The Conference Finals are set. Rematches of the 2020 Bubble playoffs: Nuggets vs. Lakers, Celtics vs. Heat. Arguably, the four deepest teams in the league have made their way back, despite questions surrounding health, coaching and chemistry persisting throughout the season.
In the west, a matchup of midseason roster changeups and full-season longevity. Health has been the main concern surrounding both teams, based on injury history at the top.
In the east, two teams who have now met in the Conference Finals three of the last four years. Neither has come away with a title after splitting the previous two meetings, but this year could certainly have a different outcome.
Los Angeles Lakers
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How did they get here?
After a league-worst 2-10 start to the season, the Lakers had their eyes set on the Play-In Tournament. Los Angeles slightly progressed, making it to No. 13 before the trade deadline Feb. 9 but within four games of the No. 7-ranked New Orleans Pelicans.
Somehow, General Manager Rob Pelinka made job-saving trades for himself, including sending Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley and Thomas Bryant and bringing in Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt from the Utah Jazz, D’Angelo Russell from the Minnesota Timberwolves and Rui Hachimura from the Washington Wizards.
These moves gave the Lakers a much-need 180-degree turnaround and allowed them to sneak in and clinch the No. 7 seed in the playoffs after a 108-102 overtime win over the Timberwolves.
According to VegasInsider, despite being the 7-seed, the Lakers had the seventh-best odds of winning the NBA Title and have already come two steps closer to doing so. They bested the No. 2 Grizzlies in the first round in six games, thanks to Anthony Davis’ 26 blocks in the series, including seven in Game 1.
Next, LA took down the reigning-champion Golden State Warriors 4-2, winning two games by more than 20 points each. Reigning-Finals MVP Stephen Curry averaged 26 points per game, but the Lakers countered with an all-around scoring effort and stellar on-ball defense from Vanderbilt and Dennis Schröder. The defense kept the Warriors to less than 110 points per game, nearly 10 points per game less than their regular season average. Not to mention they held Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole to three and four games, respectively, of scoring 10 or less.
Why the Lakers will beat the Nuggets
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All the aforementioned factors will contribute to the Lakers winning yet another series as the underdog. Davis has been the best performer for LA, and arguably a top-three player in the league, throughout the playoffs because of his contributions on both ends of the floor. He has recorded nine double-doubles in 12 games so far, second behind… Nikola Jokic.
One factor that may have been overlooked is the amount of threes Davis took in the Warriors series — he only attempted two, subtracting wasted possessions for a measly 25.7% three-point shooter.
While Denver has scorers everywhere — Jamal Murray, Jokic, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon — the Lakers have had the most sound defense this playoffs. However, if the Lakers want to win, they must crack down on their playoff-worst transition defense, which the Warriors easily exploited in the second round.
But, like we said earlier, Los Angeles have found scoring across the board to take the weight off Davis’ and LeBron James’ shoulders, including Russell (15.7 PPG), Austin Reaves (15.4 PPG on 39.7% from 3), Hachimura (11.2 PPG) and Lonnie Walker IV’s 15-point Game 4, setting him effectively back in the rotation.
With a group of scorers and great defenders, who’s to say the Lakers can’t win it all?
Series Prediction: Lakers win 4-2
The Denver Nuggets will face the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2nd time in 4 years in the Western Conference Finals, and for the 4th time in their franchise history. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, The Lakers are 3-0 against the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals. They most recently matched up in “the bubble” in 2020, where the Lakers overpowered the Nuggets with a 4-1 series victory.
How did they get here?
Denver came into the playoffs with the best record in the West in the regular season. They thrived at home with a 34-7 home record (6-0 in the playoffs so far) and had a stretch where they went 31-9 from December to May. At their peak, they looked like a finals contender, and they have a great opportunity to show that against the Lakers.
Denver has the 2nd best offensive rating amongst all playoff teams, which is not surprising if you’ve watched them this season. Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic has led them with a mind boggling statline of 30.7 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 9.7 assists per game. Jamal Murray, Jokic’s partner in crime, hasn’t been too far behind with 25.9 points, 6.5 assists, and 5.2 rebounds. Their dynamic two-man game has been unstoppable for their opponents, and they have gone to it early and often and have succeeded at a high level. The Nuggets lead all playoff teams in scoring with the pick-and-roll (PNR) ball handler with 1.11 points per possession, and also lead in scoring with the PNR roll man with 1.21 points per possession in 11 playoff games. That folks is the Jamal and Jokic two-man game, and it is the Nuggets bread and butter.
Defensively, the Nuggets have outperformed their expectations. Coming into the playoffs, the big question mark for this team was their defense, and in particular their pick-and-roll defense, an area in which they have struggled in their past 2 playoff appearances. The Nuggets retooled their perimeter defense guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, Aaron Gordon, and Christian Braun. They have been great at disrupting actions, getting into the passing lane, and turning it into points. Jokic has had career numbers protecting the rim, and also causing deflection and steals.
Why The Nuggets will beat the Lakers
Home Court Advantage
Like I mentioned earlier, the Nuggets are absolute juggernauts, and have a legitimate advantage with the altitude on their side. Their energy, focus, and attention to detail has not been able to be matched in the playoffs with a 6-0 record, a +13.9 net rating and an impressive 104.9 defensive rating. If the Nuggets continue this trend, they will take a 2-0 lead, and continue with that momentum for the rest of the series.
Nikola Jokic has simply been on another planet. In 2020, the Lakers had 3 huge bodies to throw at him at all times, and it was incredibly effective. This year, AD may get the lion share of minutes against him, and even though Anthony Davis has ALSO been on another planet defensively, I think Jokic is too big, and too skilled, and will eventually wear him down and outplay him. Whoever wins this matchup will win the series, and I’m confident in Jokic to do so.
