The NBA has arrived at its final four, the conference finals that will determine who gets the chance to win the next championship — and who’ll lose it.
The Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics all arrived in different ways, bringing diverse styles while realistically raising the hopes and wishes in the cities they represent. Everyone thinks they have a shot, and as we’ve seen in this unpredictable postseason, everyone has a good reason for that.
Here’s one word to describe and define each of the four contenders as they navigate the last and trickiest of steps.
There should be little debate that nobody has had a bigger challenge from a defensive standpoint than the Celtics, who had Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo standing in their path. Together that’s a combined three Kia MVPs and two Finals MVPs while still in their prime. Maybe you figure a way to overcome one. But both?
Let it be known that Boston silenced them just enough to win twice. The toughness, grit, confidence and skill required to survive those two superstars was relentless, and the Celtics had to be all of that. But to be fair, the Celtics have dialed up the D since January, when their flat season flipped and they made a steady rise in the standings.
Their switching, rotations, length, quick hands and anticipation have all been top level. If this continues and champagne is sipped, the Celtics will be slotted among the finest defensive teams of recent memory.
When coach Erik Spoelstra calls for a substitution, does he need to yell, or maybe use a bullhorn? Because the Heat bench stretches far and deep. Aside from the starting five, Miami brings Kia Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro, Victor Oladipo, Gabe Vincent, Dewayne Dedmon, Omer Yurtseven, Caleb Martin, and oh yeah — Duncan Robinson, their long-distance shooter of the last few years who lost his place in the line.
With that high-quality cushion, Miami can withstand an injury setback, which the Heat already experienced with Jimmy Butler and especially Kyle Lowry, who missed six of the 11 playoff games with a creaky hamstring. Even better, Spoelstra can mix and match the rotation and tailor it to deal with the opponent in front of him. This flexibility is unmatched by any of the remaining playoff teams, although the Warriors come close.
The Heat can, if they choose, use 10 players in any game without sacrificing much in terms of drop-off. This goes counter to the conventional thinking in the playoffs, where rotations shorten. The Heat are doing it differently because…well, they can.
Can you win by playing for today and tomorrow? The Warriors believe so, which is why they constructed their roster with an eye toward both, and the results so far are favorable. Golden State is positioned to return to the promised land and stocked with enough youth to buy more time at the top.
They did get a little lucky; nobody thought former G League standout Jordan Poole (19.3 points in the playoffs) would turn out this good and also play without fear in his first playoffs. Poole offset the decision to keep the No. 2 pick in 2020 and use it on James Wiseman instead of swapping it for a veteran; at the moment, that looks like a mistake, though it’s too early for a verdict.
By blending proven champions Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green with Poole, Andrew Wiggins and Jonathan Kuminga (and the injured Gary Payton II), the Warriors took a bit of a gamble. But the young and hungry are blending well with the old and hungry, and suddenly, a fourth championship in this era is within reach.
Nobody except their family members and closest friends thought the Mavericks would get this far. Without the burden of expectations or any sense of urgency to cash in immediately, the Mavericks are the loosest team in the conference finals, a mood they’ve had and adopted since the very start.
All this has done is made them chill — not sweating the tough moments, not worrying about what social media and talk shows are saying about them — and simply hoop. Oh, and they’ve also placed their trust in the secure hands of Luka Doncic; that also helps.
Who felt the burden in the semifinal Game 7, the Suns or Mavs? That’s an easy answer; you saw who crumbled in the moment of truth. Also, in the first round, who seized the situation when Doncic was lost for three games? Dallas’ Spencer Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson certainly didn’t fold; that was Utah, healthy and helpless.
Internally, the Mavericks probably feel they’re playing with house money at this point, but also realize they’re four wins away from gaining everyone’s total respect — and maybe some expectations.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.