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Everything You Need To Know To Be Ready For The Conference Finals

And then there were 4.

Welcome to the NBA's Final Four everybody, where time appears to be a flat circle. For all the talk about how fake the Bubble was, here we are with the same four teams in the Conference Finals just 3 years later. I do think we need to be a little careful to not fully compare this to the Bubble simply because of how different the rosters are, but I think most would agree that this is an absolutely deserving foursome. The fact that it's a rematch of the 2020 Conference Finals is cool and all, but the reality is this grouping contains two of the best teams we watched all year combined with two teams that are playing some of the best basketball of the entire playoff field. The storylines are there, the star power is there, the history is there, add it all up and we should have one hell of a Conference Finals on our hands. 

With the Lakers and Nuggets kicking us off tonight, let's get you ready with everything you should know before the games start. 

Los Angeles Lakers (7) vs Denver Nuggets (1)

Head to head: Tied 2-2

OK, here's the thing about that 2-2 record. You have to completely throw it out the window when it comes to talking about these two teams. They haven't played since January 9th, which is about a month before the Lakers completely changed over their roster. The story of their regular season games was that pretty much everything was a blowout seeing as no game was decided by single digits, and when half of the season series took place before we even got to November and the second half ended 9 days in 2023, a lot has certainly changed when it comes to breaking down this series.

What I care about is what's happening right now. When you think of these two teams, how many of you think about defense? My suggestion to you would be for that to be the #1 place to start. With the Nuggets, I feel confident in saying that any Denver fan will tell you that the one missing piece of their puzzle was finding a way to not just be competent on the defensive end, but impactful. All we heard about from the anti-Jokic MVP narrative was that his P&R defense was so bad that it was going to cost the Nuggets in the playoffs. That other bigs, like Embiid and Giannis were so much better defensively and that's why they were more worthy MVPs. 

Well…..none of that has really happened so far. In fact, the Nuggets own the 5th best defense in the playoff field, which has played a rather large role in their current 8-3 record. It improved slightly in the 2nd round with a Drtg of 110.6, which is good for 4th. They're allowing just 106.6 points a game, which is also 5th so far in these playoffs. Not bad! I get it, playing the Wolves who start a double center lineup that can't really score and then an injured Suns team is going to make an impact when it comes to your team defense, but the bigger point is the Nuggets have dug in defensively to a higher level than we saw their 15th ranked defense during the year.

So when you think of reasons to believe in this version of the Nuggets, I would start with the defense. If they can not only be passable on that end but actually pretty good, they have everything they need to finally get over the hump and reach the Finals. 

Things obviously start with Nikola Jokic. One of the most interesting parts of these playoffs is how often you're seeing people be ashamed of their denial of what Jokic was doing during the year. They got caught up in the MVP narrative that for some reason Nikola Jokic couldn't win 3 MVPs in a row because he didn't have a ring, despite it being a regular season award. That's cute because all Jokic has done is been the best player in these entire playoffs

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30.7/12.8/9.7/1.1 on 54/47% splits with 1.7 3PM a night. What the hell even is that? Maybe because he's so quiet and isn't flashy or in commercials I think people forget what a monster Playoff Jokic actually is. Let's not forget for his playoff career (59 games), Jokic is averaging 27.2/11.7/7.0 on 52/40% splits. That's pretty big time no matter how you slice it. So it should surprise nobody that the second Jokic got his #2 and #3 offensive options back in the lineup combined with some actual NBA caliber depth, he's right back in the Conference Finals with the best team in the West. 

Perhaps the biggest development of the Nuggets playoff run is the fact that they are NOT getting killed in the non-Jokic minutes. They still have a +4.6 net rating when Jokic is off the floor, which is quite the change of pace given what we've seen in prior seasons. If they are able to survive minutes where Jokic can actually get rest, that's a problem for the entire league. That's the benefit of having legit depth at this stage.

Between Jokic's dominance and finally having good health luck, the Nuggets own the best offense in the playoffs and it's not even really that close. What makes them so tough is the diversity in which they can beat you offensively. When you have one of the greatst offensive forces in basketball, that gives you matchups that other teams simply do not have. Anthony Davis is going to have to guard Jokic out on the perimeter, which is going to open up everything for Murray/Gordon/MPJ at the rim. The Nuggets enter this series as the best P&R team in the playoffs, ranking in the 100th percentile, scoring 1.21 points per possession shooting 52.6% in that set. Given that the Lakers rank in the 46th percentile defending the P&R, I imagine we're going to see a whole lot of that between Murray/Jokic. They also have the collection of outside shooting talent that you need to be successful in 2023, which is why I still find it so odd that there are so many who still don't believe in what the Nuggets are doing. Perhaps this is a case of people just needing to see them win a series like this in order to truly believe.

