Which remaining Eastern Conference team will advance to the NBA Finals, Jayson Tatum’s Boston Celtics or Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat? Which remaining Western Conference team will advance, Nikola Jokić’s Denver Nuggets or LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers?
We spoke to experts to find out.
We asked a scout, coach and team executive to predict the outcome of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and the Heat and the Western Conference Finals between the Nuggets and Lakers. We granted our experts anonymity because their employers did not give them permission to publicly discuss other franchises. The anonymity also allowed them to be completely candid.
(Editor’s note: Their ratings have been lightly edited for brevity, clarity, and grammar.)
No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 8 Miami Heat
Scout’s point of view: “I choose Boston. They are just better. They have a home court. They are deeper. Both teams are coming off of some really good series wins, I think Boston in particular, the way they won games 6 and 7. Their defense has just been spectacular. I think Miami is going to have a hard time scoring.
“The Heat are so dependent on Jimmy Butler. And they have a go-to guy. I don’t think Bam (Adebayo) is a go-to guy. I don’t think the other guys are go-to guys. And Boston has guys who can cover him, not stop him. But you can put (Marcus) Smart on him. Maybe you put (Jayson) Tatum on him. You can put (Malcolm) Brogdon on him, maybe. Grant Williams.
“Miami had a weird year. They did badly on 3 in the year and they did really well in the previous series. Are they going to regress to the average? Their matchups are also going to be an issue.
“Boston, are they going to get big again with (Robert) Williams? Or are they going to start (Derrick) White? If they start White, who is Kevin Love going to keep? So it’ll be interesting to see if Boston goes small You have problems matching Love.
“Boston has a better bench. They have two stars against a superstar. I think if Miami won two games, that would be an accomplishment.
The coach’s view: “There will be competitiveness and physicality. There will be all kinds of cover, schemes and tactics. I think it’s going to be a tough seven-game series, and I think Boston is going to win. I just think they are more experienced (together). I think they just have a bit more in terms of score. But it’s just hard to count Miami.
“The Heat are gritty. They are dirty. You have to beat Miami. (They don’t fight.) They run their sets. They perform, make or fail. They do not blow together. They don’t turn the ball around a ton and, for the most part, they control the tempo and pace of the game. I think that’s what helped them in the Milwaukee series. I think that’s what helped them in the New York series as well.
“I know everyone talks about physicality, right? If you look at Miami defending, they have several guys who can defend physically: Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, Gabe Vincent and, of course, Jimmy Butler. You have a slew of guys who aren’t afraid to put their bodies on you. It’s going to come down to a few things: probably a few shots. It can come down to tweaks, different lineups, going small or big, putting on a shooting lineup. I have no idea what the two coaches have in store. But if this Eastern Conference Finals is going to look like anything we’ve seen in Round 1 or Round 2, we’re going to see an incredible streak. But I have Boston coming out of the Eastern Conference Finals.
“Jayson Tatum? “Humbly,” he said, “I’m one of the best basketball players in the world.” Well, (I think) you might be the best, kid. Your time has definitely come. To do such a performance in a match 7 is simply incredible. The stakes are higher. There is more pressure. The consequences are greater. And you lose 51 points in a Game 7? Amazing. And the kid is only 25. Oh my God.”
Executive Outlook: “For me, with (Heat’s) dream playoff run, you wake up at some point from your dream. I don’t know how Miami is doing, to be honest with you. But they continue to do so. And I just think at some point it’s going to stop, the magic playoff run. And I think Boston is good enough to end it.
“I would have preferred Philly or Boston to Miami, just for the reasons I said. So of course it was a good pick-me-up for Boston to play a game like that (in Game 7) and find their confidence and really starting to feel good about this series. But I think both teams are better – Philly or Boston. In that case, Boston is just better. I’ll say six games. I don’t think it’s going to be seven .
Scout’s choice: Celtics in six
Coach’s Choice: Celtics in seven
Executive’s choice: Celtics in six
Unanimous choice: Celtics
#1 Denver Nuggets vs. #7 Los Angeles Lakers
Scout’s point of view: “Home court probably matters more than most places. Denver has the best player. I mean, you could discuss LeBron now. But Jokić is the best player in this series. Denver has a better starting team. Maybe I’ll give the Lakers bench a slight edge, especially with their playoff performance.
