We were told anything can happen in the NBA bubble as the league kicked off its grand experiment over six weeks ago, and the phrase has held true with just two rounds remaining. Tuesday night provided perhaps the biggest on-court twist thus far, with the Heat pulling off a Game 1 upset before the Nuggets shocked the world in a Game 7 win over the Clippers. Conventional wisdom has served little purpose in Orlando. Prognosticating the coming weeks feels futile.
We’ll hold off on predicting each conference finals for now, but what exactly will swing each series with the Finals on the horizon? We at The Crossover took a look at the four matchups that will decide the next round.
LeBron James vs. Denver Frontcourt
Denver enters the Western Conference finals as the NBA’s preeminent comeback kids, erasing back-to-back 3–1 deficits to defeat the Jazz and Clippers. And while the Nuggets’ bottling of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George was certainly impressive, there should be concern regarding whether they can stop their next opponent in the Western Conference gauntlet. Los Angeles’ other frontcourt duo could wreak havoc in the coming weeks.
LeBron James in particular should feast against Denver’s defense, which resembles discarded opponents of James’ past. The Nuggets’ defenders appear too small (Gary Harris and Torrey Craig) or too slow (Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap) to match up with James, and Millsap in particular could have nightmares reliving his playoff matchups with LeBron while in Atlanta. James punished every mismatch in sight against the Rockets, bullying Ben McLemore and Robert Covington whenever he saw fit. A similar strategy will be employed against Denver. This isn’t exactly a newsflash, but few teams have the personnel to even consider slowing James. The Nuggets aren’t one of them. Sorry to throw cold water on Denver after a thrilling victory, but trouble lies ahead as it eyes the first Finals in franchise history.
Bam Adebayo vs. Jayson Tatum
Bam Adebayo’s progression to stardom has paralleled the Heat’s rise this season, so it was only right for him to save the day as Miami stole Game 1 from Boston in the Eastern Conference finals. And while Adebayo’s block marked the highlight of the contest, the Kentucky product was impactful throughout Tuesday night. Adebayo finished with 18 points, six rebounds and nine assists, often serving as Miami’s offensive fulcrum. Though it’s the other end of the floor where Adebayo’s value truly shined through. His game-ending block was an exclamation point on top of a terrific performance.
Adebayo serves a critical role as Miami’s defensive backbone, and his versatility is as important as his strength and size. Adebayo is more than comfortable covering opponents on an island, which could prove critical against the Celtics’ cadre of wings. Jayson Tatum finished the night with 30 points–leading all Boston players–yet late in the contest, Adebayo helped stifle the young forward. Tatum missed his final seven shots on Tuesday, and his shot attempts late appeared increasingly difficult. Miami is switchable and tenacious regardless of the unit it trots out. Goran Dragic is effectively hidden, and there are no immobile behemoths in the rotation. Adebayo and the Heat clamped down on Tatum down the stretch in Game 1. Perhaps they’ve found a blueprint as they eye a return to the Finals.
Jamal Murray vs. Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo
There remains some optimism for Denver in an admittedly-uphill climb against the Lakers, largely thanks to its newly-dominant point guard. Jamal Murray continued his playoff inferno with 40 points in Game 7 against the Clippers, and he’ll have the opportunity for impact performances against the Lakers. Los Angeles’ last series should give Murray some clues for how to be successful.
James Harden and the Rockets flamed out in five games against Los Angeles, but the three-time scoring champion didn’t exactly turn in a stream of clunkers. He scored 33 points on 11-23 shooting in Game 3, and the closeout game featured a 30-point effort on 12-20 from the field. Harden had little trouble isolating against non-James defenders, either rising up over guards or blowing by Los Angeles’ collection of bigs. Houston’s leading man found his rhythm from deep only in spurts, yet he was able to get to the rim time and again. And perhaps more importantly for Murray, Harden sporadically attacked the Lakers from the mid-range area, largely using a diet of post-ups. Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso remain heady defenders, but their physical profile leaves something to be desired. Expect Murray to dive deep into his bag of tricks, seeking 1-on-1 matchups across the floor. Letting Murray cook could be Denver’s best path to victory in a difficult matchup.
Celtics Wings vs. Goran Dragic
The veteran point guard absolutely feasted vs. Milwaukee, rolling downhill with a fervor as Milwaukee stubbornly committed to its drop coverage. Neither Brook Lopez nor any other Bucks big committed to Dragic on a steady diet of pick and rolls, allowing plenty of running room and separation either atop the key or on the wing. Dragic remains an effective player, but it was hard not to conflate his success with a schematic failure on Milwaukee’s part. Dragic’s success remained another feather in Erik Spoelstra’s cap against Mike Budenholzer.
Dragic’s matchup against the Celtics appeared to be more difficult. For one, Boston doesn’t quite rely on traditional bigs, thriving with a collection of athletic wings, forwards and whatever designation you’d like to give Marcus Smart. Even center Daniel Theis is capable on an island, and Boston excels at stringing guards toward the sideline on the pick-and-roll. But even the rangy Celtics failed to control Dragic in Game 1.
The Slovenian guard tallied 29 points on Tuesday, including a flurry of buckets early in the second quarter. Dragic took advantage of his minutes against Brad Wanakamer, and he excels at keeping larger wings on his back as he snakes down the lane. Dragic rarely (if ever) has the athletic advantage. He relies on guile and smarts, and he has both in spades. Perhaps no tactic can truly keep the Miami mainstay in check amid an impressive playoffs.