Basketball

Top 5 NBA Finals Contenders

|
Image for Top 5 NBA Finals Contenders

The first round of the NBA playoffs is well underway, and the clear contenders are emerging from the pack. The preseason favorites in both the Eastern Conference and Western Conference have officially been eliminated, as the Los Angeles Lakers missed the playoffs and the Brooklyn Nets were swept out of the first round by the Boston Celtics.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

It’s hard to put the defending champions so low on this list, but an injury to Khris Middleton hurts their chances to repeat as champions. They knocked off the Chicago Bulls in 5, but the Boston Celtics await them in the 2nd round. Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing like his MVP self, but Middleton and Jrue Holiday have struggled. They’re getting solid performances from the supporting cast, especially Grayson Allen, who had 22 points in Game 3 and 27 in Game 4.

The Bucks surely have the talent to win another NBA title, but they don’t look as strong as last season heading into the 2nd round. Khris Middleton’s MCL injury may knock him out of the second round against Boston, so Giannis Antetokounmpo will need to put on a show in order to will them to the Conference Finals. Their matchup, as well as Middleton’s injury, make it look tough for them to even get out of the second round.

4. Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker suffered a hamstring injury in Game 2 which will hold him out for 2-3 weeks, but the Suns are still finals contenders. They won’t win it without him, but they won’t need to. As long as they can get through the young, tough New Orleans Pelicans, Booker should be ready to go by Game 3 or 4 of their second-round series. However, getting through the Brandon Ingram-led Pelicans will be a tall task. Chris Paul took over Game 3 and led the Suns to a 114-111 victory with 28 points (19 in the 4Q) and 14 assists. But Jose Alvarado locked up CP3 in Game 4, holding the future Hall of Famer to just 4 points. They took a 3-2 lead behind a 30-piece from Mikal Bridges, but they have a chance to close it out as the series shifts back to New Orleans for Game 6.

If the Suns get through the Pelicans, they’ll host the winner of the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz series, in which Dallas holds a 3-2 lead. The Suns have made it work without Devin Booker in the regular season, going 8-6 without their All-Star shooting guard. However, beating Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson, and the Mavericks will be tough. During the regular season, Booker averaged 26.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game. Replacing that level of production will be nearly impossible, and if they are going to make another run to the finals, Booker will need to be back.

3. Miami Heat

A lot of fans seem to be low on the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference, even though they’ve proved it in the playoffs in the past. Yes, getting swept out of the first round last year was disappointing, but the Milwaukee Bucks went on to win the NBA Finals. This year, they took down Trae Young and Atlanta Hawks in 5 games. The Heat found a way to neutralize Young, who averaged just 15.4 PPG and 6.0 APG on abysmal 29/17/64 shooting splits in the five-game series. Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry missed Game 5 with injuries, but Victor Oladipo stepped up and delivered, sending the Hawks home and the Heat to the second round.

The Heat’s best quality is their depth. They bring Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Gabe Vincent off their bench. Oladipo, who led the team with 23 points in their series-clinching Game 5 win, didn’t even see the floor in the first three games of the series. Jimmy Butler has been arguably the best player in the playoffs, averaging 30.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG, and 5.3 APG in the first four games of the series, including a 45-point performance in their Game 2 win.

On top of their depth, this team has boatloads of experience. Four of their five starters have played in the NBA Finals and they bring another two guys who played in the finals off their bench. They made the finals with a similar roster just two years ago, but they lost in the Finals to LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Heat have a great chance to return to the finals, but they’ll first have to get through Joel Embiid, James Harden, and the Philadelphia 76ers.

2. Golden State Warriors

To almost no one’s surprise, the Warriors are back. Klay Thompson is playing in the playoffs for the first time since Game 6 of the 2019 Finals when he went down with a torn ACL. It took him a little bit of time to get acclimated, but he’s been lights out in the playoffs. He’s averaging 22.6 PPG while shooting 50.5% from the field and 45.8% from three on 9.6 attempts per game.

The unexpected breakout from Jordan Poole and the All-Star campaign from Andrew Wiggins have made this team even more dangerous than they were anticipated to be. Poole rose to the occasion when Stephen Curry missed the last month of the regular season, and it carried over to the playoffs. In the first round, Poole averaged 21.0 PPG and 5.4 APG while shooting 54.8% from the field and 48.4% from three.

Poole has been good enough that the Warriors haven’t even had to start their best player, two-time MVP Stephen Curry. In four games off the bench, Curry has averaged 27.5 PPG and 5.5 APG while shooting 51.4% from the field and 38.9% from three. In Game 5, Curry returned to the starting lineup alongside Poole and Thompson and dropped a team-high 30 points. Between those three guards, the Warriors are getting 71.6 PPG on 44.4% shooting from three-point range.

Rounding out their new “death lineup” is Draymond Green, who is averaging 9.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, and 7.8 APG so far in the playoffs. Green plays the most unique style of basketball in the entire league and might be the most important piece of the Warriors’ success. Golden State’s road to the finals includes the winner of the Grizzlies-Timberwolves series, and a matchup between Ja Morant and Stephen Curry may be in the cards.

1. Boston Celtics

Although they’re not the betting favorite, the Boston Celtics are the best team in basketball. They just easily knocked off Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the Brooklyn Nets in a four-game sweep. In Coach Ime Udoka’s first season at the helm, the Celtics have put together the 2nd best defense in basketball behind the Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart. It’s not just Smart though. Jayson Tatum locked up Kevin Durant in the first round, holding him to just 3-18 shooting and 12 turnovers per NBA’s player tracking data.

The Celtics are young, but they’re also experienced. Tatum, although just 24 years old, already has 54 games of playoff experience to his name. In the first round this year, he averaged 29.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, and 7.3 APG while shooting 45.6% from the field and 41.9% from three. Alongside Tatum, Jaylen Brown averaged 22.5 PPG and 5.3 RPG and Al Horford stepped up, averaging 13.0 PPG and 7.5 RPG. Marcus Smart has taken on an increased offensive role in the playoffs, putting up 16.5 PPG and 7.0 APG in the first round.

While they have the star power of Tatum and Brown, they also have a ton of depth. Robert Williams III returned in Game 3 of the first round, but came off the bench and played just 16 minutes. He was a starter all season long, and he’ll likely return to that role as the Celtics enter the 2nd round. Derrick White was acquired at the trade deadline and averaged 11.0 PPG in his 26 regular-season games in Boston. Their 2020 first-round pick, Payton Pritchard, brings elite three-point shooting to the table.

The Celtics are the hottest team in the league. They went 33-10 in their final 43 games after losing to the Knicks on January 6th. They have looked like the best team in the playoffs and the best team in the second half of the regular season. The Celtics were easily able to lock down Kevin Durant, so we’ll see how they adjust to Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second round.

Main image credit: