NBA Playoffs: Conference Finals Preview

The conference finals begin tonight. We’re now at the point where we get a single game each night as the conferences basically take turns. The East, televised by ESPN/ABC tips us off, and the West, carried by TNT will begin on Wednesday. Here’s our preview of the matchups:


(1)Boston (-1300) – (6)Indiana

Do you look at overall team numbers or individual personnel matchups in analyzing a series? The answer to that question will tell you how you feel about whether or not the Pacers have a puncher’s chance at upsetting the heavily favored Celtics.

The team-wide numbers are overwhelming in favor of Boston. Put simply, the Celtics are doing everything well in the playoffs. Through the first two rounds, they have maintained their high regular season rankings in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and rebounding.

By contrast, Indiana is doing very well offensively, but their own regular season issues with defense and hitting the boards are still evident. They were able to draw a team with a similar profile in Milwaukee in the first round, who was also without its star. Then Indiana survived a seven-game battle with New York.

Does any of that suggest the Pacers are set to go toe-to-toe with a team that won 64 games during the regular season and has all but made the conference finals a part of their schedule the last eight years? Not really. Those numbers suggest a sweep. But there is more.

Indiana gets a lot of their offense from frontcourt players who do it the old fashioned way, down low. Pascal Siakam is their leading scorer in the playoffs. Myles Turner is having a good postseason. Both play very aggressively on the interior. They draw a Boston team that is without Kristaps Porzingis, who missed the end of the Miami series, the entire Cleveland series, and has been ruled out for at least the first two games of this one.

Furthermore, the Pacers have one of the league’s rising stars at point guard in Tyrese Haliburton. He can get the ball to the big men in favorable spots and also hit jump shots of his own to keep defenses honest. That’s a formula for a success. It suggests that Indiana can at least push this series to six games and maybe even defend their home floor well enough to get to a Game 7 where the weight of the world would be on their favored opponent.

Which is it? I’m leaning something closer to the former. Jayson Tatum has yet to heat up from long range in the playoffs and should be due for a couple games where he hits something to the effect of 6-for-10 from trey. A key will be whether he maintains his aggressiveness from the end of the Cleveland series and drives to the hoop, something that inevitably creates better looks from outside.

I’m also looking at the Celtic supporting cast. Jrue Holiday is one of the underrated parts of this lineup. One of the league’s best defenders in the backcourt, he can create problems for Haliburton in a way that New York’s Jalen Brunson—who also had to shoulder his team’s offensive load—really couldn’t. If you doubt how important Holiday is as a defender, just look at how Milwaukee’s D collapsed without him this year.

And we haven’t even mentioned Jaylen Brown, who has been ruthlessly efficient on the offensive end through the first two rounds. We’ll give Indiana enough respect to think they can get a game—particularly given Boston’s tendency to lie down at home in Game 2 thus far—but in the end, the Celtics move on to the Finals in five.


(3)Minnesota (-180) – (5)Dallas

There is no aspect of the game where Minnesota isn’t better than Dallas. The issue here is whether the Timberwolves are that much better, to the point where you would almost rule out any chance for the Mavericks.

Minnesota’s success starts with the fact they’ve played the best defense in the league all season. They held Jamal Murray to 40 percent shooting in their upset of Denver in the conference semi-finals and held the Nuggets to 90 points on their home floor of that series finale. That followed a complete dismantling of Kevin Durant’s Phoenix team in the first round, a series where it’s easy to forget that the T-Wolves were actually a slight betting underdog.

Even giving Dallas big credit for their wins over the L.A. Clippers and Oklahoma City, that’s still not as impressive as Minnesota beating Denver. And the Wolves, even if you just look at playoff stats, are ranking better in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and rebounding.

It’s the rebounding part that offers the most intrigue. This is the area where Minnesota has a wide statistical edge. Nor is it hard to understand why. Not when your frontcourt is manned by Karl Anthony-Towns and Rudy Gobert. But if you dig into that statistic a little bit, you see that Dallas substantially closes the gap if you narrow the focus to offensive rebounding. It was the Mavs’ ability to get multiple chances that stood out in their six-game ousting of top-seeded OKC. Specifically, the work of the center tandem of Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II.

Can Gafford and Lively—along with power forward P.J. Washington who played a great series both inside and out against the Thunder—enjoy similar success against the Timberwolves? I’m skeptical. Oklahoma City’s low blocks are manned by Chet Holmgren, who is a good player on the rise. But he’s also young, and his upper body looks like it needs to be filled out a little more. Anthony-Towns and Gobert are big, and it’s hard to see them getting pushed around.

If that holds, the entire hope for Dallas will be on whether or not Luka and Kyrie can carry them. Admittedly, that’s not unrealistic. But it’s a scenario that has its own problems. It starts with the fact that the best guard in this series—for that matter in the entire postseason—has been Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards. He hits from downtown, drives aggressively to the hole, creates and scores. There’s nothing Edwards isn’t doing. He runs alongside Mike Conley who has been a consistent veteran presence and creator. Can we even assume the Mavs have an edge in the backcourt, much less count on that edge to make up for all of Minnesota’s other advantages?

This is the farthest Minnesota has ever gone in the postseason. Conversely, Luka made the conference finals two years ago. Kyrie, of course, has a ring and plenty of big-game experience from his days in Cleveland running with LeBron. If the stage gets too big for Edwards, this could get interesting. I suppose it’s possible his 6-for-24 shooting in Game 7 at Denver could be taken as a warning sign. But given that he had been dynamite to that point, I’m still assuming it was just an inevitable cold night.

Minnesota was underrated when the playoffs started, and even as a slight favorite here, they are still underrated. The Timberwolves take care of this in five games—at most—and advance to their first-ever NBA Finals.