Two favorites – the Miami Heat and the Golden State Warriors – and two underdogs – the Boston Celtics and the Dallas Mavericks. After a grueling second round that saw the unceremonious departure of the defending champs Milwaukee Bucks and the Western conference top-seeds Phoenix Suns, we now have 2 unlikely dancing pairs trying to outdo each other in a deadly tango tussle.
In the east, it is the conference regular season leader, Miami Heat, squaring off against the surprising Boston Celtics. The Heat have the experience and depth, but the rising Celtics are countering that with a gritty defense and a new-found belief in themselves that has their fans raving like crazy.
The Heat reached the conference finals the easy way; shellacking a hapless Atlanta Hawks five 4-1, before mowing down a dangerous Joel Embiid/James Harden alliance in the Philadelphia 76ers 4-2. The Heat acquired 3 players with championship pedigree this year, namely Kyle Lowry (Raptors 2019), Markieff Morris (Lakers 2020) and PJ Tucker (Bucks 2021); while retaining the core of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and former all-star Victor Oladipo. This team can hurt you in more ways than you know. They have a strong, scrappy defense; they have a variety of offensive styles; they can go tall and they can go small. The Heat took Game 1 in Miami, before being stopped cold by a hot-shooting Celtics squad in Game 2.
With the series tied at 1-apiece, the games go to the Celtics’ homecourt. The Boston Celtics lost Game 1 when starters Marcus Smart and Al Horford failed to suit up due to injury and the COVID protocol respectively. Their return in Game 2 was a great inspiration to the Celts, leading to a merciless 3-point shooting spree that iced the Heat as early as the 2nd quarter. The Celts are a pleasant surprise, having shown vast maturity during these playoff games, embarrassing the pre-tournament faves Brooklyn Nets 4-0; before coming from behind to nip the defending champs Milwaukee Bucks 4-3. Despite fighting with a less-endowed line-up this season (gone are the likes of Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward), this young team – now led by the newbie duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown – is not awed by any opposition. Playing with house money now, they have over-achieved, they are having fun and are exciting to watch. And they know that if they work together, they become even better as a team.
In the west, we have the return of the original gunslingers Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, except that they brought along another sharpshooting hombre in Jordan Poole. The Golden State Warriors, the last decade’s toast of the NBA, are back with a mix of old reliables and young turks. The talent level of this team is simply off the charts, and this was in full display when they toyed with the Denver Nuggets 4-1, and followed that up with a 4-2 cakewalk over the never-say-die Memphis Grizzlies. The small-balling Warriors use a fast-switching defense led by Draymond Green, a great transition offense, some exquisite outside sniping led by the triple threat of Steph, Klay and Jordan, and an equally deadly inside game. Much like the east, the Warriors are pitting experience and a roster deeper than deep, against an upstart in the Mavs. The Warriors lead the Mavs 2-0 and seem poised to move up to the NBA Finals. In Game 2, the Warriors trailed by 19 in the 2nd stanza before unleashing their offensive creativity – inside and out – to win pulling away. But their dance partners are certainly no pushovers.
Finally, the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs, much like the Celts, are a dangerous, underrated team that seem to be gaining more confidence and basketball savvy as the playoffs roll. First, they had trouble in deposing a deeper and more experienced Utah Jazz 4-2. Note that the Jazz were last year’s Western Conference top-seeds going into the playoffs. The Mavs then proceeded to score a huge upset over this year’s Western top-seeds Phoenix Suns 4-3. Stopping the Suns was extra special, considering they had their backs against the wall 2-3, stole game 6, then had to deal with a raucous Suns’ homecourt crowd in Game 7. No matter. Mavs took out the crowd early with some great sniping from outside the paint. The Mavs now realize that in order to go deeper into the playoffs, they cannot rely on Luka Doncic alone. The Luka magic may be in full display, but their come-from-behind victory against the Suns was achieved only with the likes of Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney Smith and Maxi Kleber contributing. Once the defense executes the double or triple team on Luka, the free man must be ready to pull the trigger. The slow-balling Mavs will rely on Luka’s creativity, coupled with a total team support effort in the offense.
There are similarities in the Conference Finals. Two cage behemoths (the Warriors and the Heat) armed to the teeth with experience and bench depth, against 2 upstarts (the Mavs and the Celts) who are only now realizing their full potential. In the east, it will be the Heat’s depth against the Celts defense. For the west, it will be the Warriors’ small-ball and speed versus the Mavs slow-ball and finesse. It will be a battle of wills as the teams try to force their styles and their strengths on their opponents.
And of course, there is the health factor. Giannis and the Bucks became champs last year due to key injuries to their opponents. This year, they were booted out with the injury to top gunner Khris Middleton. Lebron’s Lakers failed to defend their crown last year due to injuries. The Warriors missed the playoffs 2 years in a row due to injuries. This year, the Heat still have Lowry and Morris in the injured list, with PJ Tucker questionable. But the return of Victor Oladipo from a huge injury has also given the Heat another offensive dimension. The Celtics’ Smart is coming back from an ankle twist. For the Mavs, it is main-man Luka who has a scary sore shoulder. As for the Warriors, the mainstays are now all healthy (finally!), but they will miss steady back-up Gary Payton II, downed with a sprained elbow. Injuries could make or unmake any team’s championship aspirations.
There you have it. The styles, the skills, the speed, the strength, the stamina, the savvy. These will all be showcased as the 4 gladiators – bloodied, yet still unbowed – battle on. Watch it. Enjoy it. Learn from it. And give me your thoughts. As for me, I’m rooting for the underdogs here!
For a closer look, just click on the pics. Cover photo courtesy of The Ringer. Other photos courtesy of Marca, nj.com, Spiel Times, PhilStar, ArchySport, The Sports Hub, The Boston Globe and Mavs Moneyball.