Note: These answers were provided before Game 1 of the conference finals.
What’s more surprising, the seventh-seeded Lakers or the eighth-seeded Heat getting to the conference finals?
Marilyn Dubinski: Both are pretty big surprises, but I’ll have to go with the Heat. The talent has been there for the Lakers, and when they’ve been healthy and focused, specifically both LeBron James and Anthony Davis, they have been tough to beat this season. They went through some serious slumps in the regular season but have not too surprisingly pulled it together just enough for the postseason. On the other hand, the Heat hardly looked like a playoff team at any point this season, and they had to get through two play-in games (as opposed to one for the Lakers) to even make the playoffs.
Mark Barrington: The Heat, for sure. I didn’t think Playoff Jimmy could carry them through two rounds, but he’s elevated them way above where they were in the regular season, where they were struggling to make the play-in tournament. The Lakers finished the season on an upswing, with the new roster additions at the trade deadline forming the perfect complement to the superstar duo of Lebron and AD. And the return of Lonnie Walker as a rotation piece has been a nice bonus for them.
Bruno Passos: I’ve gone through various iterations of takes on both teams throughout this season. I’ll go with the Heat, who as recently as a month ago struggled to get out of the play-in round. While the Lakers spent much of the year as a laughingstock, their trade deadline additions made plenty of sense, and they have been building up toward being a serious team for a while. Plus, the age-old rule of never ruling out LeBron James (and the world-destroying power of Anthony Davis every odd-numbered game).
Jacob Douglas: I didn’t think the Heat would win a game in the playoffs, let alone be in the Eastern Conference Finals. This was a team that was on the verge of losing to the Bulls in the play-in game. They looked dead in the water all season long. Erik Spoelstra has this team playing high-level basketball and is the best coach left standing in the playoffs. If Jimmy Butler is 100% and Tyler Herro can come back from injury and contribute, they have a chance at getting revenge on Boston.
Jesus Gomez: You expect a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis to have a puncher’s chance in the playoffs, no matter the seeding. The Heat are starting Max Strus and old Kevin Love and had to go through two play-in games. I don’t think anyone thought they would get to where they are now, which only makes their performance in the postseason more impressive.
Who do you have coming out of the West?
Dubinski: I’m going with the Nuggets. They’re healthy, and unlike the Bubble, they now have the experience plus the added bonus of having their fans supporting them. I just don’t see Anthony Davis being able to contain Nikola Jokic, especially if he can’t stay healthy for more than a game at a time, and the Nuggets’ depth prevails in 7.
Barrington: While I think the Lakers have been impressive in their victories over the Grizzlies and Warriors, both of those teams had limited depth and could be contained by limiting one or two players. The Warriors were especially vulnerable because Klay Thompson wasn’t a reliable alternative to Steph in this series, and Poole was abysmal. Curry is still a great player, but he can’t carry the team by himself.
The Nuggets are talented throughout the roster, and Jokic is the kind of star that makes everyone around him better. The Nuggets should easily dispose of the Purple and Gold, and I’d be surprised if it goes beyond 5 games.
Passos: The Nuggets have been my bet since the start of the postseason and I’m not letting the Lakers’ impressive run change that. There’s a chance these playoffs continue to mirror the 2020 Bubble and Anthony Davis shoots the Lakers to another Finals, but I think Nikola Jokic will be the most dominant player in this next series, just as he has been their last two, and I just trust the Nuggets’ supporting cast more than LA’s (sorry, Lonnie).
Douglas: I love the idea of this series representing two types of team building. One made through the draft and the other through free agency and trades. The Nuggets are seemingly the more complete team here, and I expect them to win. Jokic never really had problems against Davis in the regular season (averaged 23, 12 and 9,) and that’s the matchup the Lakers are going to need to win in order to take them down. The Lakers benefitted from a smaller Golden State team whose wing shooting went cold, well the opposite is true in Denver. I don’t like the matchup for Los Angeles, and think this one wraps up in six games.
Gomez: There is a universe in which the Lakers win the Davis and James matchups forcing Denver to overcommit to help and eventually destroy the Nuggets from beyond the arc, but it’s probably not this one. The top seed has more experience now and has arguably the best player in the league on their side. I don’t expect another upset.
Who do you think will come out of the East?
Dubinski: This Heat team is on such a tear that it’s hard to bet against them, plus the Celtics allowed themselves to get into a 2-3 hole against the 76ers before climbing back out, but they out-talent the Heat and should prevail. Or at least I hope they do. I’m usually the type to root for the underdog over legacy franchises, but any team with Derrick White will always have my vote (even if his role has been reduced lately).
Barrington: The Heat are the sentimental favorites, but I really think the Celtics have too much firepower to lose this series, even against Nuclear Playoff Jimmy. I think Jayson Tatum is more dedicated to his game than he was last year, when the Warriors defeated them in the finals, and he’s dialed in to go back and redeem himself. A possible matchup with the Celtics against the Nuggets could be one of the most entertaining finals in recent years.
Passos: I’m at the point where I’m more afraid of betting against Playoff Jimmy than LeBron James. In my most Max Kellerman “I want Iguodala” voice, give me the Heat in 7.
Douglas: Logic does not apply to this series. It’s a Cinderella with pedigree vs. a heavyweight. These are the moments the Miami Heat live for. Revenge is on the table for Jimmy Butler, who I’m sure has not forgotten about his missed transition three that would have sent Miami to the finals. I think he continues his stellar play as the Heat win in 7.
Gomez: It’s so tempting to pick the Heat here, just because they are underdogs and also a veteran team with players that thrive under pressure, but the talent disparity is big and guarding two elite forwards will probably be harder for Miami to do than it was to simply contain Embiid. The Celtics have the players to go big or small and plenty of perimeter defenders to throw at Jimmy Butler. I’ll be boring here as well and simply pick the higher seed.