 on Saturday is a major weakness for the Grizzlies. Memphis needs him to stay on the court for his defense but if he’s shooting like that — and the Lakers dared him to take all the shots he wanted — he’s a liability. Jenkins will have to rethink things if the Lakers can sag off Brooks on offense like that.

• The once again shorthanded Clippers are going to be bounced from the playoffs in the first round on Tuesday (Norman Powell and company have fought valiantly the last two games, but without their stars they can only do so much). What does that mean for them this summer? Expect the Clippers essentially to run this roster back. Talking to several sources around the league, that is the expectation right now, they have both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George under contract for next season and they showed enough flashes to tease (Leonard looked like a top-10 player for the two games he could go this postseason). Leonard and George are extension eligible this offseason, which poses some interesting questions.

• Brooklyn is out of the playoffs and expect some serious roster changes there. They love Mikal Bridges and the word is they will match offers for Cameron Johnson, but that could mean Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale are available. It’s something to watch this off-season.