Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Lakers and Celtics lead teams into conference finals against unlikely opponents
An unpredictable year has produced an unpredictable NBA’s version of the final four, well half of it anyway.
The pairing of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference and the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference, may provide an unpredictable finish.
The thought was all-star guard Jimmy Butler wanted to find a team that would allow him to play “his way.”
If that way is gritty, aggressive and with a selfless desire that’ll do anything to win? Then, it’s Pat Riley’s way too.
Butler, who had stints in Chicago and Minnesota, left Philadelphia last summer and found a new home with the Heat.
Since then, it has seemingly been a match made in heaven as he leads a team with seven players averaging double figures in points.
The emergence of center Bam Adebayo has been an added boost for Miami as he became a first-time all-star this year.
In his third season, Adebayo averaged a career high 15.9 points per game, 10.2 rebounds per game, 5.1 assists per game, 1.3 blocks per game and 1.1 steals per game.
He won the 2020 Skills Challenge and was named a finalist for the Most Improved Player award that went to the New Orleans Pelicans’ Brandon Ingram.
The Heat roster has another award finalist, this time Rookie of the Year.
Guard Kendrick Nunn finished second in Rookie of the Year voting standing out in a draft class with Zion Williamson, JA Morant and RJ Barrett.
Nunn averaged 15.3 ppg and 3.3 apg.
However, during the playoff run, the keys to the offense were handed to veteran guard Goran Dragic after Nunn struggled in the restart.
In addition, Miami has a rookie and second-year player who shoot the lights out in Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson.
Robinson admitted to suffering from “imposter syndrome” after a tumultuous journey to the NBA.
His head coach Erik Spoelstra admitted to suffering from the same thing during the Big 3 Era that resulted in four NBA Finals appearances and two titles.
Last year, he averaged 3.3 ppg on 29 percent from three-point range. This year, he averaged 13.5 ppg on 45 percent from three, good for fourth in the NBA.
According to Spoelstra, Herro has “earned the right to handle the ball” and as of late, he has earned the right to close games.
The rookie from Kentucky is averaging 13.5 pg in 27.4 minutes per game on 39 percent from beyond the arc.
When you add veterans to the mix like Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala, the Heat aren’t playing like a five seed.
The team swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round in a matchup that was supposed to produce a Jimmy Butler vs. TJ Warren main event.
The next round, Miami handed Milwaukee a gentleman's sweep in five games in a series so decisive no one batted an eye.
The Bucks were not only the best team in the East record-wise, they were the best team in basketball this year record-wise.
Having essentially swapped out Kyrie Irving for Kemba Walker, the Boston Celtics haven’t looked to have missed a beat.
Some may say they’ve gotten better citing Walker’s similar playing style as Irving but yielding better chemistry results.
Walker averaged 20.4 ppg and 4.8 apg in his first season in Boston.
The mold of the team has seemed to turn to Walker in fourth quarter, late game situations. As the season progressed, third-year player Jayson Tatum has helped shoulder that load.
With Walker, the Celtics have four players that can score 20-plus points on any given night with Walker, Tatum and forwards Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward.
The aforementioned Tatum led the Celtics in scoring with 23.4 ppg on 45 percent shooting from the floor.
Brown averaged 20.3 ppg on 48 percent from the field while Hayward poured in 17.5 ppg on 50 percent shooting.
Hayward suffered an ankle injury in game one of the Philadelphia series in the first round and has yet to return to action.
All things considered, the longest tenured Celtic is guard Marcus Smart, who has spent his entire six year career in Boston.
Smart was picked sixth in the 2014 NBA Draft just just ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers who selected Julius Randle with the No. 7 pick.
The team is being coached by a young coach by competitor standards in 43-year old Brad Stevens, who was the youngest coach in the league when the team hired him in 2013.
Stevens is coaching in his third conference finals, seeking his first NBA Finals appearance.
Boston secured a first round sweep over a Philadelphia 76er team without all-star Ben Simmons but fellow all-star Joel Embiid did average 30 ppg.
In the conference semifinals, the Celtics ousted the defending champion Toronto Raptors in a seven game series that saw Boston have the high-point man in every game.
Tatum led in four games, Brown led in two and Walker led in one.
Los Angeles Lakers
The evaluation year, trial period or whatever you want to call future Hall-of-Famer LeBron James’ first year in Los Angeles, it’s over.
In fact, it’s been over since the acquisition of former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis.
From that day forward, it has been a championship or bust mentality.
In his 17th season, James averaged 25.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 10.2 apg and 1.2 spg. HIs 10.2 assists mark led the league.
His performance this season has many people asking if he will win his fifth Most Valuable Player award at the age of 35 years old.
Davis actually led the team in scoring with 26.1 ppg to go along with 9.3 rpg, 1.5 spg and 2.3 bpg.
Davis openly disagreed with not being named Defensive Player of the Year, which went to Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks.
Knowing what James and Davis bring to the table, the Lakers were anticipating the emergence of a third star.
Forward Kyle Kuzma was expected to be that third star for Los Angeles and was third on the team in scoring with 12.8 ppg.
However, the strength of this Lakers team is that any player can be the third star on any given night.
Players that know their roles like guards Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and center Dwight Howard, have excelled in specialist roles.
In addition, Los Angeles has mirror-images up and down the roster for these roles like guards Alex Caruso, Danny Green and center JaVale McGee.
In case of emergency, head coach Frank Vogel and the Lakers have two backup generators off-the-bench in guards Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith.
In only seven games played, Waiters’ 11.9 ppg ranks fourth on this team.
Los Angeles beat Portland and Houston in the first two rounds after losing game one in both series.
Possibly the biggest surprise of the conference finals is a team that is tied for the second-highest seed of the remaining teams.
Denver is one of two No. 3 seeds, the Celtics are the other, and only trail the No. 1 seeded Lakers.
The elite two-man game of guard Jamal Murray and center Nikola Jokic has carried this Nugget team to their first conference finals since 2009 when they were led by now-Portland Trail Blazer Carmelo Anthony.
Murray averaged 18.5 ppg but was second on the team in scoring behind Jokic’s 19.9 ppg.
In addition, Jokic added 9.7 rpg and 7 apg.
Head coach Mike Malone has a secondary pair for the two-man game that comes off-the-bench in guard Monte Morris and forward Mason Plumlee.
Majority of the rest of the roster is made up of three-and-d wing players the likes of Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant and Will Barton.
However, Barton has not played in the restart and last played on March 11.
Denver has nightly contributors as young as 22 years old in Michael Porter Jr. and not so young at 35 years old in Paul Millsap.
The former No. 14 Porter Jr. averaged 9.3 ppg this season after basically being redshirted last year.
Millsap averaged 11.6 ppg and became one of six players who average at least 10.4 ppg on the season.
The Nuggets had to overcome a grueling seven-game series with Utah which saw Murray go toe-to-toe with the Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell.
Mitchell outscored Murray 254-209 during a series that saw both men average over 29 ppg.
Both men had multiple 50-point performances in the series.
In the conference semifinals, Denver would be the title-favorite LA Clippers in another seven game series.
Murray was held to a 17.8 ppg average through the first four games but averaged 29 over the final three games of the series including a 40-point performance in game seven.
Denver was down 3-1 in both series and are now the only team in league history to come back from that deficit twice in the same postseason.
The last four playoff series for the Nuggets have gone the full seven games.