Top News

From Bron, to Davis to Smart's outburst, what we've learned so far from the NBA's conference finals

Lakers’ LeBron James (right) celebrates with Anthony Davis after the big centre sank a three-point basket to beat the Nuggets in Game 2 of their series on Sunday.
Lakers’ LeBron James (right) celebrates with Anthony Davis after the big centre sank a three-point basket to beat the Nuggets in Game 2 of their series on Sunday.

With the NBA’s conference finals well underway, but off for a day, it’s time to take stock of some things we’ve learned so far from watching Boston vs. Miami and Los Angeles taking on Denver.

1. The league’s best 1-2 punch remains LeBron James and Anthony Davis: You don’t have to be Einstein to understand this one. James made the Lakers do whatever it took to acquire Davis from New Orleans before the season for a reason and it paid off with both players being named to the All-NBA first team. James and Davis were the first teammates to make the first team since Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire back in 2006-07.

And it isn’t just that they dominate the game individually on both ends of the floor, they also pair quite nicely. That hasn’t always been the case for James. Hall of Fame caliber teammates like Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving never meshed perfectly with him. They won it all, sure, but Wade and Irving liked to create for themselves as well as defer to the four-time MVP (and four-time MVP runner-up, including this season). Davis is capable of doing the same, but the big man seems to prefer to be set up by James, who led the NBA in assists for the first time, largely through letting the 27-year-old go to work.

2. Denver has no answers for Davis and needs to find some fast: Following up on that first point, Davis lights up every opponent, it’s just what he does, but he seems to take extra pride in piling up points against Nikola Jokic, one of his biggest competitors for best big man in the NBA status. Davis averaged north of 29 points a game on 54% shooting in four regular-season meetings with Denver, and he averaged 31.7 points against the Nuggets over the last three seasons. He was unguardable in the series opener, dropping 37 points on 12-for-21 shooting, then added 31, including the three-point winner at the buzzer in Game 2, helping Los Angeles take full control. He’s also had Jokic in foul trouble in both games and Denver is lost when its top player either can’t stay on the court or has to think too hard about not fouling.

What does Denver do now? They can double-team Davis, but that would allow James, merely one of the best players ever, more space to operate. He might prefer to pass, but he can still score 35 points himself pretty easily if that’s his mindset on any given night. Denver has proven it should never be counted out after rallying from two 3-1 series deficits, but this is a different challenge and it seems like it’s unsurmountable.

3. Denver’s top dogs need some help: Jamal Murray and Jokic are both stars, both offensive wizards. They play off each other beautifully, but they can’t do it all themselves against a team of Los Angeles’s caliber. Unfortunately, after finally showing some signs of life late in the last series, Gary Harris has been awful offensively again. He has shot 3-for-13 from the field, was benched in the two-point Game 2 loss and is a series-worst -28. Jerami Grant had a horrid opener before looking more lively on Sunday, but fellow starting big man Paul Millsap has mostly looked pretty old. Michael Porter Jr. Is not yet reliable, Torrey Craig has been quiet and Mason Plumlee fell asleep on the Davis game-winner. Somebody is going to need to provide assistance. Porter Jr. or Monte Morris are probably the best bets.

4. Gordon Hayward might swing the other series: Hayward isn’t quite an all-star, but he’s a solid starter on pretty much any team in the NBA. Even though his jumper was AWOL, Hayward provided a major spark in his return to action in Game 3, Boston’s lone win of the series so far. Hayward is another outside threat (even if he’s rusty right now) to throw at Miami’s tough zone defences, but he also gives Boston yet another creator who can get his own shot in man-to-man situations. Miami is a spectacular defensive group, capable of covering tons of ground, but if Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Hayward are all on the floor at the same time that’s four players who can each get buckets in a variety of ways, with a wild card like Marcus Smart or Daniel Theis also likely out there with them. Even Miami will be hard-pressed to stop all of those Celtics. Plus it means Brad Stevens doesn’t have to lean on his weaker players off the bench to plug those minutes Hayward is now filling. Boston could easily be up 2-1, instead of the other way around (the opening game’s zany finish was as unusual as we’ve seen in a long time) and the series remains wide open.

5. Emotion matters: Of course talent is the great differentiator at this stage of the season, but don’t discount the boost having proud, energetic, outspoken and driven players can also have. We saw it with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo when they were simply out-willing the Celtics earlier in the series. That emotion needs to be channeled, or else it can sink a squad, but in big moments it can play a huge role. Butler and Adebayo showed that with their huge defensive stops.

Boston’s Marcus Smart got into it loudly with Brown after the disappointing Game 2 loss. But instead of a negative, it provided a needed spark. Smart’s the emotional leader of the team and the Celtics are used to the way he operates. Instead of folding or falling apart, “the way I responded and my teammates responded, it shows we’re as close as ever,” Smart told reporters on Monday. “Before you see a rainbow, you need to first have a storm,” he also said, sounding a bit like Charles Oakley. Smart was one of the best players on the floor in Game 3, backing up his words. He held Goran Dragic in check for the first time in the three meetings and scored 20 points. Meanwhile, Brown was virtually unstoppable. There was a lot of fight and the Heat now has a lot to think about ahead of Wednesday’s crucial fourth game.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories