The fun and games are over. After an excellent second round culminated with two blowout Game 7’s, we’re finally at the Conference Finals. Grim countenances and furrowed brows will replace the smiles and laughter of the early playoffs as four teams trade haymakers with each other.
The Western side will feature the third-seeded Golden State Warriors against the fourth-seeded Dallas Mavericks. Dallas won the season series 3-1, but all of the games came either before the Mavericks’ transformational trade of Kristaps Porzingis or while Draymond Green was hurt, and therefore there’s little to truly glean.
The Eastern bracket features old nemeses Miami and Boston, who will battle in the ECF for the second time in three years after the Heat dispatched the Celtics in six games during the 2020 bubble. Boston beat Miami 2-1 during the regular season, but rotation changes and injuries have also scrambled the intel from those games.
Reputations are made and broken in the Conference Finals. This could be a return to glory for the veteran Warriors and Heat or the rise of new powers in Dallas and Boston. Here are a few players and questions to track as the series unfold.
Eastern Conference Finals Preview
Key Player: Tyler Herro
Tyler Herro has shot 48% in Heat wins and 38% in Heat losses this year. More tellingly, he’s hit 45% from three in wins and just 32% from three in losses. Those are the biggest splits among the Heat’s top seven rotation players.
Worryingly for the Heat, Herro has struggled all season against Boston. He also seems to have lost his stroke in the playoffs. He’s shooting 27% from deep through two rounds, and he shot a paltry 30% from the FIELD in the three games against Boston this season.
If Lowry is hurt (he’s expected to miss Game 1), the Heat have exactly two on-ball creators: Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro. Butler was an offense unto himself in the Heat’s victory over Philadelphia. Still, scoring on Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams, Al Horford, and Robert Williams will be a lot harder than getting buckets on Tobias Harris and half of Joel Embiid. Herro will have to rediscover his A-game for the Heat to generate enough offense to win.
Herro struggled to create separation against Boston’s elite defenders this season and sometimes rushed shots when he did find an open look. It’s been hard for him to get to his spots against a Boston team without any defensive weak links.
Herro’s been at his worst when trying to break defenders down off the dribble in isolation. He doesn’t have an explosive first step, and Boston’s defenders are disciplined enough to stay with Herro through his dribble combos and force him off the ball or into a bad pull-up.
That said, Herro is talented enough to score on anybody. He did see some open threes against Boston earlier in the year, particularly off the Heat’s patented dribble hand-offs. Much of his success has been in off-ball situations, and I’d imagine coach Erik Spoelstra will emphasize getting him the ball on the move to create better attack angles.
This simple hit-ahead pitch-back is one nice play that we’ve seen Miami run a few times in semi-transition this year. Herro passes to the dangerous Max Strus, who waits for a beat before simply tossing back to Herro for an open three:
Herro’s at his best when he can catch the ball with some momentum. Defenders are caught on their heels, and Herro can stop on a dime and rise for a clean shot attempt or pump-fake and attack.
We know Herro will get his shots up. Just two years ago, he became a household name by dropping 37 on the Celtics in the bubble as a rookie. Ensuring he gets quality looks and does not fall into the dribble-isolation trap will significantly boost his chances.
Key Question: Which defense will blink first?
Miami and Boston employ similar but different defensive schemes. Both teams switch almost everything on the perimeter. While the Celtics will be more willing to stay at home and let their elite one-on-one defenders slow down the Heat’s best options, like Tyler Herro and Jimmy Butler, the Heat will continue their gameplan of locking down the opponent’s best option — in this case, Jayson Tatum. Increased focus on Tatum, who has struggled against the Heat historically, will open the door for role players like Al Horford and Grant Williams to have big games.
Miami isn’t quite as aggressive in ignoring mediocre shooters as Milwaukee was, but they provide strong help on drives that leaves them susceptible to threes. By design, Miami allowed more three-point shots this season than any team in the league.
Boston isn’t great at getting to the rim, so Miami’s path to success relies upon shutting down Tatum while simultaneously performing hard closeouts on Boston’s numerous decent-but-not-great shooters to make their lives as uncomfortable as possible. Williams, Horford, Derrick White, and Boston’s role players will have opportunities to fling from the suburbs. If they’re able to hit, Miami’s defense could be in trouble.
