The Conference Finals looks vastly different this year; none of the usual suspects have managed to make deep playoff runs. The Lakers were bounced in Round 1 by a clinical, hungry Suns team. The Milwaukee Bucks avenged last year’s defeat to the Heat as they cruised to the series victory in the first round. The Bucks, the Suns, the Clippers and the Hawks will all be battling to make it to the promised land.
Atlanta are the clear underdogs in the Eastern Conference, nobody expected the Hawks to even get past the first round. Over the course of the last month, Nate MacMillan’s men have shown grit as they found ways to earn hard-fought wins. For Coach MacMillan, this playoff run is vindication of his talent.
For years, his Indy teams made the playoffs before being bounced in the first round. There was a general feeling that Nate did not have the acumen to get his team deep into the playoffs. He has turned the Hawks from a sliding, disinterested team into being a capable, tough unit that can hang with the supposed favourites.
The Bucks have walked a different path; Milwaukee achieved the greatest success last offseason, the Bucks were able to get Giannis to sign the Supermax extension and commit his best years to Milwaukee. That being said, the Bucks did not really impress in the regular season. The Philadelphia 76ers and the Brooklyn Nets looked to be the clear favourites in a competitive Eastern Conference.
I will be brutally honest, Milwaukee did not impress me against the Brooklyn Nets. I thought that their offense was pretty poor at times and I did not always like Coach Budenholzer’s rotations. However, Milwaukee’s endurance cannot be questioned. They were able to outlast a dangerous Nets’ team and eke out a series win.
The Eastern Conference Finals is arguably the easiest series that the Bucks have had so far. The Miami Heat was a difficult match-up in Round 1, the Heat had sent Milwaukee home last season in comfortable fashion. That past history did not mean anything to the Bucks and they dispatched the Heat with ease.
The Brooklyn series was highly competitive but the Bucks were able to drag themselves over the line. It was not pretty but Milwaukee finally proved that they have the resilience and strength to execute when it matters most.
PJ Tucker deserves a special shoutout for his work in this series. Without Tucker, the Bucks do not win this series. His stats are nothing to write home about but Tucker was able to slow Durant down. His physicality sapped Durant’s energy throughout the series and made every basket difficult.
The Clippers are not a team that I like; any team with Reggie Jackson and Patrick Beverley does not exactly sit well with Thunder fans. However, Los Angeles have my respect. The Clippers lost Kawhi Leonard at a crucial juncture of the series against Jazz and were still able to win the final two games. Paul George banished the ‘Wayoff P’ reputation as he led the Clips past Donovan Mitchell’s Jazz.
Coach Tyronn Lue has raised the Clippers’ level with his astute adjustments. In the Utah series, the Clippers struggled in the first two games and they could not find their offensive spark. Coach Lue made the bold decision to drop Ivica Zubac from the starting lineup and run five-out with Nicolas Batum slotting in at the five.
That decision won LA the series; the Jazz’s ball movement stopped creating open looks and Utah’s offense devolved into a series of isolations. While Donovan Mitchell was able to keep the game close, the Jazz’s offense was fundamentally broken. The playmaking provided by Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic was completely eliminated and every possession became 1v5 for the Jazz.
On the other end of the floor, the effects of five-out were clear. Gobert could not solely focus on protecting the rim; Rudy was also responsible for closing out onto shooters in the deep corner. By the end of the series, Gobert simply did not have the mobility to fill both roles correctly.
The Clippers were always able to find Nicolas Batum or Terance Mann or Marcus Morris in the corner for easy looks. Giving up the corner three is not a strategy that can win games and by going five-out, the Clippers had found a weak point in the Jazz defense to exploit.
Phoenix are my favourite team left in the playoffs; they are coached incredibly well by Monty Williams and move the ball perfectly. There is no unnecessary, pointless passing with Phoenix. Every single pass is designed to cut a defense apart and get easy scores for the Suns. The Suns’ pick and roll is a thing of beauty to watch whenever Chris, Devin and DeAndre Ayton are on the floor.
Any concerns about the Suns’ youth have been put to bed. Ayton has more than matched Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic. Devin Booker has improved in the playoffs; his shot-making and ability to score in bunches has allowed the Suns to pull away from teams with ease.
Chris Paul has provided steady, reliable elite production from the point guard position. Paul has always been a joy to watch but it was pretty special watching him drain nine mid-range pull-ups in a row against the Nuggets.
These Conference Finals are going to be so fun to watch and I am excited. This might be my favourite playoffs in five years. The league is in good hands with all of these young stars emerging.