Which of the remaining Eastern Conference teams will advance to the NBA Finals, Jayson Tatum’s Boston Celtics or Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat? Who is the remaining Western Conference team to advance, Nikola Jokić’s Denver Nuggets or LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers?
We spoke to some experts to find out.
We asked a scout, a coach and a team executive to predict the outcome of the Eastern Conference finals between the Celtics and the Heat and the Western Conference finals between the Nuggets and the Lakers. We grant our experts anonymity because they are not authorized by their employers to discuss other franchises publicly. Anonymity also allows them to be completely candid.
(Editor’s note: Their reviews have been lightly edited for brevity, clarity and grammar.)
No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 8 Miami Heat
Scout’s View: “I chose Boston. They’re just better. They have home court. They are deeper. Both teams are very good series wins, I think Boston in particular, the way they win Game 6 and Game 7. Their defense is very good. I think Miami has a real problem scoring.
“The Heat are Jimmy Butler-reliant. And they have a boy. I don’t think Bam (Adebayo) is a man. I don’t think other men are men. And Boston has guys who can cover him, not stop him. But you can put (Marcus) Smart on him. Maybe you put (Jayson) Tatum on him. You could put (Malcolm) Brogdon on him, maybe. Grant Williams.
“Miami has had a weird year. They didn’t shoot the 3’s very well on the year and they shot it very well in the last series. Will they regress to the mean? Their matchups will be a problem as well.
“Boston, will they (Robert) Williams grow again? Or will they start with (Derrick) White? If they start White, who will Kevin Love guard? So it will be interesting to see if Boston is smaller. You have matchup issues in Love.
“Boston has a better bank. They have two stars against a superstar. I think if Miami wins two games it will be a success.
The coach’s view: “There’s going to be competitiveness and physicality. There’s going to be all kinds of coverages and schemes and tactics. I think it’s going to be a tough seven-game series, and I think Boston is going to come out on top. I just think they’re more experienced (together). I think they have a little bit more in terms of scoring. But it’s just hard to count Miami out.
“The Heat are terrible. They’re scum. You’ve got to beat Miami. (They don’t beat themselves.) They run their sets. They execute, make or miss. They don’t blow sets. They don’t turn the ball over by a ton, and for the most part, they controlled the tempo and the flow of the game. I think that helped them in the Milwaukee series. I think that helped them in the New York series as well.
“I know everybody talks about physicality, right? If you look at the Miami defense, they have a lot of guys who can defend physically: Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, Gabe Vincent and, of course, Jimmy Butler . You have many men who are not afraid to put their body on you. It comes down to some things: maybe some shot making. It might come down to changes, in different lines, small or big, put up a shooting line. I don’t know what the two coaches are up to. But if this Eastern Conference finals is anything like what we saw in the first round or the second round, we’re going to be looking at a incredible series. But I got Boston out of the Eastern Conference finals.
“Jayson Tatum? ‘Humble,’ he said, ‘I’m one of the best basketball players in the world.’ Well, (I think) you’re probably the best, kid. Your time will surely come. To put on a performance like that in a Game 7, that’s unbelievable. The stakes are higher. There is more pressure. The consequences are greater. And you dropped 51 points in Game 7? Unbelievable. And the kid is only 25 years old. Oh, my God.”
Executive View: “For me, with the (Heat) dream playoff run, you wake up at some point from your dream. I don’t know how Miami works, to be honest with you. But they just keep doing it. And I just think at some point it’s going to stop, the magical playoff run. And I think Boston is good enough to end it.
“I would have said Philly or Boston over Miami, just for the reasons I said. So of course it’s a nice pick-me-up for Boston to play like that (in Game 7) and get their confidence back and start feeling good about themselves going into this series. But I think both teams are better – Philly or Boston. In this case, Boston is better. Six games I’d say. I think think it won’t come seven.”
Scout’s Choice: Celtics by six
Coach picks: Celtics in seven
Executive Selection: Celtics by six
Unanimous choice: Celtics
No. 1 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers
Scout’s View: “Things on the home court are probably better than most places. Denver got the best player. I mean, you can argue with LeBron right now. But Jokić is the best player in this series. Denver has the better starting team.I would probably give the Lakers a slight edge, especially with their playoff performances.
