NBA Playoffs: Conference Finals Wraps

We’ll post closing thoughts on both Boston-Indiana and Minnesota-Dallas in this space as they conclude:

Boston (1) sweeps Indiana (6) 4-0
Tyrese Haliburton never made it back for Indiana, so this marked the third straight series that Boston has gone against a team without their best player for at least half the series. Haliburton joins Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell and Miami’s Jimmy Butler. The bracket seems to be parting for the Celtics, and they took advantage by closing out the sweep on the road.

It all came down to clutch play in the final minutes. Indiana was not only competitive in three of these games (1,3,4), they had control of them in the final part of the fourth quarter. For Boston, it was about the big corner trey. Jaylen Brown hit a massive one in Game 1 that tied it with six seconds left. Al Horford hit a money three-ball in Game 3, closing a five-point lead to two and setting up the Celtics to ultimately prevail. And in Game 4, tied 102-102, Brown first blocked a shot at the defensive end, then fed Derrick White for a corner three-pointer that won it 105-102.

The NBA playoffs are a time for veterans. Boston’s veterans are Horford and Jrue Holiday and both delivered on the road. Horford’s big three-pointer in Game 3 (which came off a gorgeous behind-the-back bounce pass from a driving Jayson Tatum) was part of 23-point night, as he kept the Celtics afloat in a game they had otherwise spent looking flat. And Holiday made several key defensive plays, delivered a big “and-one” in the Game 3 rally and secured an offensive rebound that was the dagger blow in Game 4. It was the seal on a series where Holiday averaged 19/7/6 and shot 59 percent from the floor.

Boston’s stars certainly did their part. Brown’s heroics made him series MVP. He averaged 30ppg and shot 52 percent. Tatum, while continuing his cold stretch from behind the arc, also continues to show how multi-dimensional his talents are. His 30/10/6 line was dazzling in its own right and he’s consistent work in driving to the basket got his overall shooting percentage to a respectable 46 percent, and it creates plays for others—like the big assist to Horford in Game 3.

Indiana’s Andrew Nembhard has the markings of a rising star. He took advantage of the increased opportunities that were opened up by Haliburton’s injury and dropped 32 in Game 3, a 24/6/10 line in Game 4 and shot over 50 percent in both games. T.J. McConnell also tormented Boston’s defense with his floating jumpers off the drive.

While the injury to Haliburton will quite reasonably be cited by the Pacers as a reason for their ultimate demise, we also can’t overlook how sloppy they were with the basketball. Turnovers destroyed them at the Garden—37 in the first two games combined. And while their miscues for Game 3 were a manageable 11, they came disproportionately in the game’s final minutes, as a lead melted away.

Moreover, while Myles Turner is clearly coming into his own, he just as clearly has a ways to go. In a series where Boston center Kristaps Porzingis was out entirely, and backup center Luke Kornet missed the final two games, Turner was on-agan, off-again. He had no-shows in Games 2 & 4.

Indiana still has a bright future. Haliburton will return, they’re deep, well-balanced and well-coached. But Boston’s championship-or-bust drive continues to march on in the present.

Dallas (5) beats Minnesota (3) 4-1
We updated the Mavs-Wolves after four games, and with Game 5 turning into a major rout, there’s not a lot to add off of the analysis in that post. Luka Doncic is spectacular. His 36/10/10 line from Game 5 doesn’t even tell the story. In a game that ended 124-103 and saw Dallas leading by 20-30 points from the second quarter on, Luka did most of his damage in the first quarter—in other words, when the game was being decided. He dropped 20 in the opening period, set the tone on the road and the Mavs were off and running. Kyrie hit for 36 of his own.

Dallas clearly has a winning formula. They have aggressive frontcourt players who crash relentlessly. Dereck Lively, back after his neck injury, combined with Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington to get 24 combined rebounds. As players like these fill their roles, Luka and Kyrie provide the scoring juice.

For Minnesota, in the end, the stage just seemed too big. The relentless defense that characterized them throughout the season and the first two playoff rounds, was missing in action throughout the conference finals. In a desperation game at home, they allowed 55 percent shooting from the floor. Anthony Edwards never stopped competing. He finished with a 28/9/6 line. But while Karl Anthony-Towns had 28, he only shot 9-for-20, never hit a bucket at any significant moment and only had six rebounds.

That said, he was still better than anyone else, from Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley to others, who were no-shows in a game where Minnesota should have had some momentum, coming home after staving off elimination in Game 4.

Overall, it was clearly a great year for the Timberwolves. Next season will tell us if this was the learning experience that a lot of emerging teams go through, or if the conference finals flameout pointed to something deeper that was wrong.

We’re on to Dallas and Boston in the NBA Finals. They begin next Thursday, June 6. We’ll be in this space with our preview then.