PJ Tucker will get physical with Jayson Tatum, so how the refs call the games will be an important tone-setter.
Couper Moorhead of NBA.com pointed out that Boston faced more zone this year than any team and wasn’t particularly great at attacking it (although Horford’s calming presence as a middle-of-the-paint passer helps). Miami is one of the more willing zone-runners in the NBA. If the Heat switch to that, Grant and Horford must make them pay from outside while also crashing the boards hard.
The Celtics have generally done a good job against Miami’s secondary players, particularly Herro, because they rarely overhelp, but Jimmy Butler has been incredible this postseason for Miami so far. The Celtics have shown schematic flexibility this postseason, such as uncharacteristically sending multiple bodies at Kevin Durant in Round 1, so they may do something similar to Butler after seeing how he torched Philadelphia.
Miami has to have someone else step up. Butler will likely get his, but after him, where will the offense come from? The Heat have a score of excellent shooters who have mostly forgotten how to shoot this postseason; Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Kyle Lowry, and PJ Tucker will have to hit catch-and-shoot threes to keep the floor safely spaced and allow Butler and Herro to get some dribble penetration.
Ultimately, this series should resemble the epic Bucks/Celtics series we just saw. Both teams will be hard-pressed to score in the half-court. Miami will have a good chance if Herro can recapture his Sixth Man of the Year form. If Williams and Horford are as assertive and accurate against Miami as they were at times against Milwaukee, Boston will have the upper hand.
Both these teams have elite defenses with offenses that can get gummed up. We will likely see multiple games with both teams under 100 points. It’ll be a nasty, brutish series — I can’t wait to watch it tonight.
Western Conference Finals Preview
Key Player: Klay Thompson
Here’s a crazy stat: Klay Thompson led the Warriors in shot attempts per 36 minutes by two full shots over Steph Curry — 21.9 field goal attempts compared to Curry’s 19.9. His shooting form has frankly been much more impressive than I expected after his two-year injury hiatus (38.5% from deep on 9.3 attempts per game) and remains very good, in general. But he’s at a career-low in three-point accuracy even while he’s at a career-high for attempts.
Klay is trying to make up for lost time and show everyone he’s still an elite player, but he’s forced the issue a little too often. At times, his body language has been very strange – a lot of pouting when someone else dares to shoot or pass to anyone besides Klay. He’s taken some obscenely difficult attempts that can sidetrack the Warriors’ offense at inopportune times. Here he is taking a one-legged step-back two-pointer five seconds into the shot clock as Steph Curry frantically gesticulates for him to pass to a wide-open Jordan Poole:
Klay is dribbling and driving more than he ever has in his career, which sound like perfectly fine things. The problem is that he’s often dribbling into bad shots, like above, instead of finishing at the hoop (only 10% of his attempts have come at the rim, the fewest of his career, despite all those drives).
Klay has always been a, uh, willing shooter. You’re allowed —encouraged, even — to have that attitude when you’re the second-best shooter in NBA history. But the Warriors are best when Klay relaxes and plays Warriors basketball — cutting, running, quick passing, ball and body movement. Klay has been more involved in the Warriors’ offense than ever this season, and it seems he’s still figuring out how to balance his playmaking with his shoot-first, -second, and -third instincts.
Klay calmed down a bit towards the end of the regular season (which happened to be his best statistical stretch), but he’s gone back to his Dion-Waiters-hands ways in the playoffs, and he doesn’t seem likely to change now. He’s shooting off pump-fakes that don’t work, or with his feet unsettled, or on pull-ups from strange angles.
Sometimes, it turns out fine! He’s still that good. Klay was incandescent in Game 6 against Memphis, scoring 30 points on 8-14 shooting from three, and many of those shots were just as tricky as the ones he’d missed previously. He’s constantly tiptoeing the line between reckless and aggressive, but as the saying goes, it’s a make-or-miss league. Sometimes the difference between labels is if a shot rims out or rolls in.
