As the playoffs continue, two teams are solidifying themselves as the favorites to win their established conferences.
The Miami Heat have eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks from the playoffs, beating them 4-1 in a best of seven series, making them the first team to enter the Eastern Conference Finals. This is the team’s first time reaching the Conference Final since 2014. Yet, they are the only team to advance so far.
With seven remaining teams in the playoffs, there are still a lot of questions as to who will make the Finals in October. The favorites at the beginning of the playoffs were the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Bucks at the beginning of the season. Out of those three, only the two Los Angeles squads remain.
This is the first time that the Western Conference is up for grabs since 2014, as the Golden State Warriors dynasty collapsed thanks to the loss of Kevin Durant during the offseason and Klay Thompson along with Stephen Curry due to injury. This previous dynasty had made it to the Finals since 2015 and won three championships during that span. Now, the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, and Rockets are still fighting for that spot, with the Lakers and Clippers both leading their series and potentially leading to an all L.A. Conference Finals matchup.
The Eastern Conference has been up for grabs ever since LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Lakers in 2018. James dominated the East following the 2010-11 season, the first year his team made the Finals. LeBron responded by making the Finals eight straight years with the Heat and the Cavs. However, after the Raptors made the Final last season, they have a chance to meet the Heat in the Conference Final as they will battle the Boston Celtics in a Game 7 matchup on Friday.
With that being said, here are my predictions on who will be advancing to the Final from each conference.
Western Conference: Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have been favorites to win the West before the season even started, and they have not disappointed since. James and his new partner Anthony Davis have seemed like a formidable duo from the beginning with their chemistry ceasing to fall apart, even through an intense pandemic. The Lakers proved that they play well on both ends of the court, leading the league in blocks per game and field goal percentage during the regular season.
Inside the bubble, however, the Lakers held a 3-5 record before the postseason. A big reason for this was the loss of Avery Bradley, one of their starting guards. In those eight games, they were missing a lot of Bradley’s perimeter defense and solid three-point shooting. These weaknesses carried on into Game 1 against the Portland Trail Blazers in their first-round matchup. The Lakers shot 15.6 percent from three-point land while allowing the Trail Blazers to connect on close to 40 percent of their three-point shots. Yet following that first contest, the Lakers were able to convert over 33 percent of their three-pointers throughout the remainder of the series.
The Lakers have impressed since that first postseason loss, and they are currently up in their series against the Houston Rockets 2-1. Game 1 was a struggle for the Lakers, as the Rockets played phenomenal perimeter defense, allowing the Lakers to shoot 11-38 from behind the arc.
Yet the Lakers would bounce back in Game 2 despite allowing the Rockets to connect on 22 three-point shots. Luckily they were able to take advantage of Davis’ ability to attack the basket, as he scored 34 points in 36 minutes played. It also helped that Russell Westbrook went 4-15 from the field. Their defense was yet again impressive in Game 3, as they shut down both Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker, who have been playing well throughout this series.
Nevertheless, the Lakers have used the backbone of Davis and James well so far these playoffs. Both of them are shooting over 50% in field goal range and over 40% in three-point range. Both of them have been shooting very efficiently and have shown no rust in the playoffs after missing the postseason the previous year. If both these players keep shooting well and taking over games, I see no problem with the Lakers heading to the Finals and winning the championship. With the Laker’s solid interior defense and their efficient shot-making, they look like a winning team and so far it has overshadowed their bad perimeter defense and mediocre free-throw shooting.
Eastern Conference: Miami Heat
The Heat have been a well-underestimated team, to say the least. Many predictions suggested that the Heat were an above-average team, but had little chance of making a real push in the playoffs. Analysts questioned newcomer Jimmy Butler’s leadership skills, as his relationship with his past teammates were regularly deemed unfriendly. Nevertheless, the Heat were able to finish with the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. Led by Butler, Goran Dragic, and Bam Adebayo, Miami had the second-best three-point efficiency rating and were ranked top five in team assists across the league.
The Heat were able to go 3-5 in the bubble while facing no real jeopardy of losing their playoff spot. Yet they surprised everyone by sweeping the Indiana Pacers, with Dragic leading the way in scoring and Adebayo leading the teams in rebounds. They were able to outplay the Pacers on both ends of the floor and lead the way offensively most of the series.
They were able to slow down the Pacer’s TJ Warren, who was going ballistic during the bubble, averaging 31 points per game while shooting 58 percent from the field. He seemed unstoppable, and there were questions on if Warren could continue to produce against the Heat. While Warren still had a good overall series, the Heat were able to stop him from performing at his best.
Miami t went against the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round. Many people believed that the Bucks were going to beat them, as they were the favorites to win the Eastern Conference, allowing everyone to underestimate the Heat.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks recently beat the Orlando Magic 4-1, with Antetokounmpo having a fantastic outing averaging 30.6 ppg and 16 rpg. He seemed unstoppable, and many people expected Giannis to have an MVP level performance against the Heat. However, the defensive player of the year down, limiting his effectiveness on the court. He only produced 21.8 ppg, leaving space for Khris Middleton to step up. Yet a solid outing from Middleton failed to help his fight their way back into the series.
The Heat have been the best playoff team going 8-1 in the playoffs and the only threats left are the Celtics and the Raptors, who will be playing in a Game 7 tomorrow. If they can keep scoring efficiently from behind the arc and slow down star players, while also maintaining solid bench play, they will be the best team in the East and could potentially be a dominant team once the Finals approach.