Basketball

NBA playoff predictions: Anonymous scout, coach and executive pick Heat-Celtics and Warriors-Mavericks winners


What do the final four teams in the 2022 NBA playoffs have in common?

Defense.

The Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks finished the regular season ranked in the league’s top seven in defensive efficiency:

2021-22’s top regular-season defenses

How will Jimmy Butler’s Heat fare against Jayson Tatum’s Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals?

Will Steph Curry’s Warriors hold off Luka Dončić’s Mavericks in the Western Conference finals?

Of course, each series is bigger than just Butler, Tatum, Curry, Dončić or the teams’ defenses. To understand the intricacies of each series, The Athletic has turned to three experts: a scout, a coach and a team executive. We granted each of them anonymity to allow them to be completely candid as they predicted the outcomes of each series.

(Editor’s note: Their assessments have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)


Eastern Conference finals: No. 1 Heat vs. No. 2 Celtics

Scout’s outlook: “That’s going to be a defensive series. Both teams have good defenses. Every single possession is going to be a fight.

“I like Boston even though they don’t have home court. They won their biggest game of the year on (Milwaukee’s) home court against the world champs. …

“I just think Miami doesn’t have quite enough. It’s Butler, Butler, Butler and then who else? Tyler Herro, he’s averaged, what, 14 (points), in the playoffs? That’s not going to do it in this series. He’s got to be better. Philadelphia did a decent job on him, but Tyler Herro’s got to rise to the occasion, and I’m not convinced he’s going to be a real productive number two to get them to the finals. He has to be. He hasn’t shown that yet. …

“(If Kyle Lowry isn’t healthy), are the Heat going to win it with Gabe Vincent as their starting point guard? Bam Adebayo’s an All-Star level player, but Boston’s got four centers. Al Horford can play center, and Grant Williams, Daniel Theis and Robert Williams III (can too). … I think the Adebayo factor is going to be somewhat neutralized. …

“The best player usually wins. Jayson Tatum has shown he’s certainly up to the task. But Jayson Tatum also has a running partner in Jaylen Brown, and if Jaylen Brown’s my No. 2, I like that situation better than Tyler Herro being my No. 2. Jaylen Brown is erratic, but he’s been in five Game 7s, so he’s got a little more experience than Herro. The Celtics have Marcus Smart, so right now, you have to give Boston the edge at point guard. … And who can (be competently assigned to) guard Jimmy Butler? Grant Williams can guard him. Marcus Smart can guard him. Jayson Tatum can guard him. Jaylen Brown can guard him. They’ve got guys who can guard him, and they were the best defensive team in the league. … I think Miami may have a little trouble scoring.

“Miami can put P.J. Tucker on Tatum, and Jimmy Butler can guard Tatum. But I just think Boston’s got more. …

“You’ve got to give Miami the edge in coaching just because of Erik Spoelstra’s experience and his demonstrated excellence. But Boston’s on a high. They’re confident. They almost screwed up that series (against Milwaukee), but they managed to come back in very convincing fashion and showed that they’re a championship-level team.”

Coach’s outlook: “I think Boston is going to win the NBA championship, and the reason I say that is because I like how they are jelling at the right time. I like their defensive mindset. I think they come into every game thinking defense. They’ve put a lot of emphasis on their defense. They take pride in it, and they have certain guys that know, ‘This is what I do defensively.’ And not only do those guys play defense, but they also are playing offense at a high rate. And I’m talking about Grant Williams, who’s supposed to be a defender and ends up having seven 3s in Game 7, and Marcus Smart. Now, the problem with Marcus Smart is he could play you into the game as well as he could play you out of the game sometimes with his aggressive offensive approach. …

“(Boston has) one (player) that knows he’s the best player on the floor every night, and that’s (Jayson) Tatum. And I think (Jaylen) Brown has figured out ‘We’re going as far as Tatum is taking us, and I’m playing right behind him.’ It just looks to me that they’ve settled into roles on that team as well as anybody else. They know their roles. They’re a defensive team. Their offense goes through Tatum, Brown, and then the other guys are making shots. If Robert Williams is healthy and defending and running and rolling as he can, they’re tough to beat.

“OK, let’s talk about Miami. They’re an aggressive defensive team. They have certain things that they like to do. They stay with it, whether it’s double-teaming you at some point, putting two on the ball, trapping from the baseline on scorers, on post-ups. They have certain techniques and schemes that they believe in and they do every night. I like them defensively. Kyle Lowry does a lot of little things for them: takes charges, draws fouls. Is he healthy? Is he going to be able to play? He’s kind of their Chris Paul, the smart, older point guard that organizes everything. And as the playoffs get deeper, the players get a little bit bigger. I think size wins a lot of times.

“I love Bam (Adebayo). He can switch out on guys. I like (the Heat’s) length. Obviously, Jimmy Butler brings a lot. I just feel like Boston is a team that’s peaking at the right time and they believe (in) themselves. … I see Boston being able to stay in every game and pull it out with their shooting.”

Executive’s outlook: “I think what we’ve seen in the playoffs from Boston, and even the end of the regular season, has been a testament to their resiliency and ability to play multiple styles. Their whole thing is built on that they can play multiple styles. …

“The one X-factor is the injury to Kyle Lowry. What’s he going to look like, and can he come back strong? That would add more depth to the Miami attack. Miami is just so deep. …

“I will say it’s going to be Miami in seven, and the home-court advantage is going to be the reason why, and that’s what the Heat fought for all year, and they earned it. The team that can protect its home court (will win this series), and the Heat have the right types of players with the right types of experiences to match up with Boston players. The Celtics have youth but their players are kind of coming into their own, but they’ve been in those situations before. So it’s not an indictment of Boston’s place in the league but rather just the Heat’s depth and the fact that they have the home court.”