We also shouldn't overlook the homecourt advantage. The Nuggets are 7-0 so far these playoffs in their own building and were an impressive 34-7 during the year. That's arguably the toughest building to play in that we have left, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that between the two conferences, home court will probably only be a factor in this series. Both the Celts and Heat can win on the other's floor. Can this version of the Lakers win on the best home court advantage in the league?

Let's talk about these Lakers. Without question, what they have done as a 7 seed is wildly impressive, and the foundation of that success is on the defensive end. As good as the Nuggets may have been defensively, the Lakers have been much, much better. They own the #1 ranked defense in the playoffs with a rating of 106.5, opponents are scoring just 107.3 a night while shooting 42/33%. 

That FG% is what makes the Lakers so tough. It has proven to be very difficult to make shots against this team. That 42% from the floor is the lowest of all playoff teams, and their opponent eFG% of 49.4% is the 2nd lowest. Part of what makes the Lakers so elite on that end is the fact that they are the best team in the field when it comes to defending without fouling. They allow just a 17% opponent FTA rate, which is by far the best of any team left. No team in the field contests more shots than LAL (48.7), and that all starts with Anthony Davis. He has transformed back into the best defender on the planet

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Look, as long as AD and LeBron are healthy, the Lakers deserve your respect. They still are yet to lose a playoff series together if I remember correctly, and the last time both were this healthy and this locked in, the Lakers won the whole thing. Until someone beats them 4 times, you have to give them the benefit of the doubt. I wish I didn't have to type that sentence, but that's the reality.

It goes without saying their midseason roster overhaul completely turned around their season, and going from 2-10 to the WCF is certainly nothing to sneeze at. LeBron looks as good as ever, AD looks as good as ever, and there is real talent on this roster. Guys like Austin Reaves have made a legit impact and should be poised for a big series, mostly because of his versatility. That does not look like a guy who is afraid of the moment. It's actually the opposite.

The worry I would have as a Lakers fan is that at the end of the day, you're still relying on guys like Dennis Schroder and DLo. When those guys are "on", they can be difference makers. But when they're "off", they are virtually unplayable. I've lived through the Dennis Schroder Experience, it's not exactly easy. 

While you can bank on the Lakers being elite defensively, I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that their season will ultimately come down to the same issue we all talked about before the season.

Can they shoot?

For the playoffs, the Lakers are shooting just 33.1% from three. That improved slightly to 35.7% against the Warriors, but main guys like DLo, and Schroder are under 35%. LeBron and AD are under 28%. Malik Beasley isn't even playing anymore really, probably because he was at 28% in his 10 games. Can Rui Hachimura (53%), Austin Reaves (39.7%), and Lonnie Walker IV (39.1%) continue to carry the weight, or will they come back down to earth? Especially if they have tired legs by playing in DEN? 

You could make the case their outside shooting might not matter if the Lakers continue to get the best whistle in the NBA. Nobody lives at the line like the Lakers, we've all seen the stats. They attempt about 100x more FTA than anyone they play. They averaged 26 FTA a night against the Warriors, including a rather insane 42 FTA in 48 minutes in Game 6. I could see a world where they get Jokic in foul trouble and then LeBron simply bullies his way through the Nuggets depth and lives at the line. Who is going to stop him when it comes to their second unit guys, Jeff Green? That's not a great matchup. When LeBron is determined and gets his ass into the paint/on the block, he is as unstoppable in 2023 as he was in 2003. It's insane.

All I know is I'm praying for a long series. I want 7 of these things given how well both teams are playing right now. 

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Miami Heat (8) vs Boston Celtics (2)

Head to head: tied 2-2

I don't care what NBA history says when it comes to an 8 seed vs 1 seed. I don't care what the ESPN Analytics department is trying to suggest

Throw all of that shit out the window. 

At every stage, people have doubted the Heat. First, there was no way they were going to beat the #1 seed 4 times, even with an injured Giannis. Suddenly, they bounced those frauds in 5 games despite losing their second best shot creator. Then their luck was supposed to run out against the Knicks, a tough team with a tough defense and good health. Suddenly, they bounced that team in 6 games. 

