Preview and Predictions for 2022 NBA Conference Finals Matchups
The NBA's final four is here.
The conference finals are set after two blowout Game 7s on Sunday. In the East, the top-seeded Miami Heat will take on the Boston Celtics, while the Golden State Warriors will face the Dallas Mavericks on the other side of the bracket.
With each conference's Finals representative from last season eliminated, the field feels wide open now. That makes predictions pretty fun—at this point, it feels like anything could happen.
So, let's envision what will. Below, you'll find team-specific predictions for each of the teams still standing, as well as who we'll see in this season's Finals.
Jimmy Butler Will Be the Best Player in the Series
Both of these teams have plenty of talent and deploy equal-opportunity offenses. In any four-to-seven game stretch, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown or Bam Adebayo could emerge with "best player in the series" numbers.
That honor will go to Jimmy Butler in this Eastern Conference Final, though, and that's more of an endorsement of what he's done already than some bold prediction.
Butler is the postseason leader in box plus/minus (BPM "...is a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference). He's averaging 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.6 threes while posting a 61.8 true shooting percentage.
As he did during Miami's bubble run to the Finals, Butler is giving the Heat everything. He's scoring like prime Kobe Bryant (whose playoff career-high is 32.8), handling lead playmaker duties with Kyle Lowry in and out of the lineup and providing his typically stellar perimeter defense.
Boston has enough size, versatility and want-to on the wings to make things more difficult for Butler than the Philadelphia 76ers did, but no one will out-compete Butler. His production will remain absurd.
Max Strus' Breakout Will Go on Hold
Max Strus has started every game he's appeared in since March 28, including 11 playoff contests. In that stretch, he has three 20-point performances. He had double-doubles in each of the last two games against the Sixers. And in all 17 games since then, he's shooting 39.8 percent from three.
The random assortment of teams he faced toward the end of the regular season, the Atlanta Hawks and the free-falling 76ers are not the Celtics (though he did score 14 on them on March 30). Some defense seem to come in waves. Boston's never lets up. Playoff series provide ample time for game-planning and adjustments, and the Celtics will be ready for Strus.
Against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, Boston did a masterful job of not only showing Giannis Antetokounmpo multiple bodies on almost every drive, and it scrambled to his kick-out options in a heartbeat. Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis, Wesley Matthews, Grayson Allen and George Hill all shot under 40 percent from the field against the Cs.
Strus will face Tatum, Brown, Marcus Smart and Derrick White at various times throughout the series, each of whom is probably a better perimeter defender than anyone Philadelphia sent his way.
Jayson Tatum's Superstar Turn Will Continue
A number of catch-all metrics from around the internet pegged Tatum as a top-five player this season. A sixth-place finish in MVP voting put him in the same range. In his fifth NBA season, everything came together for Tatum on both ends of the floor.
The No. 1 option scoring ability he established last season remained, while he also guarded like a Defensive Player of the Year contender. A wing leading the league in defensive win shares, which Tatum did, is exceptionally rare.
And all of that carried over to the postseason, where Tatum's playmaking seems to have gone up a notch, too (he's averaging 6.1 assists, neck and neck with Marcus Smart's 6.2 for the team lead).
Even in a series with Butler, there will be stretches in which Tatum is the best player on the floor. And this playoff run will continue to strengthen his case for "best wing in the NBA."
Derrick White Will Break Out on Offense
Boston's acquisition of Derrick White was undoubtedly a win. The Celtics' net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) was 5.6 points better with White on the floor, and that was due in large part to his defense.
Over his last 25 regular-season games, he shot just 29.8 percent from three. Meanwhile, after going 1-of-10 from the field and 1-of-6 from three in the closeout win over Milwaukee, White is down to 35.2 percent from the field and 24.3 from three in the playoffs.
Those don't reflect White's career, though. In four-plus seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, White shot 34.4 percent from deep (not great, but good enough to force defenses to pay attention to him outside). He also averaged 5.4 assists per 75 possessions.
After this extended slump with Boston, White is due for a breakout. And while Miami has one of the league's best team defenses, there are individual reserves (including Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, assuming he can get back into the rotation) that White can attack.
Luka Doncic Will Finish the Conference Finals as the All-Time Leading Scorer in the Playoffs
This one isn't all that bold. Luka Doncic is already neck and neck with Michael Jordan for the highest career postseason scoring average. After dropping 35 in a blowout over the Phoenix Suns in Game 7, Luka is up to 32.7. Jordan is at 33.5.
