All four teams are still afloat in the NBA’s conference finals — and things just keep getting spicier.
The Boston Celtics kept their season going by beating the Miami Heat in Friday’s Game 5 121-108. The Denver Nuggets, meanwhile, are hoping to make yet another improbable comeback from a 3-1 series deficit, this time against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers.
Ahead of Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Saturday (9 p.m., TNT/ESPN Radio), our experts take a look at what to believe in these series. From Anthony Davis‘ starring role in the Lakers’ push to make the Finals for the first time in a decade to the Celtics and Heat perhaps giving us a glimpse of the future of the East, we’re sorting out what’s real or not.
Real or Not: Anthony Davis is the very early favorite for Finals MVP
James has worked all season to set up his new star teammate as the team’s primary scorer, but he remains the captain of the ship. James led the Lakers in both offensive and defensive real plus minus (RPM) this season, and ranked second in the NBA in overall RPM. Add in that this would be the Finals — assuming Denver doesn’t recover from a 3-1 series deficit yet again — and James has been living for this moment since signing with the Lakers two summers ago.
The Finals are where James can best add to his historic résumé. He has the chance to become the first player to win Finals MVP with three different franchises, to secure his place among the legends who have led Los Angeles to the top, and to deliver an NBA record-tying 17th Lakers championship — in the same year that Kobe Bryant died.
In addition — again, if the Lakers advance and happen to face the Heat — Davis probably would be matched up with Adebayo, who has the length, strength and quickness to defend Davis at a level that he has not encountered this postseason. Adebayo was a huge factor in limiting league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Heat’s matchup with the Bucks, and ranks 11th in the NBA in DRPM.
Davis excels at driving to the rim, averaging 1.151 points per direct drive to rank fourth in the NBA among players with at least 150 direct drives, according to Second Spectrum. Meanwhile, Adebayo gives up only 0.828 points per direct drive, ranking seventh in the NBA among players who have defended at least 150 direct drives.
So Adebayo is elite at preventing Davis’ preferred scoring avenue. That would seemingly make him poised to limit the star big man in a potential Finals matchup.
— Andre Snellings
Real or Not: The Heat are this season’s team of destiny
In a normal world, are the Heat as dominant as they’ve been through most of this postseason? Maybe not. But we aren’t in a normal world — and this particular Heat group is not a normal team. Friday’s result notwithstanding, Miami is still one win from the Finals with three rounds of momentum.
As Miami lifer Udonis Haslem said a few weeks back, the Heat are “built for the bubble.” The players trust one another on the floor and they are mentally tough enough as a group to handle seemingly any obstacle. There is balance throughout the roster and a belief that everyone will do their jobs.
The confidence within this group isn’t new, either. They’ve been talking as if they could win a championship all season. The Heat knew long before the rest of the basketball world just how special Tyler Herro could be and how dangerous Duncan Robinson is from deep. They recognized that Adebayo was developing into one of the best big men in the game. They trusted that veterans Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala could fit into their hard-nosed culture.
Most importantly, they figured their organizational structure — and the bubble environment — would bring out the best in Jimmy Butler. They showed confidence in acquiring him last summer after issues in his previous stops, and that faith has been rewarded in the postseason.
The doubters will surely reemerge after the Heat blew a 12-point lead Friday to keep the Eastern Conference finals going. But every time Butler and the Heat have been doubted this season — and especially in the bubble — they have gotten the last laugh.
Why should anybody believe it’s going to stop now?
— Nick Friedell
Real or Not: Jamal Murray will be a 2021 All-Star
Jamal Murray has burst into the national consciousness by leading Denver to the Western Conference finals, and one could argue that he has evolved from a top starter to a franchise-level guard between when the season was postponed in mid-March and now.
But when looking at the 2021 All-Star selection process, we need to take a big-picture approach and not just look at what Murray has accomplished during the 2020 playoffs (26.9 points per game, 51% shooting from the field and 46.6% from 3).
There are two questions around why Murray could fall short of making his first All-Star appearance next year.
The first is, what version of Murray are we going to see in 2021? The player who averaged 18.5 points on 34.6% from 3 during the 2019-20 regular season or the fearless star from the 2020 playoffs? Can he play at an All-Star level on a consistent basis?
The more important question about Murray’s All-Star candidacy surrounds the heavy pool of excellent guards in the Western Conference.
Murray finished 23rd among backcourt players in 2020 All-Star West fan voting, earning just under 140,000 votes. The top two guards in the conference — Luka Doncic and James Harden — received more than 3.5 million votes (Doncic totaled 6.1 million). Even if Murray continues his torrid play next season, it’s unlikely that he will get voted in.
And if you thought getting voted in would be tough, take a look at the guards he probably will be competing with for one of the four reserve spots: Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson, Ja Morant, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Devin Booker. If Curry returns to MVP form and Lillard is playing at an All-NBA level, there are only two spots left.
The Nuggets’ success during the 2021 season could play a role here, though. If Denver is in the top five of the Western Conference at the deadline to submit All-Star reserves, Murray could get the benefit of the doubt from the coaches even if his statistics are less stellar than players such as Booker and Gilgeous-Alexander.
— Bobby Marks
Real or Not: Celtics-Heat will be the Eastern Conference finals matchup again next season
I’m not bold enough to predict which of the Eastern Conference finalists won’t make it back to this stage next season. Boston and Miami certainly both have the foundations in place to make it a possibility, with the Celtics’ core of quality vets to complement arguably the league’s best under-23 tandem and the Heat’s crop of rapidly developing young stars who thrive under Butler’s brand of leadership.
But the odds are against a conference finals rematch, simply because there’s too much competition. I’d roll the dice on one of the East’s other three contenders — the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets — eliminating either the Celtics or Heat.
The Bucks might be the NBA’s most fascinating team over the next year, as they attempt to get over the hump and probably deal with the looming cloud of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2021 free agency. It’s on ownership and the front office to make the roster upgrades to maximize the chances of a title run that would guarantee he stays in Milwaukee. It’s on Antetokounmpo — still only 25 — to develop the diversity in his offensive game required to be the go-to guy on a championship team.
The Raptors proved this season that they weren’t a one-hit wonder doomed by Kawhi Leonard‘s departure. Pascal Siakam had a miserable second round against the Celtics, but I’d bet on him using that as fuel to bounce back strong, considering his track record of developing from a raw project to an All-NBA selection in four seasons.
It remains to be seen how close Kevin Durant will be to the pre-Achilles’ tear version of himself — when he had a strong case as the league’s best player — and whether Kyrie Irving can stay healthy. But you can’t count out a Brooklyn team that boasts two players who have hit title-claiming daggers.
Which one of these teams will prevent a Boston-Miami rematch? It’s premature to make that prediction.
But three is more than two.
— Tim MacMahon