With the 3-seeded Celtics tied 2-2 in their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the 2-seeded Raptors, although they were half a second away from being up 3-0, and the 5-seeded Heat up 3-0 on the 1-seeded Bucks in their Eastern Conference semifinal series, these two teams look primed to face off against one another in the playoffs for the first time since the epic Eastern Conference Finals series in 2012 when LeBron (33 and 11 in the series) and the Heat ended Boston’s “Big 3” era of Garnett, Pierce, and Allen in seven games.
Before I get too worked up about these teams, it’s important to recognize that neither current series is officially over. I do think that the Celtics will still eliminate the defending champs, despite such a gut-wrenching loss at the buzzer in game 3, followed up with a disapointing and frustrating performance in game 4. I think that Jaylen Brown could’ve defended the last play in game 3 better by positioning himself on Marc Gasol’s outside hip so that he could still contest a potential Gasol shot while also being closer to Anunoby in the corner for the contest. Heck, Brown still almost blocked the shot. However, when you take a step back from being emotionally scarred by that last play, the silver lining for the Celtics is that it took really heavy minutes from Lowry and Vanvleet, who also combined to make 22 of the Raptors’ 41 field goals, and a 5-18 shooting display from Tatum for the Raptors to just squeak out a victory. Boston bailed them out and gave them hope going forward, and, subsequently, shot a pathetic 7-35 (20%) from deep in game 4, while the Raptors finally got good production from Siakam, had Ibaka go 7-9 from the field, and got some big shots from their two heavy minute guards in Lowry and Vanvleet.
Although the Raptors have momentum, I still don’t think that they’ll win this series; the Bucks, meanwhile, will have to pull off something that 139 teams previously could not do: come back from a 3-0 series deficit to win. The Bucks relied on four main factors with their great regular-season success: Giannis being an unstoppable force, Middleton being a great complementary piece, role players making threes at a high clip when Giannis kicks out, and suffocating team defense. The thing with the Heat though, is that they don’t give a rat’s ass about those four factors. They have slowed Giannis down to a point where he’s been criticized, and rightfully so, for not being great enough to take defenders off the dribble and create his own shot like how we see with a superior player like Kawhi Leonard. In fact, Giannis shot just 1-5 in the final 6:15 of game 3, as the offense went through George Hill, Khris Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe. So, with him being taken out of his dominant rhythm, the other Bucks have sort of just been standing around going, “uh, what’s going on? This isn’t supposed to be happening. What do we do now?”
Much was talked about with the Bucks’ historic regular season. The advanced stat crowd loved them. And although I was skeptical of their playoff success after their uninspiring seeding games play and placed them firmly behind the Lakers and Clippers for title contention, and reluctantly thought that they would defeat the Heat in seven games prior to the series, it is very surprising that the Heat are up 3-0 on them. At this point, I’d give the Bucks just a 6% chance of becoming the first team to ever come back and win a series after being down 3-0.
Of course, Jimmy Butler being the best player on the team, having alpha dog energy, and being the source of the Heat’s camaraderie and general trust in one another, along with Bam Adebayo being a super versatile, energetic, and fun-to-love presence are the main reasons why Miami is one win away from the conference finals, but there’s more to the Heat’s success than those two studs. Goran Dragic has elevated his play in the playoffs to the tune of 22 PPG while being a steady, crafty, and tough point guard. Herro has also elevated his play and has turned into a reliable crunch-time guy who can also rebound and assist a little. Jae Crowder is essentially the perfect tough guy wing next to Jimmy Butler and has connected on 37% of his threes, making nearly three long-balls per game. Duncan Robinson has actually come back down to earth with his shooting three-point shooting, but his mere presence offensively creates leverage for the Heat. And then they have steady veteran Andre Iguodala, a solid backup big man in Kelly Olynyk, a solid change of pace point guard in Kendrick Nunn, and an athletic, spot minutes wing guy in Derrick Jones Jr., who all come off the bench. Miami has dudes, and their dudes have been on the same page, playing as one unit, and simply oozing confidence in each other. And, at the helm, is coach Eric Spoelstra, who continues to be a calm, grounded, mastermind.
So, with the Heat appearing like they’re going to advance into the NBA’s “Final Four,” their likely opponent will be the Boston Celtics. Again, I thought that Boston was going to beat Toronto before the series and I don’t think that such a devastating loss in game 3 will make them unwind and fall apart completely. I thought that Boston would come out focused and spirited in game 4 and regain control of the series; however, they fell flat on their faces and were simply outplayed in the second half, always being down between four and 11 points. The good news is that their core group of guys have taken their lumps in the past and thus should demonstrate the mental fortitude to rebound against the defending champs and ultimately win this now best-of-three series. This is the best Celtics team since that 2012 team with the “Big 3” and so I would go as far as to say that they have a greater than 50% chance to appear in the NBA Finals here in the bubble at this point in time. Obviously Toronto is good, but Boston has done a tremendous job shutting down their All-star starter Pascal Siakam, at least in the first three games, and so it’s going to be difficult for the rest of the Raptors to step up and beat this Celtics team two more times.
Nope, the Giants didn’t defeat the Patriots in the Super Bowl for the 2nd time, Anthony Davis and Kentucky didn’t win the NCAA Tournament, and the Oklahoma City Thunder will not be in the NBA Finals, but similar to 2012, it looks like the Heat of Miami and the Celtics of Boston will meet in the Eastern Conference Finals.