The conference finals are here. Last year’s Finals foes are both gone, and two inexperienced coaches will have to lead their teams past experienced opponents. It could be a fantastic end to an unpredictable NBA season. So let’s look at how we got here, and the matchups.
Are you surprised at all by the teams that made it to the conference finals and those who didn’t?
Marilyn Dubinski: When factors such as health are taken into account, not overly. Obviously the most surprising exclusion is the league-leading Phoenix Suns. Chris Paul was “reportedly” dealing with a quad strain over the final few games of his NBA-record 5th time of losing a series after taking a 2-0 lead, but that doesn’t excuse Devin Booker for being a complete no show in the end, and their depth still should been enough to overcome a Mavs team that, for the most part, is a one-man wrecking crew. Other than that, it wasn’t surprising to see Memphis fall with Ja Morant, the Bucks without Khris Middleton, and the 76ers when missing Joel Embiid for the crucial first two games while getting no help from serial playoff bust James Harden. (Also, get well soon, Danny Green!)
Mark Barrington: I felt like the Suns were a lock to get past the Mavericks, but I didn’t see the Luka supernova coming, and Chris Paul transforming into an inert substance the moment he turned 37. Not to mention that Phoenix seemed to completely lose their cohesion in game seven, with Devin Booker turning into the invisible man and DeAndre Ayton imploding on the team. It was a lot of shocking developments from a team coached by Monty Williams, the coach of the year this season. I really didn’t expect them to be so emotionally fragile after their amazing season this year, but they blew up like a Trabant on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
I feel like the 76ers were a bit of a disappointment, but it’s really Doc Rivers’ fault for not taking care of his players. I really respect Joel Embiid for playing through his injuries, but he should have never been injured in the first place. I feel like Miami would have won that series anyway, but it should have been closer against a healthy Sixers team. I feel like the two best teams advanced in the East, and the two most interesting teams advanced in the West. The conference finals are going to be incredible.
Bruno Passos: It’s hard to not be surprised by the Suns, who felt like the safest Finals pick out of the West until Chris Paul turned into a pumpkin after his 37th birthday. Injuries and general parity made it so that there were a lot of possible outcomes and it’s resulted in a final four that feels both new and compelling. The Mavs feel like they’re crashing the party a little earlier than expected but not in any way cynics would consider fraudulent given how transcendent Luka Doncic has been.
Jesus Gomez: The Suns’ implosion was a bit of a surprise, mostly because they had experience on their side after getting to the Finals last season and the Mavericks are not a stacked team. They are just Luka Doncic and a bunch of role players but they took down an opponent that had better depth, at least on paper, and two stars. For Phoenix, it might have just been a case of overconfidence putting them in a tough spot and an awful performance at the worst possible time dooming them, but it feels like more significant than that and now their window might have closed. I don’t think anyone was expecting that.
The rest feels about right, considering health. With Middleton around, the Bucks probably would have beaten the Celtics, but injuries are part of the game, unfortunately.
Who do you think will come out of the East? (answers provided before Game 1 of the Eastern Finals)
Dubinski: I’ll be rooting for the Celtics with Ime Udoka and Derrick White (plus I like Jayson Tatum), and I think they can do it in part if (Aggie!) Robert Williams can stay healthy and help control Bam Adebayo, but Eric Spolestra has plenty of championship-coaching experience that Udoka lacks as a first-year head coach, and Jimmy Butler is a force when he’s locked in. My heart says Boston, but my gut says Miami.
Barrington: I really don’t have a great feeling for who will win. I feel like Boston has the stronger roster, but I think Bam Adebayo should do very well against the Celtics front court, which won’t be able to contain him. I think coaching might make the difference, and Eric Spoelstra is one of the best and most experienced coaches in the league, and Ime Udoka is a rookie head coach. I’ll be rooting for the Celtics, but if it gets to a 7th game, I’m betting on Spoelstra and the Heat.
Passos: I think the Celtics have the makeup on both sides of the floor and shown more in the playoffs than any team that’s left, but things can always pivot on an injury report or two.
#NEBHInjuryReport update:— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 17, 2022
Al Horford (Health & Safety Protocols) - OUT
Marcus Smart (right mid-foot sprain) - OUT
I’ll stick with them and hope that opportunity gives us a few big Derrick White moments along the way.
Gomez: I think Boston has the more reliable roster, so if the series goes long and they get everyone back, they should prevail. The Heat have Spoelstra and the über competitive Jimmy Butler, which definitely gives them a real chance to make it through, but if Tatum continues to play like a superstar and the defensive linchpins return, the Celtics seem more solid overall and could grind out a victory if the series gets to six or seven games.
Who do you think will come out of the West?
Dubinski: I have to go with the Warriors. For as great as Luka Doncic has been, and he’s had timely help from players like Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie, it would seem Golden State’s original championship core still has some magic left in them. It also doesn’t seem like their depth will let them down like Phoenix’s did, and again, that championship experience that Dallas lacks looms large.
Barrington: My heart is with Dallas, but I think the Warriors should win this fairly handily. Luka Doncic may be the best player in the league right now, but the rest of the Mavericks roster is a bunch of role players who really overperformed in the Suns series. Can they keep performing at that level in the conference finals? Definitely they can, but I won’t believe it until I see it. If they can make it into the finals with just one superstar, it’s going to break the conventional wisdom that you need two or three superstars to have a shot at a title, but if anyone can do it, Luka can.
Passos: The Warriors have the better continuity, pedigree, home-court advantage, a deeper list of offensive options, 3 Hall of Famers, and a more battle-tested coach. They can beat you in more ways, have been here before, and it doesn’t strain the imagination one bit to see them in the Finals for a 5th time in 8 years. Give me Luka and the Mavs in 6.
Gomez: I’d love to see the Mavericks have another run to the Finals and potentially a tittle on the back of a single superstar, like they did with Dirk, simply to have some variety, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. The Warriors are battle-tested, and while they arguably won’t have the best player in the series, they have several guys that can go crazy on any single game while Dallas just has Luka and maybe Dinwiddie. The Mavs might steal a couple and make it a series, but the Dubs will probably prevail.