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Looking back at the Conference Finals, and ahead to the NBA Finals

At least the Eastern Conference Finals had an exciting end, but the Finals should be more entertaining.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Miami Heat Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Going into Friday night’s Game 6 in Boston, we had no reason to believe that the Miami Heat had a chance to extend the series to seven games. The Heat’s starting guards Kyle Lowry and Max Strus had combined for seven points in Games 4 and 5, both blow-out Boston wins.

Read that again. Lowry and Strus had not even averaged seven points per game each (which would have been terrible), let alone combined for seven points in each game (which would have been ghastly). No, in two full games, two starters on the Number 1 seeded team in the East had combined for a total of seven points (which is terribly ghastly). On the bright side, they had scored seven points despite going a combined 1-28 from the floor in the two games, with no, none, nada made shots in Game 5. Both were clearly injured in some way.

Perhaps even more worrisome for the Heat, their best player, Jimmy Butler, was also clearly injured with a sore knee that kept him out of one game in an earlier series and the second half of the Heat’s great road win in Game 3. In Game 4, Butler shot 3-14 for 6 points, with only 1 assist. In Game 5, he went 4-18 for 13 points with 4 assists.

As bad as those three perimeter players were, at least they played. Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro had not played at all with what was described as either a quad or groin injury. Maybe he had both. Of course, even in funky street clothes, he made as many shots in Game 5 as Lowry and Strus. Add it all up, everyone was looking ahead to a Celtics-Warriors finals. I had even started to write this piece in my head, figuring I had all weekend to put it together after Boston’s inevitable Game 6 win.

Instead, Friday night turned into a playoff game for the ages from Jimmy Butler in a must-win game on the road against a truly great defensive team (47 points, 9 boards, 8 assists, 4 steals). The performance included this incredible shot-clock beating turnaround with 45 seconds left (beginning at the 2:44 mark):

The Heat also received solid outings from both Lowry (18, 4, 10) and Strus (13, 2, 2). While looking like the Walking Dead in the two prior games, none of the three players showed any sign at all of injury. MVP of Game 6? The Miami medical staff.

Remarkably, even though series was tied at three games apiece, the Celtics had actually dominated the first six games, just as they had against the Bucks in the prior round. Going into Game 7, the Celtics had outscored the Heat by an average of 5.5 points per game, outrebounded the Heat by 4 per game, with 3 more assists per game. In Game 7, the Celtics won by 4 points, outrebounded the Heat by 7, and had 6 more assists, which probably indicates that the better team won.

Of course, the better team doesn’t always win. If the refs don’t belatedly (and possibly incorrectly) disallow a Strus three-pointer, the Heat shoot better than 6-30 from three, or do better than 16-24 on free throws, the Heat could have won. Or if Jimmy Butler’s three-pointer with 17 seconds remaining goes in instead of out. And before you (or Mark Jackson) criticize Butler for taking that shot at all, it was a much easier shot than the long two-pointer he made in Game 6. For the moment while the shot was in the air, the NBA truly was a “miss or make” league.

The Western Conference Finals had none of the intrigue of the East. The series featured four blow-out wins by the Warriors, with the Mavs winning easily in Game 4 while down 3-0. The classic “Gentlemen’s Sweep”, a very cool expression. One thing of note about the Warriors loss in Game 4: that loss allowed them to play one extra home game. I understand that extra game meant another $10 million to Warriors’ ownership. Just sayin’.

Even including the Warriors’ phone-it-in (lack of) effort in the Game Four loss in Dallas, these are the cumulative numbers for the Western Conference Finals:

Points per game: Warriors 115.2 Mavs 106.6

Rebounds per game: Warriors 46.8 Mavs 35.4

Assists per game: Warriors 29.4 Mavs 21.2

Yes, the better team won. Easily. Other than Luka Doncic, the Warriors starters were just better than the Mavs’ starters. The same can be said for the Warriors’ bench despite missing key reserves Gary Payton, Jr. for the entire series and Otto Porter, Jr. for the last two games.

Watching the games, the Warriors’ offensive rebounding really stood out. The Warriors didn’t miss all that often. When they did, Kevon Looney seemed to always be there to dig out an offensive rebound and kick it out to Steph Curry, Klay Thompson or Jordan Poole, who would either make a three or attack the rim against the undersized Mavs front line.

While that made the Warriors seem virtually unbeatable, don’t expect similar rebounding numbers against the much larger and more talented Celtics defense, and attacking the rim will be much more difficult. Similarly, the vaunted Celtics defense will have a much more difficult time against the Warriors than they enjoyed against the misfiring Heat offense.

Unlike many of the games leading up to the Finals, I don’t expect any blow-outs. And I hope there aren’t nearly as many injuries. Two days off between all games other than Games 3 and 4 should help with that.

With that, it’s time for another Pounding the Rock poll. Hey, as Ernie Banks would say, ”Let’s play two!”

First, tell us who you want to win the Finals. Second, tell who you predict will win. A little bit of heart vs. mind, emotion vs. logic, Kirk vs. Spock. For me, my heart will be rooting for Steve Kerr, Steph Curry and the Warriors — but my mind fears I will be disappointed: Celtics in 6. Derrick White wins a crown and Ime Udoka has lifetime job security.

Poll

Who are you rooting for in the NBA Finals?

This poll is closed

  • 76%
    Boston Celtics
    (209 votes)
  • 24%
    Golden State Warriors
    (66 votes)
275 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Who will win the NBA Championship?

This poll is closed

  • 48%
    Boston Celtics
    (120 votes)
  • 52%
    Golden State Warriors
    (130 votes)
250 votes total Vote Now