2021 NBA playoffs: What matters most in every second-round series

The NBA's conference semifinals are in full swing. The Milwaukee Bucks just saved their postseason with a nail-biting Game 3 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz just put the LA Clippers in another 2-0 hole.

In Friday night's matchups, the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks wrestle for command of their series in Game 3 while the Phoenix Suns look to grab a commanding 3-0 lead on 2021 MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.

How much do the Nets need James Harden, who is still sidelined with hamstring tightness? What's the most impressive part of the Suns' 2-0 series lead? What player or adjustment will decide the Jazz-Clippers series? Which potential Finals matchup would provide the juiciest storylines?

Our panel of experts is answering some of the playoffs' biggest questions ahead of two massive Game 3s.

MORE: Matchups, schedules and news for every series

Fact or fiction: The Nets should be the favorites to win the NBA title, even if James Harden doesn't play again this postseason.

Tim MacMahon: Fiction. Kevin Durant once again looks like arguably the world's best player and Kyrie Irving is a proven championship-caliber sidekick, but my gut feeling is the Nets will need Harden to get past the 76ers and/or whoever comes out of the West. Nets GM Sean Marks obviously thought as much when he pulled the trigger on the picks-loaded deal to bring Harden to Brooklyn.

Kevin Pelton: Fiction. Harden's absence is putting pressure on Brooklyn's other stars to play huge minutes. After playing 44:35 in Game 1, Irving was on the court for 44:57 in Game 3. Durant played 40:06 and 42:52 in those two games, respectively. That might not be sustainable over three full rounds -- especially given their own battles with injuries during the regular season.

Jorge Sedano: Fact. Despite all their lineup shuffling, the Nets had a league-best offensive rating of 117.3 this season. Interestingly enough, when Durant and Irving were on the court together without Harden, that number increased to 120.6. Couple that with Blake Griffin's reemergence and Joe Harris' steady shooting and it's not out of line to think they can win it all without Harden.

Brian Windhorst: It's fact. But it's not a big fact. The Nets were basically a .500 team this season when Harden didn't play. They have great talent and their role players have been strong so far, but it's hard to bet on them.

Royce Young: Fact. The reason is pretty simple: Even with a slew of talented superstar players remaining in the postseason, Durant is in a class of his own. He's the best player playing right now, a complete matchup nightmare who impacts both ends of the floor. Harden or no Harden, Durant is going to efficiently dominate games.

What's been most impressive about the Suns' 2-0 lead over the Nuggets?

MacMahon: Chris Paul has been in complete control of the series so far, but he has dominated playoff series before, despite never having advanced all the way to the Finals. How Deandre Ayton would handle his matchup with MVP Nikola Jokic was the Suns' biggest question going into the series. The 22-year-old Ayton has more than held his own. He has averaged 17.5 points and 10.0 rebounds while shooting 65.2% from the floor in the two wins. More importantly, Ayton has made life difficult on Jokic, who is 11-of-26 from the floor with only four assists when Ayton has been the primary defender on him, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

Sedano: It's Paul. Let's be real, there weren't many out there who didn't feel he was snakebitten again after his injury in the first round. He battled through that and has regained his form to take a commanding 2-0 lead over Denver. His Game 2 performance was masterful. His 17-point, 15-assist, zero-turnover night was the first playoff game with 15-plus points, 15-plus assists and no turnovers since 2014. The player who accomplished that feat in 2014? Chris Paul. Before 2014, the last time it happened was 2008 ... by Chris Paul.

Young: The poise of the young Suns. Paul is a weighted blanket for the rest of the roster, providing the security the Suns need in tight situations. But as steady as he has been -- 26 assists to one turnover is absurd -- the rest of the Suns' youngsters have played their parts wonderfully. Ayton is up to the challenge against Jokic. Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson look comfortable in their roles. And Devin Booker appears built for any postseason moment thrown his way.

Pelton: Ayton's defense against Jokic. Despite early foul trouble in Game 2, Ayton has just about matched the MVP minute for minute (Jokic has played four minutes with Ayton on the bench, per NBA Advanced Stats) and deserves the majority of the credit for holding Jokic in check as both a scorer (23 PPG on 47.5% shooting) and distributor (4.5 APG).

Windhorst: Phoenix's depth. Paul has been otherworldly during the Suns' five-game win streak and he's got an incredible 53-4 assist-to-turnover ratio in that span. But in both games this series, the Suns have had five players in double figures. Ayton is playing the best ball of his life, Cameron Payne is electric off the bench and the Jae Crowder/Bridges 3-and-D combo has been perfect.

What has been the biggest surprise so far in 76ers-Hawks?

MacMahon: Just how dominant Joel Embiid has been, despite the meniscus tear in his right knee. It's impressive to average 39.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the conference semifinals under any circumstances. It's absolutely amazing to do it despite nursing a knee injury that put Embiid's availability in question until just before the Game 1 starting lineups were announced. And he's doing it against one of the NBA's best defensive big men in Atlanta's Clint Capela.

Windhorst: How good Embiid has been despite having a moderate knee injury. The idea that he'd play in Game 2, much less put up 40, seemed wild just a few days ago. That said, the way the Hawks played in the first half of Game 1, jumping out to a huge lead, was pretty surprising and deserves special mention.