“(Rui) Hachimura was great. (Dennis) Schröder entered the final series. Hachimura was an important factor. Can he maintain this level? Shooting 50% from 3, his numbers are a bit beyond what people expected.
“The thing with Denver is they haven’t been there. KCP (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) has been there but otherwise nobody else has a ring, I don’t think, on their team .
“But Anthony Davis has to be consistent throughout. I’m not sure he can be. He played every game, but he had ups and downs. And he will have to be formidable for them to win.
“The Lakers have played how many good games together? I don’t know if it will count, but Denver has been together all year. I saw them in February and even then they were one of the most consistent teams I’ve seen. It has a lot to do with Jokić and also that they have been playing together for a little while now. The same cannot be said for the Lakers. So I think the continuity factor might play a role.
“My only question about Denver is if the moment is too big.”
The coach’s view: “The way the Lakers are playing right now, they’re really playing amazing basketball. Everybody sees after the trade deadline the pieces they’ve brought in to do multiple things. You can put ‘Bron on the ball; you You can get ‘Bron off the ball. You can get D’Angelo Russell on the ball; you can get DLo off the ball. And you can play with Anthony Davis. They’ve got a ton of offense now. They’re defending a lot better. speed on the perimeter with (Dennis) Schröder. Even Austin Reaves, he’s a tough defender; he’s better than a lot of people give him credit for. (Jarred) Vanderbilt does a good job with his length. I think the Vanderbilt’s defense against Jamal Murray is going to be critical. It’s not going to be (Vanderbilt’s) only game. I believe they’re going to throw different types at (Murray), different schemes and covers at him. But I really believe that the Lakers are going to win a game on the road, just like they did the first two series. …
“With the Lakers, how do you defend Nikola Jokić? The last time these two teams played in the Western Conference Finals in the bubble, I thought the Lakers had a luxury with the depth of their bigs. The Lakers had JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard and Anthony Davis, and McGee and Howard just beat Jokić. From a physical point of view, they went there and they made mistakes. They didn’t care. They beat him every time. The Lakers don’t have that physique anymore. So what sketches and covers are you going to do differently for Nikola Jokić, because I just don’t believe Anthony Davis is the end of the world with him. So I can’t wait to see what they come up with for Jokić; I mean, it’s a tough cover. You can’t really trap him on the block – he’s going to charge you with every type of pass known to man. So do you play it straight? Do you double it on the perimeter? …
“It’s going to be a very difficult series. Denver has several defenders they can throw at LeBron, starting with Aaron Gordon. I’m pretty sure he’ll start on LeBron, but you can throw him Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. They’ve got a number of guys they can throw at LeBron, so when a guy’s tired and he’s tired of how ‘Bron is trying to score or play hard, you can throw another guy at him and you keep rotating the bodies. and keep them cool where they really make ‘Bron to score work.’
Executive Outlook: “I say Denver (will win), for three reasons. Home court advantage. They were great at home. Second, I just think in this match between Anthony Davis and (Nikola) Jokić, Davis will wear him down. Jokić will exhaust AD. And then three, I’m just wondering: I know LeBron (James) is invincible, but at some point, does he wear out a bit? Especially the longer this series is extended? I mean, I know he’s Superman, but at some point he has to burn out.
“Denver has the top talent in the backcourt with (Jamal Murray). I like both Lakers guards – both (D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves) are good, and (Dennis) Schröder too. I mean, they have a nice depth there now. But I just think Murray is a superior player, superior talent.
“(When you ask me to compare this game to these teams’ final Western Conference game in 2020, I would say) the 2020 game was a bubble game. Being in the bubble, I don’t know how real it all was, to some extent. I mean, the matches were played, the players were playing and the competition was taking place. But I do not know. I think it’s so different now with the trips and the full season now. You think about this shortened season. I don’t even know if it’s comparable. Let’s go seven games, only because you give LeBron his due.
Scout’s choice: Nuggets in six
Coach’s Choice: Lakers in six
Executive’s choice: Nuggets in seven
Majority choice: Nuggets
(Photo by Nikola Jokic and LeBron James: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)