Barring a remarkable return from Gary Payton II, there's a good chance that the average for Doncic could climb. Golden State still has options to send his way, including Draymond Green, but GP was their best perimeter defender, and Luka appears to be keenly aware of the moment he's approaching.
Throughout history, the NBA has provided examples of superstars making deep postseason runs before we expected them to. Magic Johnson won the title as a rookie. Larry Bird pulled it off in his second season. LeBron James' first trip to the Finals came at the end of his age-22 season.
With Luka on the verge of a similar ascent, you can expect him to have some monster performances.
Spencer Dinwiddie Will Break Out
This may have already begun in Game 7 against Phoenix, but Spencer Dinwiddie is due to break out of a slump that's lasted most of the postseason. Prior to dropping 30 points on 11-of-15 shooting on Sunday, he had averaged 11.8 points while shooting 35.9 percent from the field.
Those numbers are a far cry from the production Dinwiddie brought to the Mavericks after he was traded to Dallas midseason. In 23 regular-season games after the deal, Dinwiddie averaged 15.8 points, 3.9 assists and 1.8 threes in 28.3 minutes while shooting 49.8 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from three.
The Mavericks were 18-5 when Dinwiddie was in the lineup, thanks to an ability to break down defenses as either a primary or secondary playmaker and hold down the fort against second units while Luka was out.
Against a second unit that includes offense-first Jordan Poole, he should be closer to that level of production he reached in the regular season.
Golden State Warriors
Game 6 Klay is Here to Stay
Through the first five games of Golden State's second-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, Klay Thompson averaged 16.2 points on 16.8 shots. He looked a step slow on defense and a little hurried on offense.
It was easy to wonder whether nearly 1,000 days away from the league had robbed us of the prime Klay that could completely take over a game with his lightning-quick release and relentless off-ball movement.
Then, the Warriors squared off with the Grizzlies for a Game 6, and the legend of Game 6 Klay grew. With a return trip to the conference finals on the line, Klay erupted for 30 points, including 11 on five shots in the first quarter.
By the end of the game, he was 11-of-22 from the field, and this prediction is banking on that performance being the confidence affirmer he needed.
Since 2015, Thompson has averaged 24.7 and 5.2 threes while shooting 54.0 percent from three in Game 6s. Against the Mavs, he'll be around that level all series.
Stephen Curry Will Return to Form from Three
Stephen Curry just finished his first regular season with at least 50 three-point attempts and a three-point percentage below 40. And this postseason, he's shooting just 35.9 percent from three.
With the volume of threes he gets up (11.7 per game in the regular season and 10.6 this postseason), that kind of efficiency would be fine for just about anyone else in the league. But with Curry, it just feels like something is off. Either that or an avalanche of threes is on the way.
Given his track record, we'll bet on the latter.
Despite his relative struggles from deep, Curry is shooting 41.9 percent from three in the fourth quarters of these playoffs. And if that's a result of rising to meet the pressure of those situations, the stakes of the conference finals could have a similar effect on him.
Boston Celtics at Golden State Warriors
Miami has homecourt advantage and quite possibly the best player in the series, but the Celtics have played like a juggernaut for months. With the number of options they have to throw at Butler and Tatum in the middle of his own superstar stretch, Boston should prevail.
From January 1 to the end of the regular season, the Celtics were plus-12.7 points per 100 possessions. And the distance between them and second place was about the same as the distance from second to ninth. In the playoffs, their net rating trails only, well, Miami's, but the Heat didn't have to face the defending champs.
Boston's dominant defense will slow down everyone but Butler in the conference finals, and should flip first and second on that net rating leaderboard.
On the other side of the bracket, underestimating the Mavericks seems foolish. this playoff run is starting to feel eerily similar to the 2011 run. Very few people gave Dallas a chance before its series against Phoenix, but a 33-point closeout win was reminiscent of Dirk Nowitzki and company destroying the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers 11 years ago.
Even without Payton, though, the Warriors are starting to show hints of the Lightyears-era dominance that helped them win three titles, especially when fellow veteran Otto Porter Jr. is on the floor with them.
Rookie Jonathan Kuminga started Games 4 and 5 against Memphis, but Porter replaced him for each of those second halves. And though sample is limited, the Warriors are plus-23.8 points per 100 possessions when Curry, Thompson, Green and Porter are all on the floor. And it feels like each of those top three guys can play a bit better than they've been overall this postseason.
Back under the bright lights of the conference finals, Golden State will rediscover its championship mettle.