“(Rui) Hachimura is good. (Dennis) Schröder came in the last series. Hachimura is a big factor. Can he maintain that level? Shooting 50 percent from 3, his numbers were far less than people expected.
“The thing about Denver is they’re not there yet. KCP (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) was there, but otherwise, nobody else got a ring, I think, on their team.
“But Anthony Davis has to be consistent throughout. I’m not sure he can be. He’s played all the games, but he’s very good. And he has to be good for them to win.
“How many great games have the Lakers played together? I’m not sure if that matters, but Denver has been together all year. I saw them in February and even then they were one of the most cohesive teams I’ve ever seen. That has a lot to do with Jokić and also that they have been playing together for a little while now. You can’t say the same about the Lakers. So I think the continuity factor may play a role.
“My question about Denver is if the opportunity is too big.”
The coach’s view: “The way the Lakers are playing now, they are really playing unbelievable basketball. Everyone saw after the trade deadline the pieces they brought in where you can do a lot of things. You can put ‘Bron on the ball; you can put ‘Bron on the ball. You can put D’Angelo Russell on the ball; you can put DLo on the ball. And you can play through Anthony Davis. They have a ton of offense right now. Their defense is better. They have the perimeter speed of (Dennis) Schröder. Even Austin Reaves, he’s a solid defender; he’s better than a lot of people give him credit for. (Jarred) Vanderbilt does a good job with his height. I think Vanderbilt’s defense of Jamal Murray will be critical. That’s not the only (Vanderbilt) matchup. I think they’re going to throw some different guys at (Murray), some different schemes and coverage on him. But I really believe that the Lakers will win a game on the road, like they did in the first two series. …
“With the Lakers, how did you protect Nikola Jokić? The last time these two teams played in the Western Conference finals on the bubble, I thought the Lakers had the luxury of depth in their bigs. The Lakers have JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard and Anthony Davis, and McGee and Howard beat Jokić. From a physical standpoint, they go in there and they get fouls. They don’t care. They beat him every time. The Lakers no longer have that physicality. So what schemes and coverages would you do differently for Nikola Jokić, because I just don’t believe that Anthony Davis is the end-all, be-all with him. So I’m really excited to see what they do for Jokić; I mean, he’s hard to cover. You can never trap him on the block — he will make you pay for every type of pass known to man. So you play him straight? Do you double him on the perimeter? …
“It’s going to be a tough series. Denver has plenty of defenders they can throw at LeBron, starting with Aaron Gordon. I’m almost certain he’ll start LeBron, but you can throw him Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. They’ve got a number of guys they can throw at LeBron, so if one guy is down and he’s tired from the way ‘Bron is trying to score or play hard, you can throw another guy. him and you will continue to rotate the bodies. and keep them fresh where they really do ‘Bron work to score.
Executive View: “I say Denver will (win), for three reasons. Home-court advantage. They are great at home. Two, I just think that in the Anthony Davis-(Nikola) Jokić matchup Davis will wear him down. Jokić will weaken AD. And then the three, I’m just wondering: I know LeBron (James) is unbeatable, but at a certain point did he get a little weak? Especially if this series is extended longer? I mean, I know he’s Superman, but at some point he has to give up.
“Denver has more talent in the backcourt with (Jamal Murray). I like the two guards from the Lakers — both of them (D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves) are good, and (Dennis) Schröder, too. I mean, they’ve got some great depth there now. But I think Murray is a superior player, a superior talent.
“(If you asked me to compare this matchup to these teams’ Western Conference finals matchup in 2020, I would say) the 2020 matchup is a bubble matchup. Being in a bubble, I don’t know what that is. true, to some extent. I mean, the games are played, the players are playing and the competition is happening. But I don’t know. I think it’s a lot different now with travel and the whole time now. You think about the shortened season. I don’t know if it’s even comparable. Seven games, just because you gave LeBron what he deserved.”
Scout’s Choice: Nuggets at six
Coach picks: Lakers in six
Executive Selection: Nuggets in seven
Multiple choice: Nuggets
(Photo of Nikola Jokić and LeBron James: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)