It’s the Denver Nuggets against the Los Angeles Lakers in the west; while the Boston Celtics tangle with the Miami Heat in the east! Yes, after 2 rounds of wild and oh-so-weird playoff mano-a-mano face-offs, we’re down to these 4 weary but worthy survivors.
Wild and weird in that 2 lower seeds which had to go through the elimination play-in series – the West’s 7th seeded Lakers and the East’s 8th seeded Heat – have gone all the way to compete for their respective Conference titles. Wild too in that 50% of the games in the 1st and 2nd rounds of the playoffs so far have been gut-wrenching upsets. The East’s top-seed Milwaukee Bucks and 4th-seed Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as the West’s 2nd-seed Memphis Grizzlies and 3rd-seed Sacramento Kings were humbled right in the first round. In the 2nd round, 2 more favored teams – the defending champs Golden State Warriors and the New York Knicks – were eliminated by last-minute play-in entries. There was no lack of thrills and spills as the 2nd round match-ups all needed a minimum of 6 games each. With the Boston Celtics needing 7 games to bring down a fighting Philadelphia 76ers, and thus, taking the last bus to the Final 4. Even weirder coincidentally is the fact that the last 4 surviving teams feature the exact same ones that made it to the Bubble Games conference finals in 2020.
In the West, the rematch between the Denver Nuggets and the LA Lakers feature a heavyweight match-up; with big men Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis Jr eyeball-to-eyeball face-off expected to be the key to this series. The Lakers may have won the Bubble Games in 2020, but this time around, the cast of characters have changed. The Nuggets will field Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr, Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell Pope as their starters; matching up against the Lakers’ illustrious Lebron James, Austin Reeves, Dennis Schroder and D’ Angelo Russell. The Nuggets will rely on Bruce Brown, Jeff Green and Christian Braun as relievers. The Lakers have Rui Hachimura, Jared Vanderbilt, Lonnie Walker IV, Malik Beasley providing bench depth. The Nuggets will have a slight advantage with their starting 5, but the Lakers have more depth with their second team.
With their reinforced – and healthy – roster, the Nuggets demonstrated their clear dominance over the rest of the pack early, eventually landing on top of the West’s leaderboard at the end of the regular season. The Lakers took the more difficult route, needing a frantic rally toward the end of the season to be able to join the playoff parade. The Lakers had revamped their roster after the trade deadline, bringing in quality pieces that would give Lebron and AD quality bench time in preparation for the bigger wars ahead. The reinforced Laker team steamrollered the rest of the pack on their way to the playoffs. Reaching the playoffs, they bushwhacked Ja Morant and the Grizzlies, before dusting off Steph Curry and the crowd-darlings and defending champs, Golden State Warriors, to reach the conference finals.
This series will be determined by whose superstars – the Lakers’ AD and Lebron, or the Nuggets’ Jokic and Murray – will be able to impose their will on the other. The unknown factor here will be which team will produce the more significant contributions from the rest of their stormtroopers.
Game 1 was won by Jokic, whose monster performance of 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists was the key to holding off a fierce Laker rally toward the end of the last quarter. Game 2 was won by Murray, whose exquisite 37 points – 23 in the last quarter on a 11-of-24 shooting – derailed the Lakers’ all-out effort to steal the game. The Lakers led for most of the way until the last 8 minutes when Murray’s sweet shooting slowly, but surely, proceedd to cripple the Lakers. So far, it is the Nuggets’ Joker-Jamal tag team that has outshone the Lakers’ AD-Lebron duo. It’s the Nuggets on top, 2-0.
In the east, there seems to be a bigger disparity in talent between the Celtics and the Heat. The Celtics – losing conference finalists to the Heat in the Bubble Games – are now a more mature and healthier team. Thus, they were heavily favored to win at the start of this series. The Celtics are a systematic unit that carry a huge ‘unfinished business’ tag with them, having been the losing finalists against the Golden State Warriors for last year’s NBA crown.
The Heat appears to have overachieved this season. Woefully undermanned with injuries to Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo, and having barely made it to the playoffs, they look rejuvenated and seem to have discovered a new-found belief in themselves and their ability to mix it up with the big boys. Coach Erik Spoelstra has this uncanny ability to find diamonds in the rough, with more than half his roster being virtual no-namers who were undrafted before they were given the rare opportunity to display their talents. This Heat version has the magnificent Jimmy Butler – Playoff Jimmy to his diehard fans – leading the pack, with oldtimers Kyle Lowry, Kevin Love and Bam Adebayo providing valuable veteran wits. But with their ‘draft dodgers’ like Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Caleb Martin, Duncan Robinson and Cody Zeller able to deliver when given the playing opportunity, the Heat are just a marvel to behold.
The heavily-favored Celtics parade their young dynamic duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, ably supported by vets Al Horford and Marcus Smart. They also have 6th Man of the Year awardee, Malcolm Brogdon, plus elite support elements in Derrick White, Robert Williams III and Grant Williams.
In this Jimmy versus Jayson-and-Jaylen show, Jimmy took first blood with a gutsy 35-point performance, apart from leading a no-nonsense Heat defense, stealing the homecourt advantage for the 3rd time in their post-season campaign this year. Game 2 was yet another come-from-behind saga for Jimmy ‘Friekin’ Butler, who had superb support from Bam and Caleb. With the Heat now leading 2-0 and the series shifting to Miami, it looks like the Celtics will need a lucky leprechaun to dig themselves out of this huge hole. The common features with the 2 games were: a) Butler’s taking over in the last quarter, with the team totally rallying behind him; b) Jayson’s and Jaylen’s conspicuous absence during that critical 4th stanza as the Heat started to close in; and c) the Heat’s zone defense, and their ability to dig in and chip away at the Celtics’ lead in the 4th quarter.
It looks like a challenging uphill battle now for the Celtics and the Lakers, both trailing 2-0. At the start of the series, my head was telling me that these 2 teams were better equipped and should be favored to win their respective conference titles. Both have the championship experience, the abundance of all-stars, and the better talent pool than the Heat and the Nuggets. I thought that the Celtics were man-for-man more superior to the Heat. And I believed that despite the low seeding, the Lakers had actually had more wins after the trade deadline, and that they were gaining more confidence and better teamwork with each passing game. And with Lebron and AD both healthy, this team would have to be the favored team.
But my heart is cheering for the Nuggets and the Heat to make it to the Finals. I’d love for the Nuggets to finally get the NBA title, being the only small-market team, and the only unit among the 4 to have not experienced winning the title ever. And I’d love for the amazing Heat team to make the Finals, being a huge underdog which have had to rely on teamwork, trust and true tenacity to make it this far.
This NBA playoffs has by far exceeded expectations with its surprising twists and turns, its upset wins and sorry losses. Each series has been as exciting and as unpredictable as the weather out there. Each team has a great chance to win. But each win will have to be earned the hard way. Each move in each game will have to be studied ever so seriously. Like a chess match, these 2 series will be determined by whoever reacts fast enough against the offensive and defensive ploys of the other.
Cover photo courtesy of SB Nation. Other pics courtesy of Sporting World, Your Basin, DNVR, Silver Screen and Roll,NBC Spors, Sports Star, Sports Manor, Facebok and Denver Sports. For a closer look, just click on the pics.
i haven’t gotten a chance to watch games 2 or 3 of each series but looking at the stats lines, jokic and the nuggets are simply amazing.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yes, they always have an answer for each adjustment made by the lakers. Game1 saw Jokic wreak havoc on the lakers. Game 2 saw Murray take his turn. Game 3 saw the rest save the game when both jokic and murray were temporarily shut down.