Young: Embiid. Obviously, it's not a surprise Embiid would play great in a playoff series. But under these circumstances, his health was the biggest question going into the series. It seemed admirable he was going to try to play through a meniscus tear, but how limited he might be, or the challenges he might face, was a key storyline. Instead, after two games, the only question around Embiid is, how on Earth are the Hawks going to stop him?

Sedano: How poorly the Sixers' bench has played. Philly was a middle-of-the-pack bench scoring unit this season, but it's been downright bad this series. (And the numbers would look a lot worse had Shake Milton not given the Sixers a huge boost in the second half of Game 2.) Their bench players all had a negative plus-minus in Game 1 and had zero points in the first half of Game 2 prior to Milton setting the tone. That isn't a sustainable recipe for success.

Pelton: Besides Atlanta stealing Game 1 on the road, I'd say the performance of Kevin Huerter off the bench. Huerter has made more than half his 3-pointers (6-of-11) and is a perfect 8-of-8 from inside the arc, a big reason the Hawks are plus-12 with him on the court and minus-24 with him on the bench through two games.

What will most determine the winner of Jazz-Clippers?

MacMahon: Can the Clippers figure out a way to cool off Donovan Mitchell? LA has no chance in this series if Mitchell keeps scoring in the 30s or 40s efficiently. The Jazz aren't as reliant on Mitchell as the Mavs were on Luka Doncic -- and Utah is a much better defensive team than Dallas -- so the Clippers aren't going to survive this series if they never find a sustainable solution for the opponent's go-to guy.

Sedano: Mitchell's success -- or lack thereof -- will determine who wins this series. Particularly, how effective he is in the pick-and-roll. For the Clippers to succeed, they have to contain the perimeter with a combination of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Nicolas Batum or Terance Mann. Luke Kennard certainly helps them on offense, but he was being targeted on defense by Mitchell. If Mitchell is allowed to feast, then the Jazz will win the series.

Pelton: The ability to create off the dribble. The assumption was that would favor the Clippers, but I think Utah's ability to score self-created buckets is wildly underrated. In fact, the Jazz's 50.3% effective field goal percentage on shots with more than two seconds of touch time -- sixth in the league during the regular season, per Second Spectrum tracking -- was actually better than the Clippers' 49.4% mark (11th). Playing against the Clippers' junk defenses, Utah had just 15 assists on 40 field goals in Game 2 but won anyway thanks in large part to Mitchell's creation.

Windhorst: The Jazz in the fourth quarter. They've blown some leads (don't ask about last year) but, whoa, have they looked like a championship team in the fourth quarter during this six-game playoff win streak. Games 3 and 4 in the Memphis series and Games 1 and 2 against the Clippers were all wide open in the fourth and the Jazz's mix of active defense, great shooting and Mitchell have secured 50/50 games repeatedly. It's championship stuff.

Young: George. The secret of the story of Playoff P is that he's actually quite similar to Regular Season P. George's entire history as a star player is an ability to reach a peak level, on par with the absolute best in the world, but then follow that with a puzzling, wandering performance two nights later. The Clippers need the best version of George only four times, and if they can get it, they can beat the Jazz.

The Finals matchup with the best storyline is ...

Young: Suns vs. Hawks. After we got beyond all the big-market handwringing that would go on, the focus could shift toward the reality that the league would have an opportunity to showcase two stars who could be featured players for the next decade. Giving Trae Young and Booker the big stage could pay long-term dividends for the NBA. And I'm also a major sucker for overcoming long title droughts, or winning your first, and seeing Paul in the NBA Finals just seems long overdue.

Pelton: I like Brooklyn's big three vs. Utah's homegrown core as a storyline, but I think the answer has to be Nets vs. Clippers for the opportunity to see Durant vs. Leonard in a battle with both of them playing at a high level. Kawhi wasn't quite there yet in 2016 when Durant's Thunder upset Leonard's Spurs, and we were denied this matchup in the 2019 NBA Finals by Durant's injuries. This would be a fitting culmination for KD's incredible comeback.

Sedano: It's any series that involves Paul. The only things missing from his résumé are a Finals appearance and subsequently a championship. Particularly, if the Nets were the opponent. CP3 vs. Kyrie? A dream point guard matchup. Not to mention potentially squaring off versus his old teammate in Harden. Having him and this young/fun group of Suns face a Nets team that looks like a juggernaut would be must-see TV.

MacMahon: Suns vs. Nets. Don't count on Paul and Harden going out to dinner between games if they face each other in the Finals a couple of years after their two-year tenure as Rockets teammates ended. Harden wasn't the only one in Houston who wanted to trade Paul and a bundle of picks for Russell Westbrook, but that deal wouldn't have been done unless Harden pushed for it. Paul has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that it was a bad move, and leading the Suns to an upset over Harden's superteam would be the sweetest revenge. (Another storyline: Steve Nash and Mike D'Antoni trying to finally win a title at the Suns' expense.)

Windhorst: Suns vs. Nets with Harden and Paul healthy. The Rockets can cry in the corner.