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NBA Playoff Power Rankings: Conference Finals previews and an apology to the Mavs

With just four teams remaining, it’s time to preview the Conference Finals matchups.

NBA: Playoffs-Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I came across a funny article yesterday. Someone had the Suns ranked as the favorites less than two weeks ago; what a dummy, eh? That same person claimed that the Mavs had no chance in the series, and I’m sure Luka Doncic heard all the noise and took it personally.

That was undoubtedly pretty embarrassing, but hopefully I saved some face by having Boston as the top-ranked team in the East. And with the way they mounted a comeback against the defending champs, I feel pretty good about having the Celtics as the team to beat for the remainder of these playoffs.

With that said, there won’t be any tiers for this week’s rankings because (1) all four teams have a legitimate shot at winning it all since the separation between them is razor-thin, and (2) I don’t want to be embarrassed again — which will still happen regardless.

I’ve also decided to list my rankings right off the bat so that we can focus more on the previews afterwards.

1. Boston Celtics

Net rating: +5.7 (3rd) | Offensive rating: 113.2 (4th) | Defensive rating: 107.4 (3rd)

2. Golden State Warriors

Net rating: +2.5 (4th) | Offensive rating: 115.5 (3rd) | Defensive rating: 112.7 (4th)

3. Dallas Mavericks

Net rating: +5.9 (2nd) | Offensive rating: 116.4 (1st) | Defensive rating: 110.6 (3rd)

4. Miami Heat

Net rating: +10.9 (1st) | Offensive rating: 115.7 (2nd) | Defensive rating: 104.8 (1st)

It’s important to keep in mind that the rankings for each team’s net, offensive, and defensive ratings only include the four remaining teams and none of the ones that have been eliminated.

Don’t worry, I’ll explain why I have them placed in that order, which we’ll get to now.

Eastern Conference Finals: Boston Celtics vs Miami Heat

Just by looking at each team’s respective ratings, it might seem like I should switch Miami and Boston’s placements above, but there’s good reason for ranking them in that order.

And it all has to do with the level of competition that both teams have faced so far.

Brooklyn seems like a push-over now since they got swept, but I’m not sure if any of the other three clubs outside of the Celtics would’ve won 4-0. The Bucks, meanwhile, are the reigning champs with a literal terminator on their side, and Boston showed a lot of guts by winning after going down 3-2.

On the other hand, Miami faced an overmatched Hawks team and a Philly squad whose best player missed two games and came back playing with a broken face. Playoff Harden aging in dog years didn’t help either, although we should give him credit for shooting 4-9 in game 6 instead of 2-11 again.

There are a number of things to watch for in this series, but three stand out in particular: how well the Celtics shoot from three, how willingly Miami gives up mismatches, and the number of transition opportunities Miami gets.

Similar to the Bucks, the Heat are comfortable with letting their opponents launch from deep; Milwaukee’s opponents attempted 43% of their shots from beyond the arc during these playoffs, while Miami has allowed 40.2% from long-range through the first two rounds.

If Boston can continue shooting 37% from deep, they’ll have a very good chance of advancing to the finals, as it’s unlikely that the Heat will suddenly abandon the defensive scheme that has worked all season.

In terms of mismatch hunting, the two teams will likely have their pick of targets since they both love to switch on defense. This largely plays into the Celtics’ advantage though since they don’t really have any weaknesses on that end other than Payton Pritchard, who sees limited minutes anyway.

However, this could prove to be an issue with Miami when Boston inevitably hunts Tyler Herro like they did with Grayson Allen:

If Miami decides to leave Herro on an island, then Boston would happily let their players iso on him. And if the Heat chooses to support Herro by hedging or trapping the Celtics’ ballhandler, then Boston will have players open from three, bringing us back to the previous point about their shooting.

Lastly, the most important component of Miami’s offense will be how often they can get transition opportunities. They’re currently scoring a meagre 93.4 points per 100 possessions in half-court sets, which wouldn't just be last among the four remaining teams, but also in the bottom half of all 20 teams that have participated in the playoffs and play-in. And remember, this came against a poor defensive team in Atlanta and a Philly squad with Embiid either missing games or playing with significant injuries.

Thankfully, they’re sporting a 115.7 offensive rating in transition, off steals, and off live rebounds through two rounds, and the Heat have largely accomplished this without Kyle Lowry. Miami’s also forcing turnovers in 16.9% of opponents' possessions, which is second during these playoffs only behind Memphis.

Boston’s a mediocre team when it comes to taking care of the ball — they turn it over on 13.8% of possessions — and neither Milwaukee nor Brooklyn forced many turnovers, so the Heat can keep up offensively if they’re able to consistently force the Celtics into mishandling the rock.

In the end, I think the Celtics are better at both ends of the court and should be the title favourites from this point on. It won’t be easy, but Boston should win and exact revenge on their elimination from the 2020 bubble playoffs.

