After a thrilling, albeit brief, opening round of the NBA Playoffs we have reached the Conference Semi-Finals. Mark Ross looks at the four enthralling series that lay ahead.
The first round of the NBA playoffs is over and only one team was swept away. Despite starting the season as the early favourites, the Brooklyn Nets were easily dispatched by divisional rivals the Boston Celtics. Jayson Tatum showed why he could dominate the league for years to come as he helped send the Brooklyn Nets packing, in their own arena of all places.
Boston Celtics v Milawaukee Bucks
Boston has another marquee matchup to look forward to now as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo made up for the injured Khris Middleton as he dominated through four games. Chicago managed to get one win in front of their home fans but the reigning champions proved too strong and eased to a 4-1 win.
Boston will have a tough time trying to contain the Greek Freak and will have to adopt a similar strategy they used on Kevin Durant; send multiple players at him, force him to the line, and hope that he will make the odd mistake. If the Celtics are going to advance they will need to improve their shooting from outside the arc.
The Milwaukee defence gives up plenty of three-point opportunities but the Celtics only shot over 40% from that range once in their series with Brooklyn. Giannis is going to score points, you could put all the defence in the world on him but he will still put up points, the Celtics will need to accept it. Accept that and make sure you make three-pointers to keep up.
Throughout the regular season, the Bucks and Celtics tied their series 2-2. In every game bar one, both teams scored over 110 points. With that in mind, both teams scoring over 110 points should be easy money throughout the series. The last two games have been decided by just six points, with playoff nerves kicking in this number could be even closer. Boston has the advantage, but only very slightly and Milwaukee Bucks at plus 4.5 points for game one looks likely.
The series is bound to be close but with the Greek Freak chasing back-to-back titles I can’t see the Celtics being able to stop him.
Series to go to a game seven – 9/4
Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers
The second game in the East sees the Miami Heat take on the Philadelphia 76ers. Despite almost blowing their lead in typical Doc Rivers fashion, the 76ers finally found a way past the Toronto Raptors. The final scoreline shows a 4-2 win for the 76ers, but it was far from easy. Philadelphia raced out to a 3-0 start before stumbling. Toronto fought back and won two games on the bounce before James Harden and Joel Embiid finally sorted themselves out and got the job done.
Miami, on the other hand, eased past the Atlanta Hawks. After coming through the Play-In Tournament, Trae Young and the Hawks looked tired as they struggled to keep up with Jimmy Butler and the Heat. The series finished 4-1 to the Heat and they will be fancying their chances against the 76ers.
Throughout the regular season, they tied their series 2-2 with each team winning once at home and once away. Low scoring affairs are the norm in this one with one of the teams only breaking 100 points four times in the regular-season series. Weirdly, in their most recent win, the 76ers did it without Joel Embiid and James Harden, and in the win before that, they still had Seth Curry and Andre Drummond.
This will be the first opportunity to see these teams go head to head at full strength. It’s always good when the top seeds make it through and despite this one being the top-seeded versus the fourth, it could quite easily be one versus two.
Miami Heat are slight favourites, but only very slightly. This is going to be a tight affair and after having no seven-game series in the first round of matches we could have two in both Eastern matchups.
Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies
In the West, the Golden State Warriors look like the team to beat. Steph Curry was cooking as he easily dispatched the Denver Nuggets despite plying on limited minutes for most of the series. Steph Curry, Klay Thomson, and Draymond Green are back to their best and are pushing for another title to add to their collection.
MVP front runner Nikola Jokic could do nothing to stop the assault by the Splash Brothers. Golden State ran out 4-1 winners in the series and are now the favourite’s for the Western Conference. At 11/8 the Warriors have jumped into the clear favourite’s position despite finishing the regular season as the number three seed.
They will face the Memphis Grizzlies. Karl Anthony Towns battled hard to keep his Minnesota Timberwolves alive but Ja Morant was too strong as he proved why he could be the next star of the league. If Morant wants to continue his escapade into the playoffs he has to keep up with the Warriors. They are averaging more points than anyone through the playoffs (by quite some distance) and they drain threes like there is no tomorrow. Golden State are surging at the right time and nobody, so far, is looking likely to keep up…Including the Grizzlies. No ridiculous poster dunk is going to save you this time, sorry Ja.
The final matchup of the second round sees the Phoenix Suns take on Dallas Mavericks. Phoenix defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 4-2 after Chris Paul took control. After battling it out with Jose Alvarado, Paul set the record straight in the final game of the series. Paul set a playoff record as he went off for 33 points on 14-14 shooting. Just when they needed it, Chris Paul showed why he has been around the league for so long as he helped the number one seed Suns advance.
This matchup sees one of the league’s veterans taking on a new young gun. Luka Doncic led his Dallas Mavericks past the Utah Jazz in a 4-2 series win that never looked in doubt. Dallas did this despite only averaging 104.7 points in the first-round win compared with the 111.3 that the Suns managed. Other than points scored, the only other category which the Suns were actually better than the Mavericks was the three-point percentage.
Dallas dominates in every other category and will need to continue that if they are to get past the best team in basketball throughout the regular season. Everything is set up for another closely fought seven-game series to determine who will compete in the Western Conference Championship.
Whatever happens, going forward we have the four best teams from each conference competing for a spot in the finals and that’s the way it should be. The top four seeds have advanced to play each other and it is set up for all four matchups to go the distance. Each fourth-seeded team is capable of beating the top-seeded team and both are available at 5/1.
It’s all about getting to the dance, once you’re there anything can happen.