With the Boston Celtics’ dramatic game 7 victory over upstart 8-seed Philadelphia on Saturday, the stage is set for both conference finals series in the NBA playoffs.
In the East, Boston will face off against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and the Miami Heat in a rematch of last season’s Eastern semifinals, a series that Miami took 4-1 after Boston point guard Rajon Rondo dislocated his elbow. The Heat easily dispatched the New York Knicks in round one, and then faced an up-and-coming Indiana Pacers team in a round two series characterized by hard fouls, chippy play, and multiple suspensions. The Heat won in six (after struggling early and going down 2-1), but they remain without their third star, power forward Chris Bosh, out indefinitely with an abdominal strain. James and Wade will have to take on an even larger scoring burden than usual.
The Celtics, meanwhile, are in the midst of another improbably postseason run, sustained largely by the transcendent play of Rondo and the 33-year-old Kevin Garnett. The Cs are contending with a bevy of injuries of their own, with two of the members of their hall-of-fame Big Three hobbled by injuries—Paul Pierce is playing with a sprained MCL, and Ray Allen is battling bone spurs in his ankles. The Celtics also lost starting 2-guard Avery Bradley, a second-year guard who emerged this year as one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, to season-ending shoulder surgery during the Philadelphia series. Bradley’s absence leaves their bench woefully thin, and means their options for checking Wade start with the near-crippled Allen and end with offensive nonentity Mickael Pietrus.
Miami has the upper hand in this series, but if Boston can slow James or Wade down they have a chance, albeit a slim one. The x-factor is Rondo-he had a triple-double and destroyed the 76ers down the stretch of game 7, and point guard is one position the Heat have trouble containing.
Out West, the conference finals matches up two franchises that are models of success: the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. The Spurs, led by a rejuvenated Tim Duncan and a playing-out-of-his-mind Tony Parker, have been the best team in the league for half the season and have yet to lose in the playoffs. The Thunder have been nearly as good, sweeping the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and only dropping one game in the second round to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Neither team has really been tested yet these playoffs, but the Spurs have won eight of the last ten meetings between the two teams, and have the clear advantage of experience, coaching, and a remarkably adaptable offensive system that sniffs out opponents weaknesses and attacks them relentlessly. Still, the Thunder have three young stars in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden who are capable of exploding at any time, and the team with the second-best record in the league can’t be counted out just yet. The matchup to watch will be Parker versus Westbrook, which has gone decidedly in the Spurs’ favor this season.
There are lots of compelling storylines in play for the Finals: a potential meeting between Durant and James, who are often held up in contrast to each other (Durant the choirboy, James the villain); the possibility of James, the best player in the world for about 5 years now, finally breaking through and winning a title, potentially in a rematch with the Spurs, who eviscerated his Cavaliers the one time he made the Finals with Cleveland; a contest between two proud, aging teams in Boston and San Antonio, and two of the greatest power forwards of all time in Duncan and Garnett (not to mention Duncan’s personal animosity, brought about by Garnett’s history of baiting and “weird trash talk,” according to a rare interview with Sports Illustrated).
The playoffs have had relatively little drama so far, outside of the bevy of injuries in the Eastern Conference—but with luck, that’s about to change.