IT’s entirely possible that nothing in the upcoming conference finals will match the second round of this post-season, which was filled with young, talented teams desperately fighting for their playoff lives. Indeed, Sunday provided us with not one but two Game 7s. It wouldn’t be surprising if both these series go the distance too. Here’s how things could shake out.
Win the battle of the three-pointers. When the Celtics stumbled during their seven-game series against the Bucks, it was primarily because their shooters were struggling to hit from beyond the arc. The Miami defense is capable of clamping down around the rim, meaning Boston’s shooters will need to stay hot. After all, bad shooting begets bad shooting, and this is a young Boston team who have shown they can get rattled.
Take a page from Kendrick Lamar: Stay humble. As we saw in Game 5 against the Bucks – when Boston blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead and an opportunity to put the series on ice early – the Celtics have had a season-long issue with snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by settling on lazy shots and concentrating on the clock, rather than their opponents, late in games. How much Boston have learned from that second round could determine whether they beat the Heat.
. After his star-making turn in the conference semifinals, it would be tempting to give this to Boston’s Jayson Tatum. But we’ll take this opportunity to praise the key cog of Miami’s punishing defense. When Adebayo was left off the list of finalists for Defensive Player of the Year, an award that eventually went to Boston point guard Marcus Smart, he replied, “I can do anything those other guys can do.” Here’s the ideal chance for the big man to prove it against a Celtics offense that ruthlessly adapts to its opponents’ schemes.
Celtics-Bucks felt like it showcased the two best teams in the Eastern Conference and that the winner would go on to make the NBA finals. The Celtics not only won the series, they arguably outplayed Milwaukee in two of their three losses. In the post-New Big Three Era, the Celtics have made a habit of reaching the conference finals only to fall short of the promised land – twice at the hands of the Heat. That streak ends here if they keep their composure. Boston in 6.
: Solve the Luka Doncic problem. Doncic averaged 31.5 points against Golden State during the regular season. What does head coach Steve Kerr do: double-team Doncic or have defenders overhelp? Does he concede that Doncic is going to fill out the stat sheet and work to limit his teammates’ production? There are no good answers here, just less-bad ones, and Kerr can’t afford to stick with the pre-arranged plan if it doesn’t end up working.
Study their Game 7 game tape, perhaps? The Mavericks were heavy underdogs against Phoenix and will probably be underdogs against a Golden State team who have a lengthy playoff resume, but they clearly are capable of downing even more-experienced teams. The Warriors will be favored but Dallas have plenty of momentum, nothing left to lose and (oh yeah) the best player on any of the four remaining teams. It also helps when the whole offense doesn’t revolve around Doncic: contributions from Spencer Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson helped them shock the Suns.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic all out of the playoffs, Doncic now has a strong case for being the best individual left standing. 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 help lead the Mavs to a full-on onslaught against a Suns team that advanced to the NBA finals last year.
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 straight finals appearance if they had won one more game. Maybe Chris Paul truly is doomed to never win a ring. While the Warriors had to regroup after their loss in the 2019 finals after Kevin Durant’s abrupt abdication and Klay Thompson’s devastating injuries, they are the best team still alive in the playoffs. In a postseason dominated by younger players, the reunited Splash Brothers have rediscovered their shooting strokes and that should give them the edge.