Eight teams are still in the postseason fight. So before we start poking holes in them, we should probably acknowledge that lasting this long is an achievement. The tactical shortcomings, disappointing players and broad flaws we'll highlight here clearly haven't been fatal.
Not yet, anyway.
That's the problem with reaching the second round of the playoffs. The competition is now pushover-free, and the smallest weak points become blinking, neon targets. Every remaining team is hellbent on hitting them as hard as possible. Opposing coaches sacrifice sleep looking for ways to exploit the smallest advantage.
Soon, the field will shrink from eight teams to four. We're focusing on the reasons each of the conference semifinalists might wind up on the wrong side of that cut.
Boston Celtics: Defensive Inconsistency
Wednesday's clampdown effort in a Game 2 win over the Philadelphia 76ers was the first time since Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks that the Boston Celtics looked like themselves on defense.
In between those two contests, Boston, owner of the league's No. 3 defensive rating during the year, surrendered an average offensive rating of 121.7. For context, that's 10.2 points per 100 possessions worse than the Celtics' regular-season figure and below the San Antonio Spurs' 30th-ranked 2022-23 defense.
Some of that staggering difference owes to the vagaries of small samples, but Boston didn't have a single four-game stretch during the year in which it allowed at least 116 points per 100 possessions. It reeled off five straight across its two series against Atlanta and Philly. Maybe we don't need to sound the alarm, but the Celtics should at least flag the issue.
Boston's inability to create turnovers during the season has carried into the playoffs, the result of a style that favors switching over trapping. The Celtics don't like to scramble, and that makes it hard to speed up opponents and force mistakes. Maybe a little more aggression would be helpful.
The Celtics tend to fail most conspicuously when their offense bogs down and the ball sticks, typically late in games. But a second straight trip to the Finals may depend on whether Boston can defend more consistently.
Denver Nuggets: Backup Bigs
The Denver Nuggets played roughly one uninspiring quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves in a breezy first-round series win. They sit ahead of the Phoenix Suns 2-0 in the second, marking them as a team with few hindrances.
Neither opponent had the personnel to test the Nuggets' suspect rim protection, an issue many believed would pose a problem in the playoffs, so we'll also have to table that one for now.
Nikola Jokic is dominating as expected, Jamal Murray is averaging 25.7 points on a 45.5/39.3/92.9 shooting split and Aaron Gordon's defense has been stellar. Any nomination here is going to be a reach, so we have no choice but to go with the only relative weak point to emerge in Denver's smooth run to a 6-1 postseason record.
There may come a time when the Nuggets have to rest Jokic or sit him to avoid foul trouble, and neither of their backup bigs has played well enough to suggest those stretches will go well. DeAndre Jordan has played in just three postseason games this year and doesn't have the mobility to hold up against any respectable pick-and-roll attack, and Jeff Green is shooting 32.3 percent from the field.