Scout’s pick: Celtics in six
Coach’s pick: Celtics in six
Executive’s pick: Heat in seven
Consensus advancing team: Celtics


Jayson Tatum’s Boston Celtics won two of the three regular-season games they played against Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat in 2021-22, but Butler did not play in one of the Heat’s losses to the Celtics. (David Butler II / USA Today)

Western Conference finals: No. 3 Warriors vs. No. 4 Mavericks

Scout’s outlook: “Dallas has got momentum. They’re confident. That is going to be a factor in the series. Nobody expected them to be there — maybe not even themselves. They’re going in with this massive amount of confidence, so how can you possibly count them out? They may be underdogs, but (look at what they just accomplished by crushing the Suns in Game 7 on the Suns’ home floor). How does it play out throughout this series? I don’t know. But at the outset of the series, the Mavs have an amazing amount of momentum. …

“The X-factor, Spencer Dinwiddie, was big for Dallas against Phoenix in Game 6 and Game 7. He was huge. … He’s a key factor if he can perform at a high level. The other thing about Dallas is they’ve got three go-to guys: Dončić, Jalen Brunson and then Dinwiddie.

Dorian Finney-Smith will probably be on Klay Thompson, so the Mavs have somebody who can guard one of the Warriors’ key guys. … I’m not sure they have anybody who can guard Steph Curry effectively. Brunson’s not a great defender. …

“Golden State, they’re a little thin. Their X-factor is Jordan Poole, I would say. Can he really, truly perform at this level? He’s been good, a little erratic at times, as has been Dinwiddie. But if you want to compare the X-factors, who has the advantage? I’d probably give it to Dallas because of Dinwiddie’s experience. … Otto Porter Jr. played half of Game 5 (against Memphis) and didn’t play in Game 6. What’s his status (going to be)? …

“I pick Dallas in this series. I just think they have better depth, and they’re on a high. Golden State is depleted. I might be ‘Johnny Come Lately’ to Dallas, like everybody else. I think the thing is: Can Finney-Smith make shots? Can Maxi Kleber make shots? Can Reggie Bullock, who’s been very good, continue to make shots? Can Dinwiddie be more consistent? Brunson is kind of stable. … I just think they’ve got more.”

Coach’s outlook: “Obviously, the key is the matchup on Luka. Who are they putting on Luka that can bother his shooting? Is it (Andrew) Wiggins)? Is (Andre) Iguodala going to be healthy enough? He hasn’t played now in how long? Are they counting on him to be able to come back and give them any minutes defensively, which I doubt?

“To me, it’s still Golden State. It’s Golden State until somebody knocks them out. I think sometimes on your way to a championship or the finals, you have to overcome some things. To me, the breakthrough series for them was Memphis. If they got through Memphis, the next series now with Dallas is a better matchup for them. Probably not as physical as the last one they just went through. …

“Golden State’s IQ and their cutting off the basketball, how they move and the way they play, with the IQ they play with, it grinds on you throughout a seven-game series. You may be able to take that away one or two games, but to take away the easy baskets they get and the IQ baskets they get and the ‘personnel’ baskets they get — it’s amazing how quickly they capitalize on your mistake. Whether you’re playing on the high side and they use the backdoor, or once the guy with the basketball gives it up, how quickly he relocates or comes back to the basketball, it’s amazing.

“Those scorers, they know. And the rebounders and the screeners and the rollers, they know what they do. And it doesn’t even have to be a big guy. (Kevon) Looney had a great Game 6. He doesn’t even have to be the roller. Sometimes it could be Wiggins playing that position where he’s setting a quick screen on Steph, and two people are jumping out, and he’s slipping or he’s rolling. They give up themselves for the betterment of the offense, not knowing whether they’re going to get the ball cutting backdoor or screening and slipping. But they know if they do that, good things are going to happen. To me, that’s the ultimate sacrifice. They do all the little things offensively that wear you down over the course of a series.

“For Dallas, obviously Luka is a playoff performer. He’s had enough games now, and he’s shown us enough. Who’s going to come along with him? That was Dallas’ question after the first two games against Phoenix. Can they start the series like that? Can they have an impact as they did later in that Phoenix series? They need a second (and) third clear (option) as to who’s going to score and how they’re going to help the team. Mainly, it’s on (Jalen) Brunson right now. He’s become scoring option 1A to Luka.

“I just see Golden State as being too locked in, too experienced. Golden State will turn the ball over. That’s the most glaring negative they have. They turn the basketball over at a high level. If they can withstand some of their turnovers and still play solid defensive basketball, they’ve got a chance to, I think, close it out in five or six.”

Executive’s outlook: “Curry and Draymond Green and Klay Thompson — I think they got their groove at the end of the regular season, and they’ve been able to extend it into these playoffs. …

“It’s a great accomplishment for Dallas to have gotten this far. …

“I think Golden State has the advantage on many levels. But Dallas has the brilliance of Luka Dončić, and the Mavericks have embraced this three-point guard attack. But the Mavs not having the experience that Golden State has and not having seen the pressure of the conference finals, I think the Warriors have the advantage. …

“Dončić, he’s such a unique individual talent, and they’ve done a good job of putting the right pieces around him to find success. At this point, with the pressure of the conference finals, I think the Warriors would have a huge advantage in having been here before so many times and having seen it and knowing how to make those adjustments very quickly.”

Scout’s pick: Mavericks in six
Coach’s pick: Warriors in five
Executive’s pick: Warriors in six
Consensus advancing team: Warriors


Klay Thompson’s Golden State Warriors are trying to reach the NBA Finals for the sixth time in the last eight seasons. (Cary Edmondson / USA Today)

(Top photo of Luka Dončić and Steph Curry: Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)





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