The plot continues to thicken with this year’s NBA playoffs. The Miami Heat eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks in a gentleman’s sweep, the Boston Celtics finished off the Toronto Raptors in a Game 7 to cap off a historic series, the Denver Nuggets evened their series with the Los Angeles Clippers at three games apiece and the Los Angeles Lakers put the Houston Rockets out of their misery in five games. With effectively five teams left in the mix, NBA fans are starting to get a clearer picture of who could be crowned champion of the bubble.
In the East, we have a series between two teams that play the same style of basketball and match up flawlessly with one another. The Celtics are a top-heavy team with slightly more playoff experience while the Heat have a lot of depth and young talent that has overachieved massively in the bubble.
The key for the Celtics is to exploit the defensive deficiencies of Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson on the perimeter and get some offensive production from their bench. Personally, I believe that Enes Kanter has a better matchup this series than he did against the Raptors and could provide some key bench scoring for the Celtics as well. Defensively, the Celtics have to force the Heat into taking tough outside shots by pressuring the Heat’s playmakers, namely Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo, Herro and Kendrick Nunn. It is a lot easier said than done, and I would not be surprised if this series took all seven games to decide. Luckily, Gordon Hayward is set to return as the Celtics need all the offensive firepower they have to topple the surging Heat.
The Heat are no ordinary fifth seed. They have been a title contender masquerading as a fifth seed and have truly bamboozled NBA personnel and fans alike. This Miami team plays a balanced team-oriented style of basketball, routinely having multiple players scoring in double figures to complement their rugged style of defense. The Celtics should be concerned about how much the Raptors’ box-and-one zone was able to limit all-star guard Kemba Walker because it severely impeded the productivity of their offense and can be easily replicated by the Heat. The more the Heat muddy the game with tough defense, gradually wearing out the Celtics starters, the better the chances look for them to extend the series and ultimately earn themselves a ticket to the NBA Finals.
Switching gears, the Western Conference has been a battleground in its own right. The Lakers have once again exposed the Rockets’ high usage rate oriented system surrounding James Harden and are waiting to see the outcome of the Clippers and Nuggets series. That’s where this gets interesting. Can the Nuggets overcome another 3-1 deficit this season to keep their championship aspirations alive? The Nuggets have been outscoring teams significantly in the third quarter and that’s largely due to their uptempo style of play. Athletic guards and forwards such as Jamaal Murray, Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr. benefit greatly from well-timed outlet passes from their star center Nikola Jokic that do not allow opposing defenses to properly set. This has created easy transition points at the basket and wide-open threes that have begun to fall for this young, talented team in the biggest moments. While the Clippers should still be favored in this Game 7, do not be too surprised if the Nuggets shock the NBA world (I know I’ll be rooting for them).
No matter who your team is, you have to appreciate the quality of basketball that has been showcased in this unprecedented NBA season. I have to show my appreciation for Adam Silver and others for providing fans with exciting basketball content that has served as a ray of hope in some truly troubling times.