The outcome of the 2022/2023 season in the NBA is getting closer. The time has come for the conference finals – both in the West and in the East, the participants of the decisive matches have been determined, the winners of which will compete among themselves for the coveted championship rings. Here’s what you can expect from the next two episodes.
West: Denver Nuggets – Los Angeles Lakers
The last time these teams met in the playoffs was in 2020. Then, in the bubble, the Lakers closed out the series in five games, and defense was a key aspect of their game. The team managed to limit the opponent to just 109.2 points per game. And since the Nuggets have scored about 116 points per game in the current playoffs and have the best offensive rating, the Lakers will have to work hard. But this task is certainly within his power. First, Los Angeles has the best defensive rating in the postseason. Second, in the conference semifinals, James and company managed to hold the Warriors to 109.8 points on average. Moreover, in the third game, the reigning champions did not even score hundreds.
Thank you for this is to say Anthony Davis with his athleticism and long arms. He, with all due respect to LeBron, is currently at the top of his own form and is a key player in Los Angeles. As unreliable as AD has been in terms of injuries, he is now useful on both ends of the floor and demonstrates an amazing level of individual play on defense. And he defends against defenders, blocks shots below the rim and scores points in the “paint.” But if Davis is kicked out of this very “painting,” everything turns upside down for the Lakers; the Warriors kindly showed it to us.
Anthony Davis and Draymond Green
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images
That is what Nikola Jokic, the MVP of the last two seasons and the best center in the modern NBA, who has 30.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game in the current playoffs, can take advantage of. It is Davis who will sponsor him in the series with the Lakers. This was stated by the team’s coach, Darwin Ham, who jokingly offered to organize the kidnapping of the Joker before the first game.
In the regular season, Davis spent 22 minutes on defense against Jokic. And although in all this time Nikola only gave six assists, he sold 16 of his 25 shots (64%). Do not forget that the Serb is good not only inside the arc, but also outside it: in the current postseason, he hits 47.5% of three-pointers.
Among those who have not yet been eliminated from the playoffs, only Jimmy Butler is winning more than Jokic: 31.1. The Joker has already matched LeBron’s record in the 2016 Finals with over 200 points, 70 rebounds and 60 assists in a streak, only the second time in 50 seasons. He also has more 30-point triple-doubles in the playoffs than all centers in NBA history combined.
Nikola Jokic and Deandre Ayton
Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
But as good as Jokic is offensively, he still struggles defensively, just like the rest of Denver. And Los Angeles has enough offensive power to hit where it hurts. The same Warriors, with a much better defense than the Nuggets, couldn’t stop them, and that’s saying something.
Other than Jokic, Denver has it all: size, experience, talent. Jamal Murray is healthy and playing on top of his form. Michael Porter Jr. is a starter and has become the team’s third offensive option. Aaron Gordon is a quality defender and rebounder. There is also a great bank – take the same Bruce Brown, Christian Brown or Jeff Green.
But rebuilt Los Angeles has its own artists. Take, for example, Austin Reeves, who opened up in the current playoffs so much that the home crowd chanted “MVP” at him. D’Angelo Russell and Dennis Schroeder provide offensive support for the team, while Rui Hatimura and Jarred Vanderbilt bring variety to the front line.
In general, in the West we expect opposition from the best defensive and attacking teams. Denver has a real shot at reaching the first NBA Finals in franchise history. Will they take advantage of the home field? We will know on the night of May 17. The first match of the series begins at 3:30 Moscow time.
East: Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
This is the third time in four seasons that these teams have met in the Eastern Conference Finals. In the 2020 bubble, the Heat were blown out by the Celtics, but last year Boston was stronger in seven games. In the deciding game, Jimmy Butler missed a 3-pointer to win, giving his opponent a chance to play in the NBA Finals. But how will things turn out this time?
In the first round, the Heat sensationally eliminated Milwaukee, the best team in the regular season. The Bucks themselves faltered in the series while Miami’s entire game was built through a Butler. Already in the confrontation with the Knicks, the team was transformed, emerging victorious in a tense, deeply physical fight. But Boston will remain his toughest opponent.
Like last year, it will be a battle between Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo against Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown. No less important will be the opposition of the sixth players, Kyle Lowry and Malcolm Brogdon, as well as coaches Joe Mazzulla and Eric Spoelstra.
The experienced Spoelstra is a two-time NBA champion with Miami, albeit in the era of LeBron and Dwyane Wade, and one of the best tacticians in the league. At the same time, Mazzulla is a rookie coach who is two years younger than his team’s starting center, Al Horford. Yes, his inning with Boston is impressive, but the advantage here is clearly on Miami’s side.
From a gameplay point of view, things are a bit different. Yes, Miami has a Playoff Jimmy: a true opener of the current postseason and the most productive player among all the rest. But the Celtics have plenty of defensive resources that can get Butler in trouble, like Robert Williams. And in general, the arrangement with two greats (Horford and Williams) won them a series with the Sixers, so the Miami quintet will have a hard time.
Jimmy Butler and RJ Barrett
Photo: Mike Ehrman/Getty Images
The key to playing against the big two could be veteran Kevin Love, whose size, rebounding and experience can hold off Williams while theoretical Adebayo takes on Horford and Butler takes on Brown. But then what to make of Tatum, who recently scored his career-high 51 points in the game-winner against the 66ers without even allowing a loss? This question is still open.
James Harden, Jason Tatum and Joel Embiid
Photo: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
There is one more problem. In this series, Miami will have to shoot a lot from behind the arc and shoot accurately. First of all, you have to somehow keep up with the Boston scorers. Secondly, it would be nice to create space for Butler himself, to whom all the opponent’s attention will be fixed. That’s just for the season, the Heat struggled with 3-pointers, and in the series with the Knicks, they made just 30% of their 3-point attempts.
Butler, by the way, gave Miami fans good reason to worry when he tore ligaments in his ankle in Game 1 against the Knicks. The only alarming thing is that after the game-winning sixth, Jimmy was noticeably limping in the locker room. We can only hope that a few days off will help him recover.
Without Butler, the situation will be very sad: the Celtics’ composition is already deeper and more talented. But this, of course, still does not guarantee anything, because during the current playoffs we have already seen them in decline. Boston’s own players seem to forget that on paper they are one of the best teams in the championship. In the conference final, they’ll need to stay focused; otherwise Spoelstra and company will not forgive them.
The first game of this series will take place on the night of May 18. The start is at 3:30 Moscow time.