The Eastern and Western Conference Finals begin Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), with just four teams remaining in contention for the NBA title.
However, of those four teams, two made it to the playoffs via the play-in tournament.
The No. 7-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, who advanced through the play-in tournament, face the Denver Nuggets — the No. 1 with the best record in the league — in the west. Meanwhile, the Miami Heat, seeded No. 8 in the play-in, meet the second-seeded Boston Celtics for a spot in the NBA Finals.
Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the Celtics defeated league MVP Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers as Tatum put on a historic Game 7 performance in the East Semifinals. The Heat are on an historic run to become the only eight seeded players since 1999 to make the conference finals after defeating the New York Knicks – and that’s thanks to Jimmy Butler.
LeBron James and the Lakers aren’t finished yet, having defeated Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in six games while the King is looking for another finals run. The Nuggets passed their toughest test yet by defeating a star-studded Phoenix Suns team featuring Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
Our experts break down the biggest encounters and storylines ahead of the conference finals, and reveal what they’re most looking forward to on basketball’s biggest stage.
1. Which team surprises you the most to see in the conference finals?
Nick Friedell: The heat. Just a few weeks ago, it looked like this team was on the verge of a makeover. Seeing the turnaround they’ve pulled off in such a short amount of time — Miami lay in the closing minutes of the East’s last play-in match against the Chicago Bulls — is one of the most unexpected runs I’ve seen in a decade and a half covers the league.
Kevin Pelton: The Heat, who now have the best record in the playoffs with the top seeded nuggets (8:3). After benefiting from an unusually strong 3-point shooting in the first round (45%, easily the best of any team), the Heat fell to average in the conference semifinals (31%) but still controlled the Series against the Knicks.
Tim Bontemps: The heat. They played the Milwaukee Bucks, favorites to win the title, in the first round and defeated them in five games. Now they are in the conference finals against Boston for the third time in four years. The Lakers are also a notable story as the West’s No. 7, but credit goes to the Heat.
Kendra Andrews: The Heat, towards the end of the season, looked like they were in for a summer of big changes. Then “Playoff Jimmy” showed up. I don’t think anyone expected them to be here.
Yamal Collier: The nuggets. Perhaps not entirely surprised – cue Kevin Durant, “Am I surprised by the nuggets?” — but more impressed with the way they got here. Given the way Denver struggled through the second half of the season, and given the fact that bottom of the West standings is yet to be determined, one might have thought that the Nuggets would be most vulnerable to an early upset round were. But the Nuggets looked just as impressive and dominant as their place in the standings suggested.
2. Which game in the Lakers Nuggets series are you looking forward to the most?
Andrews: Nikola Jokic vs. Anthony Davis. There’s a lot to be said for the games Jokic played against the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Suns in those playoffs – and how he came out on top in every game. That could arguably change in the West Finals against Davis, another big man who is leading the playoffs in blocks per game. How the Nuggets’ two-time MVP adjusts is a key storyline leading up to Game 1.
Necklace: Jokic vs Davis. This will be Jokic’s toughest test of the postseason with a defender who can protect him and a big man who will put pressure on Denver’s central defense. If Davis can be effective at both ends of the field, the Lakers have a shot at winning the series. But if Jokic can neutralize Davis or tire him out while chasing him around, the Nuggets should progress.
Friedell: Jokic vs Davis. Jokic has a chance to prove to everyone how good he is on the biggest stage. If he gets the most out of this match, the Nuggets will advance to the NBA Finals.
Pelton: Jokic vs James. Jokic won’t defend James on a regular basis, but James and the Lakers will present a whole different challenge for Jokic. Phoenix averaged just 46.4 points in the playoffs; The Lakers have an average of 50.3, which puts them in second place behind Denver. Predictably, the Nuggets didn’t do as well at paint scoring against the top 10 teams in the regular season, beating them 59% of the time, compared to 69% against the under 10 paint scoring teams like Phoenix.
