Styles make fights, and were in for TWO highly contentious series here in the Conference Finals. This has undoubtedly been one of the best playoffs as a whole, with more memorable moments to come. If you haven’t yet, get your popcorn ready!
Celtics vs Heat
X Factor: Spo vs Stevens
The adjustments, then counter-adjustments in this series will decide who wins each of these games. These are two elite coaches with elite talent. I’ve felt that Spoelstra (outside of Pop) is the best coach in the NBA. He gets the most out of his guys continuously and is a Mastermind with in-game adjustments and mid-series adjustments as well. Switching pick and roll coverage, throwing a zone with the subtle wrinkle of having forwards at the top of his 2-3, rotation tweeks.. Coach Spo makes winning efforts from the sideline. Even more, he knows how to reach his players in the most conducive way. Evident by the spark he lit for miami at halftime of game 2.
For the Heat:
Now 10-1 in the playoffs to this point, with multiple double digits comeback efforts highlighting their cohesiveness and resiliency, this is all a reflection of Coach Spo and legendary President of Basketball Operations, Pat Riley. They’re clicking on all cylinders at the most opportunely time and show no signs of slowing down either. Dragic has been unbelievable for them so far, including 7 points in the final minutes of their game 2 victory. He’s served as the spark for their offense whenever it sputters, as well so the play of their young trio (Adebayo, Herro, Robinson). They all bring a dynamic to the team that makes the Heat hard to handle.
For the Celtics:
They had a tough series in the second round as the knocked out the defending champs, and have now found themselves down in a 2-0 hole early. I fully expect Stevens to “rally the troops” and corral that competitive fervor that spilled over into their lockeroom after game 2. The resurfacing of Kemba Walkers impact on their offense was a welcome sight and so will surely help to bring multiple wins in this series. Smart, Tatum, and Brown have played well, but everyone needs to step up their efforts in closing. I do think that they’ll figure out how to attack Miami’s 2-3 zone and force new adjustments, and Haywards imminent return will be an interesting occurrence for Boston as well, but it’s going to come down to late game execution. When the games in he balance, I like Jimmy Butler over anyone else that may be on the floor in this series.
Miami’s torrid run through the first two rounds of Eastern Conference playoffs led to me picking them in 6.
Nuggets vs Lakers
X factor: Nuggets defending the Lakers “others”
In their series prior Denver got wins when Millsap, Grant, Craig, Porter Jr., and Harris all dug in defensively and held the Clippers support system in check. It even got to the point where they stifled not just those guys, but also Leonaed and George which is where they came back in the series, and even won big in game 7. If they can replicate these efforts both offensively and defensively vs Kuzma, Green, Caldwell-Pope, Morris, and Rondo, they will give themselves a chance to complete the upset.
The Nuggets, now having come back from being down 3-1 in an unprecedented two consecutive series, are on an emotional high of sorts and are clicking. Their ball movement & player movement when in the hands of Jokic call for a collective team defense to beat them. How Millsap, Grant, Craig, Harris, and MPJ perform will be vital to their chances. Offensively, aside from Porter Jr. who gets a few isolation touches per game, these other guys will need to knock down their many open shots and continue to finish at the basket cutting off the ball while Jokic reads the defense. Yes Jokic & Murray are their focal point but their other will need to continue to seize the moment. 5 of Denver’s aforementioned others (everyone not names MPJ) needs to lock down defensively again. Where they will win is if the they can hold the Lakers others (Rondo, Caruso, Green, KCP, Kuz) to 30-40pts combined on a game to game basis. They have no answer for LeBron and Anthony Davis defensively. Their only response to those two will be Jokic & Murray matching them in output and production. Also Denvers team defense has left much to be desired all season so that isn’t going to change suddenly in the Western Conference Finals. Their ancillary efforts will be what wins them games in this match up. Their cohesiveness is a weapon they’ve been able to use as a weapon and I expect for that to be a factor in this series as well.
For the Lakers:
They have Lebron and AD. Offensively I don’t see those two struggling much. Rim protection isn’t a staple for the Nuggets so like last series, there should be a handful of rim-shaking finishes. Along with that, there should be more easy attempts for the Lakers via alley oops, their vertical spacing is something they can take complete advantage of. If their others can continue to shoot with the rhythm and viability that they showed in the last 4 games of the series vs Houston, they should win this series handily. They will, however, have a tough test defensively. They’ve had the best defense in the playoffs the last few weeks. It was one thing to double Dame and force him to pass, it was another to close out on the 3pt line and stay disciined guarding Harden and the Rockets, the Nuggets offense has incomparably more off ball motion and body/ball movement in their halfcourt sets. LeBron, AD, Dwight, and Javale cannot perch themselves in the lane. Though tempting, they can’t necessarily double team Jokic because, like LeBron, his best weapon is his pass and he will pick apart a defense without turning it over much. Also, like LeBron, he’s passing from a different height so his vision is tough to stifle. What will be to the benefit of the Lakers is if Anthony Davis can defend to the tune of the defensive player of the year level he and his teammates feel he deserved. Jokic typically struggles defensively against the Goberts who are athletic and active in the roll game, and against players fleet of foot when he’s out in space. Davis is the rare big who embodies both the threat in the roll game as well as being great in the post or on the elbow in space using his quick step out of the triple-threat. Defensively, Davis will likely be told to let Jokic shoot rather than pick their defense apart which isn’t a bad idea. Jokic is shooting 51.5% from the field but specifically from 3 he’s shooting 44% on 6 attempts a game. Davis has the wingspan to concede a little space while getting a good contest. In this scenario, it’s a win-win because it could break the rhythm of the Nuggets offense if Jokic has to shoot often. Also, it allows Davis to cherry pick and for LeBron to throw his signature outlet pass to Davis who typically only has a guard to finish against according to most teams defensive principles. Those easy leak-ahead baskets in transition for the Lakers allows them to establish momentum and often times go on runs that takeover games.
This specific scenario, mind you, is one where Jokic is often positioned. In the playoffs, from the top of the key, he’s shooting 47.5% and it is his hotspot.
In the end, I feel that the Lakers will be too much, and coming off 5 days of rest, they should be as fresh as possible.
Lakers in 5