After a wild and very eventful ride, we are down to four teams left in the NBA Playoffs. the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, and Golden State Warriors are all that remain following a grueling regular season and intense first two rounds of the playoffs. One of these teams will hoist basketball’s ultimate prize soon, while the others try to move past the disappointment of falling short and prepare for next year. But we are still two rounds, and potentially 21 games, away from that winner being crowned. First, we get the pleasure of watching those teams square off in the conference finals. If Heat Versus Celtics and Warriors versus Mavericks are anywhere near as good as the previous rounds then we will be in for a treat.
The best part about the NBA postseason this year is that it hasn’t been predictable, which is usually the number one complaint each year. We have already seen the best team in the regular season (the Phoenix Suns) lose in embarrassing fashion, the league’s biggest super team (the Brooklyn Nets) crash and burn in the first round, and the reigning champions (the Milwaukee Bucks) fail to defend their title. The first two rounds of the postseason proved that anything can happen so there is nothing that could go down in the conference championships that could surprise me. That makes what I am about to do a lot harder than it would be in most other years. I am going to make my picks for each of the conference finals games and then decide which of those two winners will ultimately win it all. Even though I technically have a fifty-fifty shot at getting these predictions correct, I don’t feel confident in them at all given the crazy nature of the playoffs so far.
Western Conference Champions: Dallas Mavericks in 6 games
Last week I ranked the remaining eight teams in these playoffs by their rootability, which is a term I came up with to describe how fun it is to watch and root for a team from an objective standpoint. The Mavericks were first on that list primarily for one reason: Luka Doncic. He has not disappointed so far and I don’t expect that to stop now. Doncic has averaged 31.5 points in these playoffs and has been nearly unstoppable at times. The best example of that was in game seven against Phoenix where he and the Suns had the same amount of points (27) at halftime. Doncic at age 23 has already evolved into one of the premier players in the game and can solidify that by leading his team to the NBA Finals, and perhaps even more.
But Doncic is not the only reason for the Mavs’ playoff success. He missed the first three games of the playoffs but Dallas was able to stay afloat without its superstar thanks in large part to Jalen Brunson. He has averaged 22.9 points in the playoffs and has turned into a very capable sidekick for Doncic. Combine Brunson’s improved play with role players such as Dorion Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Reggie Bulock and the microwave scoring that Spencer Dinwiddie is capable of providing, and it looks a lot like a Western Conference Championship roster.
The Warriors are certainly no slouches themselves and will put up a very tough fight. The biggest sports dynasty of the last decade is not going to exit the playoffs quietly, but it will exit. Golden State does still have the core from those championship teams with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green still leading the way. They have also added breakout star Jordan Poole to that group along with solid rotational guys such as Andrew Wiggins, Otto Porter, and Gary Payton II (if he is back from his unfortunate elbow injury he suffered last round).
In the end, I just feel that Dallas, and Doncic specifically, will be a little too much for Golden State to handle. The Warriors let a Memphis team without its best player stick around for much longer than it had any right to and now will have to match up with arguably the hottest player in the sport right now. This series is going to come down to Doncic and how ready he is to truly become a superstar. Winning a series like this is what superstars do, and it is something he is wholly capable of doing. If Doncic shows up and shows out as he has done recently then Dallas will win this series and win it at home by clinching in game six, preventing the need to play a winner-take-all game in San Francisco.
Eastern Conference Champions: Boston Celtics in 6 games
Speaking of young superstars cementing their status with playoff performances, I present to you Jayson Tatum. He is the one player that can rival Doncic’s level of play right now with the only difference being that he has been here before. Tatum has made it to the Eastern Conference Finals twice already in his career, losing both times. The first loss was to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Tatum’s rookie year and the second was to the Heat in the bubble playoffs. the Celtics will be looking to avenge that defeat and will be looking to do so behind the play of Tatum. He has been their go-to star and has rewarded them with 28.3 points per game in the playoffs. He has the potential to turn it up even more, which he demonstrated by scoring 110 points across games four through six last round against the Bucks including 46 points while facing elimination in game six.
Tatum is certainly good enough offensively to carry his team but this series will likely be decided by defense. The series features 2022 Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jimmy Butler, PJ Tucker, and Bam Adebayo, all of which are very good defensive players. Both teams also finished in the top four in defensive rating in the regular season with Boston in first and Miami not far behind in fourth. The playoffs have been more of the same from the two squads as they have each produced a better defensive rating than their regular season number and rank second (Miami) and third (Boston) in that metric in the postseason.
I expect this series to be incredibly scrappy and physical so I am picking the team that I best believe can overcome that type of play offensively. Butler has been fantastic in the playoffs, averaging 28.7 points per game, but I don’t have as much faith in the rest of the offense. No other member of the Heat is averaging over 15 points per game in the playoffs and just two of them (Adebayo and Tyler Herro) are averaging over 12 points per contest. When you add the uncertainty surrounding Kyle Lowry’s health right now, it makes the Heat too unpredictable to trust. The Celtics, on the other hand, have Brown operating a very solid number two option to the tune of 22.2 points per playoff game. The rest of the roster has also demonstrated the ability to step up when needed with big performances from Smart, Horford, and Grant Williams at times. I think the Celtics are the better and more well-rounded team and they will just edge out the Heat in six games to advance to the finals.
NBA Finals Champions: Boston Celtics in 5 games
For much of the same reasons that I picked Boston to make it to the finals, I think they will win the championship. Doncic will surely provide a tough task for the Celtics’ defense, but I believe they will be up for it. I also expect some sort of fatigue to eventually set in for Doncic after carrying his team through yet another round in order to even make the finals. Boston has much more star power surrounding Tatum than Dallas does Doncic and that will ultimately make the difference in this series. Unless Doncic pulls off one of the most impressive series in NBA history and wills his team to the title, the Celtics are going to add one more piece of hardware to their already quite full trophy case.