Prediction: Celtics in 6.

P.S: Someone should definitely make a betting line on how long it’ll take before Marcus Smart and P.J. Tucker either come nose to nose over some inconspicuous play or engage in bizarre butt-slapping. My money's on 10 minutes, give or take.

Western Conference Finals: Golden State Warriors vs Dallas Mavericks

Alright, alright, it’s time for me to apologize to the Mavs. I hated the Jason Kidd hiring, was flabbergasted by the Porzingis trade, and didn’t have any faith in them making a comeback against the Suns.

That just goes to show what I know.

But seriously, winning 123-90 against the best regular-season team and also holding them to 27 points in the first half (not quarter, half) is something that even the most optimistic Dallas fan couldn’t have predicted.

And the most impressive part of the Mavs’ win? They did it without Scott “The Extender” Foster, who I thought was load managing in preparation with his (and CP3’s) legacy on the line.

Jokes aside, the way that Dallas played after game two now leads me to believe that they have a legitimate shot at not just beating the Warriors, but winning the whole damn thing. Even so, I still favour Golden State by the tiniest margin, and will be more than happy to be proven wrong again.

Personally, I’m skeptical that Dallas’ role players can continue shooting like they’re in the three-point contest. Consider this: Reggie Bullock, Dorion Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, and Spencer Dinwiddie are making a combined 42% from deep on 297 attempts during the playoffs, when they converted on just under 36% on a much larger sample size in the regular season.

The good news for Dallas? The Warriors actually gave up more threes in the regular season than both Utah and Phoenix, and ranked in the bottom third of the league in that area.

But the bad news? None of Golden State’s best players are traditional drop bigs like Rudy Gobert or Deandre Ayton, so they can go small at any time and focus on guarding the perimeter if the Mavs are bombing away from long-range.

That’s also why the matchups and schemes will likely dictate who emerges victorious — although that could probably be applied to any playoff series.

Historically, the two teams play polar opposite styles: the Mavs love to hunt mismatches but Golden State does it sparingly, and Dallas never hesitates to trap and double opposing stars while the Warriors usually resort to giving up switches and playing man to man when they’re not in a zone.

Ultimately, it seems like the winner will be decided by either team’s role players. Golden State might concede Luka attacking smaller guards like Steph or Poole, but they’ll be sure to lock down the Mavs’ shooters in the process.

Luka will likely put up historic numbers since he’s now become one of the two most unstoppable offensive players in the game (Jokic being the other), but they’ll be in a dogfight if his supporting cast reverts to their 2020 and 2021 selves instead of the version we’ve seen this year.

On the other end, I expect Dallas to trap Steph often to get the ball out of his hands and force guys like Draymond and Poole to make plays. Poole will definitely shoot regardless of the situation (he’s at the top of my list for irrationally confident players in the league), but Draymond’s aggressiveness comes and goes.

The Simmons comment is obviously a bit tongue in cheek since Jaren Jackson Jr. was protecting the rim instead of defensive menace Trae Young, but it’s still a bit concerning to see Draymond pass out when he had a pretty open lane, regardless of the eventual made three from Wiggins. This play also happened during Draymond’s best offensive game of the series, so can you imagine what might happen if he reverts back to being tentative again?

However, if the series really does come down to each team’s secondary players, I still have more faith in the Warriors. They’re more experienced, are better distributors, and there’s also a real chance that either Andre Iguodala (who’s being re-evaluated Thursday) or even Gary Payton II returns at some point, even if it’s ‘a long shot.’

The Mavs, though, could counter by taking advantage of Golden State’s sloppiness. A whopping 16.1% of the Warriors’ possessions end in turnovers, which is the worst mark among all remaining teams by far. A lot of that was due to the Grizzlies being elite at forcing turnovers, but the Mavs are above average at doing so too.

The scariest part is that Dallas’ transition play is absolutely lethal, sporting an offensive rating of 116.4 — which is even better than Miami’s. So even though they might not create as many opportunities, the Mavs definitely take advantage of turnovers when it does happen, and that could turn out to be Golden State’s downfall.

This series is way too close to call, but I’d still lean towards the Warriors since their secondary stars are more experienced and Dallas’ role players could experience some nasty regression (remember when the Suns were shooting like 60% from mid-range?).

Who knows, may Game Six Klay will end this prematurely, but I’m willing to bet that it goes the distance, even though Game Seven Luka Dinwiddie probably won’t be enough to beat Golden State at home.

Prediction: Warriors in 7.

More importantly, can we take a moment to appreciate what might be the greatest NBA picture ever taken?

I wonder how many people in Dallas came into work today sporting a tattoo of it...

This week, be sure to check out my friend Lee Dresie’s article that looked back at the Eastern Conference semi-finals and Western Conference semi-finals!

Also, please let me know what you think of this new format; having series previews definitely seems like a better way of discussing the remainder of the playoffs to me.

As always, thanks for reading and take care!