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And then there were four teams left standing in the 2022 NBA playoffs.
After the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns — last year’s NBA finalists — were knocked out in Game 7s on the same day, the 2021-22 season is one step closer to crowning a new champion.
The Boston Celtics overcame an otherworldly series performance by Giannis Antetokounmpo to reach the Eastern Conference finals. Meeting them are the top-seeded Miami Heat, who toppled the Philadelphia 76ers in six games.
The Dallas Mavericks used one of the biggest playoff blowouts in history to stun the NBA-best Phoenix Suns in Game 7, setting up a showdown with the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals.
Jimmy Butler vs. Jayson Tatum. Stephen Curry vs. Luka Doncic. Which superstars will own the conference finals? What game plans will each defense create to stop them?
Here’s an early look at the NBA’s final four.
Note: Series odds provided by ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) and Caesars Sportsbook.
Series odds at stats
BPI: Miami (51%)
Caesars: Miami +145 | Boston -165
Off. ratings: MIA (113.0, 12th) | BOS (113.6, ninth)
Def. ratings: MIA (108.4, fourth) | BOS (106.2, first)
Since 2005, no teams have been in the East finals more than the Heat and Celtics.
Tuesday night, the shores of Biscayne Bay will once again host the matchup that has come to define this generation of Eastern Conference basketball, as the Heat will make their eighth appearance in 18 seasons, while the Celtics will make their seventh in the past 15.
For top-seeded Miami, it will be a chance to make the NBA Finals for a sixth time in the past 12 years and for the first time since beating Boston in 2020 inside the NBA’s Orlando, Florida, bubble.
Boston will be hoping to snap a streak of four straight losses in the conference finals, including two at the hands of the Heat (2011-12 and 2019-20).
The question looming over the Heat entering this series will be the unclear status of point guard Kyle Lowry, who has missed six of Miami’s past eight playoff games due to a hamstring injury he suffered in Game 3 of the first round.
Miami acquired Lowry to help juice its offense in the latter rounds of the playoffs after the Heat were steamrollered in last season’s first round by the champion Bucks.
And while Miami has navigated past the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers with Lowry sidelined, Boston will provide a far tougher test as the NBA’s best defensive team over the final 35 games of the regular season.
The Celtics emerged from their seven-game slugfest with the Bucks relatively healthy — presuming Robert Williams III will be ready to go — and will pivot from trying to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo to game planning against Jimmy Butler.
After leading the Heat to the NBA Finals two years ago, Butler has been every bit the superstar Miami needed in these playoffs, averaging 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting 52.5% from the field and attempting nearly eight free throws per game.
Most surprisingly, Butler has knocked down 36.4% of his 3s on over four attempts per game. During the regular season, he shot 23.3% on two attempts from deep a night. We saw just how important 3-point shooting was in Miami’s conference semifinal win over Philadelphia, when home-road swings from deep were jarring on both sides.
Boston proved throughout the series with Milwaukee that it is capable of getting hot at any time, as shown in its Game 7 win Sunday. With the amount of elite defensive talent on both sides — Boston and Miami finished the season first and fourth in defensive rating, respectively — whoever can break through from behind the arc will have a massive advantage.
— Tim Bontemps
Series odds at stats
BPI: Dallas (56%)
Caesars: Golden State -260 | Dallas +220
Off. ratings: GS (112.1, 16th) | DAL (112.5, 14th)
Def. ratings: GS (106.6, second) | DAL (109.1, seventh)
The Warriors knew early on Luka Doncic was going to be a problem. So the fact it’s happening in the 2022 West finals doesn’t come as a surprise.
“He’s unbelievable,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said of Doncic after a January 2019 win in Dallas.
“You can tell he’s just experienced in terms of playing high-level basketball. A guy that’s always at his own pace. I’m sure he had heard all the doubters and people talking about his game who really didn’t know much about him, and he’s made himself known for sure. It’s fun to watch.”
For Curry and Golden State, it won’t be as fun to watch now with Doncic and the Mavericks standing in the way of another NBA Finals appearance, the Warriors’ first since falling to the Toronto Raptors in 2019.
While a Doncic vs. Curry offensive back-and-forth would make this series must-see TV, the much more intriguing showdown could be how the Warriors handle their defensive game plan against the Mavs’ 23-year-old superstar.
Gary Payton II, the Warriors’ Swiss Army knife, who carved out a major role throughout the season thanks to his stellar defense and finishing around the rim, isn’t expected to return in this series as he recovers from a fractured elbow.
In his place, expect veteran Andrew Wiggins to get plenty of minutes trying to make Luka’s life more difficult.
But as is the case with any great player, the Warriors will always have multiple sets of eyes on Doncic wherever he goes. Draymond Green will surely switch onto the guard at times, as will Klay Thompson, who has had plenty of huge postseason defensive assignments prior to ACL and Achilles injuries that derailed the past two years of his career.
During the regular season, Doncic averaged 31.5 points against the Warriors, behind only LeBron James among those with at least two games against them, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Doncic racked up 126 points against the Warriors in four games, the fourth most by a player in a single season against Golden State since Steve Kerr became coach in 2014-15.
In order to slow down a player of Doncic’s caliber, it will take the type of team defensive effort that Kerr has repeatedly discussed through the years against players such as James and, before and after his three-year Warriors stint, Kevin Durant.
That is the company Doncic now keeps. The Warriors, the NBA’s second-best defensive team during the regular season, need to treat him that way.
— Nick Friedell