lIt’s entirely possible that nothing in the upcoming conference finals will match the thrill of this postseason’s second round, which was filled with young, talented teams desperately fighting for their play-off lives. Indeed, Sunday gave us not one but two Game 7s. It wouldn’t be surprising if both series also go far. Here’s how things can shake out.
Eastern Conference Final (Game 1: Boston Celtics @ Miami Heat. Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. EST)
What the Miami Heat must do: Win the battle of the three-pointers. When the Celtics stumbled against the Bucks during their seven-game series, it was mostly because their archers struggled to hit from outside the arc. The Miami Defense is capable of: clamps around the edge, which means Boston shooters need to stay warm. After all, bad shooting leads to bad shooting, and this is a young team from Boston that has shown they can get upset.
What the Boston Celtics have to do: Take a page from Kendrick Lamar: stay humble† As we saw in Game 5 against the Bucks—when Boston lost a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter and got a chance to put the series on ice early—the Celtics had a season-long problem snatching defeat. the jaws of victory by settling for lazy shots and letting games focus on the clock rather than their opponents. How much Boston learned from that second round could determine whether they beat the Heat.
Key Player: Bam Adebayo, Center, Miami Heat† After his big turn in the conference semifinals, it would be tempting to give this to Jayson Tatum of Boston. But we will take this opportunity to praise the main cog of Miami’s punishing defense. When Adebayo was dropped from the list of finalists for Defensive Player of the Year, an award that ultimately went to Boston point guard Marcus Smart, he replied“I can do everything those other guys can do.” This is the ideal opportunity for the big man to prove it against a Celtics attack that relentlessly adapts to the plans of its opponents.
Forecast: Celtics-Bucks felt like it showed the top two teams in the Eastern Conference and the winner the NBA final. Not only did the Celtics win the series, they arguably defeated Milwaukee in two of their three defeats. In the post-New Big Three era, the Celtics have made it a habit of reaching the conference finals, only to fail to reach the promised land – twice at the hands of the Heat. That streak ends here if they keep their cool. Boston at 6†
Western Conference Finals (Game 1: Dallas Mavericks @ Golden State Warriors† Wednesday, 9:00 PM EST)
What the Golden State Warriors Must Do: Solve the Luka Doncic problem. Doncic average 31.5 points against Golden State during the regular season. What does head coach Steve Kerr do: help doubles team Doncic or defenders? Does he admit that Doncic is going to fill in the stats and work to limit his teammates’ production? There are no good answers here, only less bad ones, and Kerr can’t afford to stick to the prearranged plan if it ultimately doesn’t work.
What the Dallas Mavericks have to do: Study their Game 7 game tape, maybe? The Mavericks were heavy underdogs against Phoenix and will likely be underdogs against a Golden State team that has a long playoff resume, but they are clearly capable of taking down even more seasoned teams. The Warriors are given preference, but Dallas has plenty of momentum, nothing left to lose and (oh yes) the best player of any of the four remaining teams. It also helps if the whole crime isn’t about Doncic: contributions from Spencer Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson helped them shock the Suns.
Key player: Luka Doncic, Guard-Forward, Dallas Mavericks. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic all out of the playoffs, Doncic now has a strong case for being the best person left. In Game 7 against the Phoenix Suns, he picked up 35 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two steals in just 30 minutes of game time to lead the Mavs to a full attack against a Suns team that advanced to the NBA Finals last year.
Prediction: Golden State in 7. The cruel thing about the Phoenix Suns dropping the ball in Game 7 is that they probably would have been favored for a second consecutive Finals appearance if they had won one more game. Maybe Chris Paul is really doomed to never win a ring. Although the Warriors had to regroup after their loss in the 2019 Finals following Kevin Durant’s abrupt abdication and Klay Thompson’s devastating injuries, they are the best team alive in the playoffs. In a postseason dominated by younger players, the reunited Splash Brothers have rediscovered their shooting moves and that should give them an edge.
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