Continuity proved to be the kryptonite for the Phoenix Suns, who were the betting favorite to win the West before being dismantled by the Nuggets. Denver’s core has a ton of playoff reps together, they know what they want to do, and they execute very well, both offensively and defensively. The two-man game between Jokic and Murray has been the most unstoppable play in the playoffs, and they have had an answer for every counter thrown at them. I think although AD and Lebron have plenty of reps together, the continuity with the rest of the roster that will be playing at least 3 guys acquired at the trade deadline in their playoff rotation may just prove to be a kryptonite once again.
Series Prediction: Nuggets in 6
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How did they get here?
Expectations seemed to be higher than the team showed toward the end of the regular season for the reigning No. 1-seeded Heat. By depth, the team is almost exactly the same as last season, but they also added five-time all-star Kevin Love after a buyout with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Although All-NBA second team forward Jimmy Butler missed 18 games, Miami was able to tread water without him. Coach Erik Spoelstra made notable adjustments, including replacing Kyle Lowry with Gabe Vincent in the starting lineup after the deadline, a move which has clearly worked for the team. Lowry has since been a strong point for Miami after they attempted to trade him earlier this season, and the team was +69 with him off the bench from March 11 to the end of the regular season, good for sixth in the league during that period.
Now the pieces are fitting well together. Yes, Butler has been the main scorer and playmaker for Miami, but don’t discount the entire rest of the team who has stepped up, especially this postseason. Max Strus’ 31-point performance over the Chicago Bulls in the Play-In Tournament helped clinch the No. 8 seed after losing to the Atlanta Hawks.
They are now in the same spot, playing against the same team they have the past two times they were in this situation.
Why the Heat will beat the Celtics
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Talk about role players stepping up to the stage.
Caleb Martin has taken on a huge role this season, particularly last round guarding Jalen Brunson. Vincent and Strus have been big-time three-point threats, and dead-eye Duncan Robinson is back in the rotation since last year’s Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro went down with two broken fingers in Game 1 of the first round.
Not to mention the star duo of Butler and Bam Adebayo, who are averaging a combined 49.2 points per game this playoffs. The couple’s pick-and-roll game has been off the charts this postseason: Butler ranks third in net PNR efficiency as the ball handler, as Adebayo ranks first in efficiency as the roll man.
Although the Celtics had the second-highest defensive rating in the regular season and have defensive depth at every position, neither the Atlanta Hawks nor the Philadelphia 76ers had the offensive depth the Heat possess, notably among shooters. Boston’s rotation on defense is a beauty, particularly the way they doubled Joel Embiid, recovered quickly, contested shooters and packed the paint.
However, so many have tried to stop Playoff Butler, and so many have failed. Butler had four 40+-point games in the first round, but didn’t even score more than 30 in a game against the Knicks. If Miami can move the ball like they do so well and find the open shooter, and if they are able to rotate well on defense and contain one of Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, they can surely take this series.
One side note about last year’s matchup: Tatum shot less than 30% from three in losses.
Series Prediction: Heat win 4-3
Boston is right where they are supposed to be. They were the betting favorites by many to win the championship, the best regular season team for most of the season, and are coming off a narrow loss to the Golden State Warriors last season in the Finals. Led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, arguably the best duo in the NBA, they defeated the Hawks and 76ers in dominant fashion in game 7 in Boston.
How did they get here?
Boston was the only team in the regular season with both and offensive and defensive rating in the top 5 in the NBA. This has historically been a sign of an elite team, and correlates highly to winning a championship. They have carried over their regular season success on both ends of the court with the 2nd ranked offense and 6th ranked defense in the playoffs so far. That duo I mentioned earlier, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are averaging 28.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 5.2 assists and 24.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.4 assists respectively. If that star power isn’t enough, Boston has 2022 DPOY Marcus Smart, elite veteran Al Horford, and the 6th man of the year, Malcolm Brogdon all contributing at an extremely high level. Boston is killing teams with the 3 ball in the playoffs, making 15.4 3’s per game on an efficient 39.5%. They also lead all teams in spot up shooting with 30 points per game. Since Tatum and Brown get so much attention as ball handlers, other guys are getting open looks, and they are knocking them down.
On the defensive side, Boston continues to protect the paint and limit paint points just as they did in the regular season. They also exceed in pressure ball handlers in the pick and roll, and have the ability to switch up their schemes to match what is required during the course of a game. They walled off the paint successfully against Joel Embiid, and also limited guys like James Harden and Trae Young as a pick and roll handler when they were locked into their game plan.
Why the Celtics will beat the Heat
The Boston Celtics were here against the Miami Heat one year ago. They prevailed in a 7 game thriller last year, and I have no reason to believe we won’t see the same outcome this year. Boston has gotten better in multiple ways offensively, and they now have a finals experience under their belt. I think the experience and talent will
Consistent Effort & Hustle
Miami has beaten their opponent off of pure grit so far. They have wanted it more, and the stats reflect that. Miami is leading nearly every hustle statistic out there, and the Celtics have had a bad habit of playing down to their opponent early in the first 2 rounds. They will HAVE to bring the requisite energy and focus, and they will have a great opportunity to do that in the first 2 games in Boston. The Celtics have to be diving on the floor, fighting for rebounds, and fighting through Miami’s physicality. I think they are absolutely up to the task, and they showed it in game 7 against Philadelphia they have another level they can get to.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown at the end of the day are the 2 most talented players in this series. Jimmy Butler has been on a tear during these playoffs, and Bam Adebayo has shown he can impact winning in a huge way, but I believe that if Boston does end up having the best 2 players in this series, Boston may be getting some extra rest before a second shot at trying to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Series Prediction: Boston in 5