Defensively he has clearly, and understandably, lost a step. Luckily, Andrew Wiggins and Otto Porter have been around to take the more challenging assignments, and Klay has looked better moving his feet and staying disciplined in the playoffs. He’s not going to be a lockdown defender again, but he shouldn’t be a total liability, either.
Klay is also passing pretty well when he wants to – he averaged a career-high in assists this season at 2.8 per game. That’s what makes his random bursts of tunnel-vision even more frustrating. If the Warriors can find a way to curb his worst instincts, or he has a couple of smoking-hot classic Klay games, they’ll be fine. But he’s almost as liable to shoot them out of a game as win one for them right now. Almost.
Key Question: How will the Warriors guard Luka?
Is it too early to say that Luka Doncic is one of the greatest playoff performers of all time?
He’s behind only MJ for highest career playoff scoring average, after all, and although he’s played only 23 playoff games, they’ve come against some of the best perimeter defenders of the last 20 years.
Twice, he’s had to play through Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. They didn’t remotely stop him. Even while battling injury, he toyed with a Utah team anchored by three-time DPOY Rudy Gobert. He just eviscerated a Phoenix squad that threw DPOY runner-up Mikal Bridges at him, and he embarrassed Chris Paul in the post repeatedly.
Now, he goes up against a Warriors team with three of their top five defenders either missing or less than 100% in Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter, and Gary Payton II.
Doncic is easily the best offensive player left in these playoffs. He’s listed at the exact same size as Jimmy Butler: 6’7” and 230 pounds, but he looks demonstrably bigger than that on both axes. He’s not super quick, but he possesses a tight handle and a lethal stepback jumper that keeps defenders off balance.
And unlike most guards, he relishes contact. He smashes smaller defenders into moaning piles of goo in the post and tells them to blame their daddies for being too small. He can body people under the basket or spin into pretty fadeaways. He’ll even do it to seven-footers:
Double Luka, and he’ll pass out to the Mavericks’ cornucopia of shooters for an easy triple.
The Warriors are always a great defensive team, but they possess numerous weak links for Luka to attack. The Warriors’ Jordan Poole had better hit shots this series because Doncic will hunt him like Bambi’s mother. Luka will find him every time and get a switch, and there’s a real chance Jordan gets played off the floor on nights where he’s cold (and the Warriors desperately need him offensively). Curry is much stronger than Poole, but Luka’s size advantage is too much. Even this current version of Klay Thompson will likely have problems.
Andrew Wiggins will draw the primary assignment on Luka. He is a very good defender, but he’s not on the level of Mikal Bridges. It shouldn’t be hard for Luka to find a switch onto an easier defender, anyway. I expect Steve Kerr to put Draymond Green on the weakest Dallas shooter to allow him to help on Doncic aggressively. He’s the only Warrior with the length and the strength to truly hinder Luka. His ability to help and recover will be the key to slowing the Mavs’ offense.
Golden State’s super-athlete Jonathan Kuminga will get a chance, but he’s too undisciplined and foul-prone, as rookies often are.
The Warriors and Mavericks have put together elite defenses in a somewhat similar fashion — neither has a surfeit of incredible defenders, like the Heat or the Celtics. But their players know the scheme exactly, rarely make mistakes, and rotate perfectly. Golden State’s rotations will be tested in this round, as Luka is a far superior passer to anybody the Grizzlies had. Nikola Jokic had figured out ways to pass around the Warriors by the end of the Denver-Golden State first-round series, but the Nuggets’ toothless three-point shooters couldn’t take advantage. However, the Mavs are stacked with gunners, and if Luka can figure out how to pass ahead of the rotation defense, Golden State could be vulnerable.
As amazing as Luka is, he’s not a shooter on the level of Klay or Steph, and he’s prone to cold games where the stepback isn’t falling. The Warriors best bet may be to let him do his James Harden impression, count on Green to help perfectly, and have the other players focus on containing the Mavs’ catch-and-shoot threats.
Before the playoffs started, I thought Phoenix was a better team than Golden State, and Dallas managed to survive against them. The Warriors’ lack of wing depth is going to put a lot of pressure on Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green; we’ll see if they’re up to the task.
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