We have not seen a team go on a run like this since 1999. The more the Heat are underestimated the better they seem to get. You look at their roster and it doesn't blow your dick off with talent. But that's the beauty of the NBA Playoffs. That shit doesn't matter. Lace up your shoes and check ball. There is a real toughness and resiliency that the Heat play with and they have proven they can get it done when it matters and on the biggest stage. Remember, no team in the NBA played more "clutch time" games than MIA (54), and they finished a strong 32-22. So far in these playoffs they are already 4-2. While other teams may panic when things get late close, the Heat never really do because they have the reps. That's why you have to blow this team out, because if you leave that door open as games get late, Jimmy Butler will bury you. That is just a fact.

Something tells me the Celts are pretty aware of that. Not just because of their prior Conference Finals games, but also this very season. The Heat's first win of this matchup came via a 120-116 OT win, and the second win was 98-95. These teams know each other, they are both physical, they have #1 options that can go supernova, and they have the experience of this stage. 

At some point you wonder if the Heat's luck is going to run out, and there's no denying that the team they are about to play is nothing like what the Heat saw in the first two rounds. The Bucks may have the name recognition, but their actual basketball play was pretty gross all year. That was like the 15th ranked offense in the league and a team that can't really shoot. Going up against wing defenders like Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, and Khris Middleton is a big reason why Jimmy went nuts. 

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While the Knicks had a much better defense, on the offensive end there is a Grand Canyon sized difference between them and the Celts. The Knicks shot just 29.9% from three in that series, whereas the Celts led the NBA from deep at 38.6%. If the Heat gives this version of the Celts the same volume of open looks, you start to wonder if they themselves have the shot making ability to keep things close. 

Remember, they shot just 30% from deep against the Knicks. To beat the Celtics, you have to be able to keep pace/beat them from behind the arc. Just look at the series against PHI. When they couldn't make their 3PA, they got blown the fuck out. I think we all expect the Heat to go to their zone coverage given how successful it was last year against the Celts, but that has the potential to be a disaster given all the shooting options the Celts can now throw out there. 

That's why to me, this series is going to honestly come down to many of the same factors we saw play a role last year. Can the Celtics find a way to take care of the fucking ball? It was legitimately as simple as that. When the Heat forced TOs, the Celts were cooked. 

In their 3 losses, the Celtics averaged an insane 19.3 TOs a game. 19.3!!!!

In their 4 wins, the Celtics averaged 12.3 TOs a game.

I'm not exactly reinventing the wheel with this analysis, but it's legitimately the biggest factor of the series for me. The Heat are so good at clogging up the lane and reaching in on drives, it didn't matter which Celtic tried to get into the paint last year. They ALL turned it over. and you give the Heat life by having empty possessions and allowing them to get out in transition. So far in this year's playoffs, the Heat rank in the 86th percentile in transition offense. Their 1.16 points per possession are 3rd in the playoff field. So basically what they may lack in outside shooting, they make up for it with stellar defense and transition buckets. 

Part of what makes the Heat so good is how awesome they are at mental warfare. I think their ability to mentally break their opponent is a huge reason for their success. Jimmy Butler completely destroyed Jrue Holiday both mentally and on the floor. We saw the same shit with RJ Barrett and Julius Randle. Not letting Jimmy and the Heat fuck with you mentally is half the battle, because you can immediately tell when they know they have someone in a mental pretzel. They take your brain, and then your skill. That's how the Heat work.

I imagine the Celts will stick with their double big lineup given how successful it was against the Sixers, and in the games Rob played last year in the ECF, it was clear he made an impact when it came to limiting Bam offensively. He was seeing ghosts. We've seen what happens when a team does not have elite wing defenders when it comes to trying to beat the Celtics 4 times, and I'm not sure given their injuries that the Heat will have too much success with that. That's probably why we'll see them rely on that zone. 

Between the two series, I think most believe this matchup is going to be the war. While it may seem lopsided on paper, by now I don't think anyone should be playing that game when it comes to the Heat. They've earned their respect. Can the Celts keep their mental composure when the Heat muck things up, or will things snowball just like they did last year. That's the story of the series for me. If the Celts stay locked in and don't play stupid basketball, a return to the Finals awaits. 

They just need to get past Playoff Jimmy, which to date, nobody has been able to do this year.

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