The time has finally come: the NBA’s Conference Finals are here, and teams are ready to fight for the right to represent their conference in the NBA Finals at the end of September.
After weeks of hard-fought, back-and-forth games across both sides of the bracket, the field has dwindled from the initial 22 teams that entered the Orlando bubble to what will be the NBA’s version of a Final Four.
While the Los Angeles Lakers made their expected run out West and rolled through everybody as the top seed to earn their spot in the Conference Finals, the East looked a bit different.
There’s no top seed left, not even a second seed as a compromise. This year, the third and fifth-seeded teams in the Eastern Conference will duke it out for a spot in the NBA Finals: the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat.
Who will come out on top? When can you watch these teams square off in their pivotal playoff series? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with a full assortment of schedules, analysis and predictions to help you prepare for the final stretch of the NBA playoffs.
No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Miami Heat
Who would’ve thought the two teams to qualify for the Eastern Conference Finals would be the third-seeded Celtics and fifth-seeded Heat when postseason play first began this summer?
When the 22-team field that would be heading to the league’s bubble in Orlando was set, many pegged the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks as the clear front-runner to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, with the second-seeded Toronto Raptors as another possibility given their status as reigning NBA champions.
Some viewed the Celtics as an Eastern Conference Finals contender with a long-shot chance at a spot in the NBA Finals. But, no one could’ve imagined a world where Jimmy Butler and company would go on the run of a lifetime in the bubble and take the Heat to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2014.
The circumstances are very different, with the Heat’s last Conference Finals appearance coming during the team’s “Big Three” era with Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh at the helm of their roster.
But, a Celtics-Heat matchup is a familiar sight for basketball fans that followed the sport during the 2010s, given the success that Boston’s own “Big Three” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen produced from 2008 on.
This series, however, will provide a nice jolt of energy to the rivalry. Butler, a stellar rookie in Tyler Herro, and a young star-in-the-making in Bam Adebayo have wreaked havoc on opponents through Miami’s first few series of the postseason. They made it look easy in a sweep against the Pacers, and blew past the Bucks like it was no problem.
The Celtics have looked strong, as well, even without Gordon Hayward in the lineup. Jayson Tatum is emerging as a superstar both for the team and the league as a whole, and Jaylen Brown has proven his worth after a big-time contract extension last year. Kemba Walker has been hit-or-miss in his first deep postseason run, while Marcus Smart is living up to his reputation as the heart and soul of the Celtics.
This series has it all, between sharpshooting scorers and a depth of dogged defenders on both sides of the court. Ironically, the young Celtics bring more experience to the table as it relates to this setting, but it’s truly anybody’s ballgame when the ball is first tipped off on September 15.
It’s tough to argue with the wide cast of characters the Celtics have at their disposal, and we’ll go with the depth that Boston possesses as the key factor in their series win en route to the NBA Finals.
Prediction: Celtics win in six games
Game 1: Tuesday, September 15 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 2: Thursday, September 17 at 7 p.m. ET
Game 3: Saturday, September 19 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Game 4: Wednesday, September 23 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Game 5 (if necessary): Friday, September 25, time TBD
Game 6 (if necessary): Sunday, September 27, time TBD
Game 7 (if necessary): Tuesday, September 27, time TBD
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 5 Denver Nuggets
The top-seeded Lakers may seem like clear-cut favorites as they head into the Western Conference Finals. But, if we’ve learned anything from the 2020 postseason, it’s too never count out the fifth-seeded Nuggets in any series.
After falling behind 3-1 in the first round of this year’s playoffs against the fourth-seeded Utah Jazz, the Nuggets have turned what looked like a lost season into one of the most incredible runs in NBA playoff history. They rattled off three straight wins on the back of Jamal Murray, taking down Donovan Mitchell and company in seven games.
Next up, they squared off with the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers in a series many wrote off from the start, with plans already in fans’ heads for an all-Los Angeles Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Clippers.
Those plans seemed like they were firming up when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George led the Clippers to a 3-1 series lead, but the Nuggets would not be denied. Three more elimination games later, and Murray, Nikola Jokic and an upstart franchise from Denver find themselves in the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2009.
The last time the Nuggets were this close to a spot in the NBA Finals, they also played the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. In that 2009 edition, Kobe Bryant dissipated Denver’s dreams en route to his fourth of what would turn into a total of five NBA championships.
This year’s talent level is incredibly similar, as the Lakers will bring the two-headed monster of LeBron James and Anthony Davis to the court in Orlando, alongside a breadth of depth with names like Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso and more.
The Lakers haven’t faced off against such a team-oriented lineup in this postseason yet, and Jokic will turn into a huge pain for head coach Frank Vogel to strategize against. Do you put James on Murray and let Davis guard Jokic? Do you double team and let Murray try to win the game for the Nuggets?
On the other end, the Nuggets need to keep the momentum going and implement similar rotations as they did against the Clippers’ duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. They’ll need more consistent play from Murray offensively, and increased production from pieces around Murray and Jokic if they want a chance to advance to the NBA Finals.
We’ve learned to stop counting the Nuggets out of any series after their historic run so far. But, in the end, it still seems inevitable for James and Davis to lead the Lakers to victory, giving Los Angeles the chance to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
Prediction: Lakers in six games
Game 1: Friday, September 18 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 2: Sunday, September 20 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 3: Tuesday, September 22 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 4: Thursday, September 24 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 5 (if necessary): Saturday, September 26 at 9 p.m. ET
Game 6 (if necessary): Monday, September 28, time TBD
Game 7 (if necessary): Wednesday, September 30, time TBD