Now that the Western Conference Finals are officially set, and the Eastern Conference Finals are already under way, let’s make some predictions.
Celtics vs. Heat (written after game 1)
Swing points to watch for:
-I think Marcus Smart unequivocally must be in the closing lineup for Brad Stevens. Despite his erratic offensive tendencies, his value both on the defense end and in the mental/emotional game is simply too great to go unused in the most important moments. Once Hayward returns, keeping smart on the floor means benching Hayward, Kemba, Brown, or Theis in crunch time. Since Hayward will likely require a few games to get back up to speed, he’s the guy I would sub out, but after the horror show offensively I saw from Kemba at the end of game 1, and given the fact that he’s a minus on defense, I wouldn’t mind seeing him subbed out and having the ball exclusively in Tatum’s hands. He’s the one who should be closing regardless.
-Can Tatum or Brown match up against Adebayo in small ball lineups? Brown did essentially neutralize Siakam last round. Theis has struggled with foul trouble all playoffs, and if they want him to be out there and aggressive in crunch time, he’ll need breaks from guarding Bam 1 on 1. Although I’m not sure who he guards if not Adebayo. Crowder maybe?
-I don’t know what happened at the end of game 1 for Boston, but my god did that offense freeze. Kemba was dribbling the air out of the ball for the entire shot clock on several possessions, and when Tatum did get the ball, he was trying to go hero mode too. That won’t work against a team as disciplined and tenacious defensively as Miami is.
-Can Crowder keep up this level of shooting for an entire series? If so, I’m not sure what Boston’s path to victory is.
-Does Boston have the edge to fight at the end of games with a Miami team that is mean and absolutely unafraid? This makes the need for Smart at the end of games even more glaring.
The Prediction: These two teams are so evenly matched in my eyes that the difference could come down to intangibles. Without Hayward, the Celtics are woefully thin on scorers beyond Tatum, Brown, and Kemba. Wannamaker was solid in game one, and Smart was red-hot from three, but those are aberrations. Hayward’s eventual return would be key to take some ball-handling pressure off Kemba and give the Celtics some lineup versatility, but its unclear when that will happen, and he’s been out for couple weeks at this point, and a little rust is inevitable. Miami is just so disciplined and tough I don’t know what else to say about them. Butler is a star, Dragić has been terrific and is so steady, Herro, Crowder, and Iguodala aren’t afraid of anyone, etc. When the Celtics panicked at the end of game one and resorted to iso without off-ball movement on basically possession, Miami stuck to their guns and stayed active all over. Tatum is the most talented player in this series, and for the Celtics to win, he’ll have to assert himself at the end of games far better than he did on Tuesday. However, in a series this tightly-matched, what often makes the difference is who has the best player on the floor in crunch time, and right now my gut tells me that’s Jimmy Butler. Miami in 7.
Lakers vs. Nuggets
Swing points to watch for:
-The biggest question of this series for me is can Anthony Davis contain Jokić 1 on 1. Jokić is obviously one of the most skilled players in the entire league, but more importantly, he showed last series that you can’t double him—he’ll always find the open guy. This leaves the responsibility in Davis’s hands; he has to be able to slow Jokić down with no major help. I think he can do it. I’d also love to see Lebron take a crack at guarding Jokić in the 4th.
-Who’s the primary defensive assignment on Jamal Murray? Is it Caruso? Do you want Caruso out there in crunch time over KCP or Rondo when he’s so limited offensively?
-I’m here to show some love to Gary Harris. His shooting troubles have been well documented, but he demonstrated in the Clippers series that he’s still an indispensable piece of this Denver team even when his shots aren’t falling. He’s an elite perimeter defender and a great cutter.
-Morris has to be able to check Jokić on switches occasionally, because the offensive improvements made when he was switched into the closing lineup instead of McGee were massive. Davis has to play center, there’s really no way around it.
-It’s obvious, but Danny Green must find his shot. He looked a little more comfortable against Houston, but he’s still not where he was during the regular season. He’s so good and versatile defensively that if he’s shooting anywhere above 35% he should be closing games.
The Prediction: This is not a march madness Cinderella run, the Nuggets are a legitimate championship-caliber team and should be considered as such. As I mentioned above, Davis’s defense is the key here. If Davis can stick with Jokić 1 on 1, that would help the rest of the defense stay with Denver’s dynamic off-ball action better than the Clippers could, and would force Jokić to be a scorer first and turn Denver into more of an iso-heavy offense. In that scenario, I like the Lakers’ chances. Denver is a team full of elite cutters with high IQ’s, but the Lakers are also a very high IQ defensive team. For Denver defensively, guys like Grant and Milsap have to be ready to check both Lebron and Davis on pick and roll switches, because Jokić cannot guard either of those guys one on one, and shouldn’t be asked to either, given the offensive load he carries. Regardless, the two-headed monster for LA is the most reliable superstar combo in the game; you know what you’re getting from both of those guys every night. The same can’t quite be said for Denver, and if Jamal Murray doesn’t keep this herculean offensive effort going (which he may not be able to with all the perimeter defenders the Lakers have to throw at him), I don’t see how the Nuggets generate enough offense to survive. Lakers in 6.