Biggest 2022 NBA Conference Finals X-Factors

Greg Swartz@@GregSwartzBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterMay 17, 2022

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) drives to the basket against Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins during an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

We're finally down to the NBA's Final Four.

With the Boston Celtics defeating the Milwaukee Bucks and the Dallas Mavericks shocking the world with a 33-point win over the Suns in Phoenix, both have moved on to the conference finals.

Here's how the final two matchups stand:

  • Eastern Conference Finals: (2) Boston Celtics vs. (1) Miami Heat
  • Western Conference Finals: (4) Dallas Mavericks vs. (3) Golden State Warriors

While much of the attention will be paid to superstars such as Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler and others, there are a number of X-factors who can swing a series as well.

Here's what to watch for in both series, including role players, lineups, injuries and defensive strategies that could make the difference between going to the NBA Finals or going home.


Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat X-Factors

Grant Williams

BOSTON, MA - MAY 15: Grant Williams #12 of the Boston Celtics celebrates during Game 7 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals on May 15, 2022 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusets. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Filling in as a starter for the injured Robert Williams III during the final four contests of the Milwaukee Bucks series, Grant Williams exploded for a game-high 27 points in Game 7 after totaling just 11 in his other three starts.

The 27 points were a career high, regular or postseason, and were a total we likely won't see again. That doesn't mean Williams can't swing another game in this series, however, as even his presence as an outside shooting threat can do wonders for Boston's offense.

Putting Williams and Al Horford on the floor together means making Bam Adebayo leave the paint and help open up driving lanes for Tatum, Jaylen Brown and others.

On nights when Tatum's shot isn't falling, having a kick-out option like Williams (who shot 41.1 percent from three this season) could save the Celtics.


Battle of the Three-Point Line

The Heat were the NBA's best three-point shooting team during the regular season at 37.9 percent.

The Celtics owned the NBA's best three-point defense, holding opponents to 33.7 percent.

Something's gotta give.

Between Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Brown, Tatum and others, Boston makes it incredibly difficult to get up quality outside looks. Despite ranking first in three-point efficiency during the regular season, Miami shot just 32.8 percent in three games versus the Celtics.

While the Celtics ranked near the middle of the pack in outside success this year, good three-point shooting has been a staple of Boston's wins this postseason, including a 22-of-55 performance (40.0) percent in a Game 7 win over the Bucks. The Celtics also suffocated the Bucks at their line, with Milwaukee making just four of their 33 attempts (12.1 percent)


Status of Kyle Lowry and Robert Williams III

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 06: Kyle Lowry #7 of the Miami Heat dribbles the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers during Game Three of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals at the Wells Fargo Center on May 6, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Th
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Both teams could be missing key starters for parts, or all, of this series.

Lowry, Miami's starting point guard, has already been sidelined for six of the Heat's 11 postseason games because of a left hamstring injury suffered against the Atlanta Hawks in Round 1. Even when he briefly returned against the Philadelphia 76ers, he managed just six total points on 3-of-14 shooting in Games 3 and 4. Now, the 36-year-old has already been ruled out for Game 1 with his hamstring injury.

The Heat would be better off resting Lowry than playing a hobbled version of the six-time All-Star, as even a five-man lineup of Gabe Vincent, Butler, Adebayo, Max Strus and P.J. Tucker has registered a sparkling net rating of plus-39.5 in 70 total minutes this postseason.

Williams is one of the NBA's best defensive centers who is dealing with left knee soreness that's caused him to miss Boston's last four games. While he was deemed available to play in Game 7 versus the Bucks, he wasn't needed as the Celtics cruised to a victory. His ability to manage the pain will determine how much he can play against Miami.


Dallas Mavericks vs. Golden State Warriors X-Factors

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MAY 15: Spencer Dinwiddie #26 of the Dallas Mavericks reacts during the first half against the Phoenix Suns in Game Seven of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals at Footprint Center on May 15, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. NO
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Spencer Dinwiddie

Dinwiddie has been the ultimate feast or famine player this postseason, scoring 17 or more points in five games while finishing in single digits five times as well. He dropped 30 off the bench in Game 7 against the Phoenix Suns after shooting 0-of-3 for his two points in Game 5.

During the regular season, Dinwiddie shot 45.2 percent overall in wins compared to just 36.2 percent in losses. When he's on, he looks like one of the NBA's best sixth men with his scoring and playmaking ability, giving the Mavs a much-needed third ball-handler. When he's off, he can kill a Dallas offense that's desperate for playmaking outside of Doncic and Jalen Brunson.

Besides the chance to play for a title, there's some extra financial incentive for Dinwiddie to ball out this round as well.

The 29-year-old just picked up $571,427 for reaching the conference finals, and he would earn another $400,000 should the Mavs reach the NBA Finals, per Spotrac.

In two games versus the Warriors this year, Dinwiddie has averaged 20.5 points and 6.0 assists while shooting 64.0 percent overall.


Warriors' Isolation Defense vs. Luka Doncic

While Golden State possesses an all-world defender in Draymond Green and has gotten strong defensive play with Andrew Wiggins this year as well, the Warriors haven't been great when trying to lock up isolation scorers like Doncic.

Golden State's iso defense is allowing 0.96 points per possession, a mark that ranked 27th among all teams during the regular season. Only James Harden registered more isolations than Doncic's 408 this year, with his 1.11 points per possession placing him in the 91st percentile overall.

Stopping Doncic one-on-one is a terrifying task, as his combination of footwork and shooting ability make his next move an impossible one to predict.

This will likely have to be a team effort on Golden State's part, as the Mavs may have the perfect weapon to exploit the weakness in the Warriors' otherwise stellar second-ranked defense this season.


Jordan Poole vs. Kevon Looney

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 06: Jordan Poole #3 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles around a screen set by Kevon Looney #5 on Bryn Forbes #7 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the first half of an NBA basketball game at Chase Center on April 06, 2021 i
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Steve Kerr has four starters (Curry, Klay Thompson, Wiggins and Green) chiseled in stone for every game. Finding the right fifth guy, however, has been a matter of trial and error.

On some nights it's been Poole, the star guard who's looked like the Warriors' best player at times. On others, it's been Looney, who's given Golden State a healthier dose of size, rebounding and defense. Rookie Jonathan Kuminga has also drawn three starts this postseason, although it was more matchup-based against a young, athletic Memphis Grizzlies team.

While Poole is the superior player, Looney has made the Warriors the better team when he's on the floor.

With Poole and the regular starting four, Golden State has a net rating of minus-0.8 in 32 minutes these playoffs. With Looney swapped in instead, this number jumps to plus-40.6.

Kerr has long been a mastermind of tinkering with his lineups, not being afraid to make significant changes whenever he feels it necessary. Whoever he tabs as his fifth starter this series (a role that could change from game to game) will undoubtedly be a huge X-factor, helping Curry, Thompson and Green shine in their roles.