Bontemps: Joke vs. Story. Jokic vs. James and Davis are heavyweight showdowns, but if Jokic can win another eight games in these playoffs, the “best player in the league” debate will be over.
3. Which match in the Celtics Heat series are you most looking forward to?
Pelton: Jayson Tatum vs. Jimmy Butler. The two versatile wings, like their teams, meet for the third time in the last four conference finals. Despite being short of minutes midway through the series through injury, Butler surpassed Tatum last year; but Tatum came out on top in both rebounds and assists, receiving eight of the nine votes for series MVP (with Butler getting the other vote).
Necklace: Tatum against Butler. Butler was a 3 pointer away because he caused the surprise last season. Miami seems far too short-staffed to match Boston this year, and yet Playoff Jimmy isn’t to be overlooked.
Andrews: Tatum against Butler. The Heat are here for Butler. Ditto for Tatum and the Celtics. Tatum has been great this postseason and has put in great performances for his team every time they needed him, including towards the end of Game 6 and a notable Game 7 against the 76ers. The star who wins this one-on-one fight wins the series.
Bontemps: Butler against his body. For the Heat to have a chance in this series, Butler needs to be the glowing version of himself he was against Milwaukee. After spraining his ankle early in the Knicks series, he didn’t quite resemble that player anymore. If Butler’s body cooperates, it’s good enough to make this series competitive.
Friedell: Butler against everyone. The Heat and Celtics are no strangers at this point in their recent playoff rivalry. Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, just like Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau in the second round, will do anything to get anyone but Butler to beat them. Boston’s second-place defense will make it difficult, but Butler has shown he can improve his game on the biggest stage. It will be fun to watch again.
4. Who has been playoff MVP so far?
Bontemps: Jokic, who averaged a 34-point triple-double while hitting 57% from the floor and 44% from three throws against the Star Suns. I believed Jokic would put more pressure on him than any other player in the league early in this playoff because it was about time he delivered with a healthy squad and the top seeds in the west. Not only did he deliver, he even overdid it. It was incredibly impressive.
Friedell: Butler giving credence to a Heat locker room that was on the brink just a few weeks ago. Jokic’s numbers are great, but Butler’s team came from nowhere to get to this point and without him, Miami’s season would have been over long ago.
Necklace: Servant. He’s led the Heat to the Conference Finals again, this time past two higher-seeded players. Butler was the best player on the floor the whole time.
Andrews: Servant. The Heat aren’t here without him. No ifs and buts. That’s why he has to be MVP so far.
Pelton: Devin Booker, despite the elimination of Phoenix. Sure, Booker wasn’t at his best when the Suns were eliminated in a home loss. But Phoenix might not have won a single game against Denver if Booker hadn’t had historic games 3 and 4 when he combined for 83 points on 34 of 43 shots.
5. Who has the most stakes in the conference finals?
Pelton: As for heritage, James. Certainly other players would benefit from taking their teams to the NBA Finals, but they’re young enough to have other opportunities. This could be James’ last and best chance. Getting into the Finals a team that appeared headed for the lottery earlier in the season would add another boost to its long playoff track record.
Necklace: James. Another Finals appearance at this stage in his career, during the season he broke the all-time record at the age of 38 and how did that team look at the start of this season? Yes, that would be another moment in King James history.
Bontemps: Funny. If he can lead Denver to a breakthrough at the Finals, it would be a huge boon to the Joker’s legacy and to the Nuggets franchise. There’s a lot at stake for all of these teams, but a trip to the finals in Denver would be truly game-changing.
Friedell: Funny. He’s an incredible player, but one of the biggest downsides to his game is that he never managed to win the Nuggets the entire postseason. What better way to end this narrative than by beating James and the Lakers?
Andrews: Nuggets trainer Michael Malone. He has been with the Nuggets since 2015 and has coached the Jokic-Jamal Murray duo since 2016. If Denver doesn’t make the Finals as one of two remaining teams that didn’t need the play-in tournament to advance, there could be questions about Malone’s future and if he’s the guy to make it in Denver.