NBA conference final winners will set up an exciting NBA finals

Julian Bonk, Sports Editor

Electric. Intense. Unpredictable. All of these prestigious words can be thrown around when detailing what has been a breathtaking 2023 NBA Playoffs thus far. To briefly recap the second round of action, the top seeded Nuggets battled a talented Suns team, but eventually won the series via a dominant game-six performance. 2-time MVP Nikola Jokic exploded for 34.5 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists per game across the series. The Lakers defeated the defending-champion Warriors in six games to clinch their spot in the conference finals. In the East, the Boston Celtics won an instant-classic of a series against the 76ers. Superstar Jayson Tatum backed up a subpar game six showing with a Game 7-record 51 points to close out the series. Jimmy Butler’s historic playoff run continued when he led the last-seeded Miami Heat to a victory over the Knicks.

This sets up two heavily-anticipated showdowns in the conference finals. Starting with the West, where the Nuggets take home-court advantage into the series with the Lakers. A few years ago, the NBA implemented the Play-In tournament. This gives more teams an opportunity to vie for playoff positions. Ever since this new format was brought into play, no team that competed in the Play-In has made it to the NBA Finals. The Lakers are trying to do just that in this series. After winning the NBA championship just three years ago, many have doubted the Lakers roster. Even with stars like LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Los Angeles has failed to meet expectations in each of the last two seasons. Critics have called out the injury-prone Davis and the aging James. This year’s trade deadline has allowed the team to turn this narrative upside-down. By adding role players like D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt, perimeter play and defense has improved. Additionally, guard Austin Reeves has taken a big step and become a valuable piece. On the other side, Jokic has received help from a handful of players, most notably guard Jamal Murray. Murray has averaged 26 points and 6.5 assists each game. Denver has coasted through the first two rounds, defeating the Timberwolves and Suns in the process. If Jokic is able to run the table and win the title this year, his legacy will forever be cemented in this league. LeBron and the Lakers winning a title with the uncertainty over this team could be a run for the ages. This is a must-watch series.

The Eastern Conference Finals features another intriguing matchup between the Celtics and the Heat. Similar to the Lakers in the west, Miami had to earn a spot in the playoffs via the Play-In. This underdog mentality fueled the team to a historic upset over the top-seeded Bucks in five games. Forward Jimmy Butler cemented his status as an all-time great playoff performer with back-to-back heroic efforts to clinch the series. Although many forces have negatively impacted the Heat, they have shown resilience and grit throughout the past few weeks and will be a tough out for Boston. Aside from Butler, Bam Adebayo has played well, averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds. Role players such as Kevin Love, Max Strus , and Gabe Vincent have all stepped up in certain games. Veteran point guard Kyle Lowry has used his experience as an NBA champion to provide mentorship and wisdom. The Celtics have challenged the Bucks all season for the league’s premier record, and their regular-season success has carried over to the playoffs. Boston defeated the Atlanta Hawks in six games, though the outcome of the series was never really in doubt. The following series against Philadelphia, though, has been the highlight of the playoffs so far. Jayson Tatum and his 51 points led to a dominant Celtics victory, causing doubt to be shined on James Harden and MVP Joel Embiid. 76ers coach Doc Rivers was also fired on Tuesday, May 16th following this loss. On paper, the Heat should be overwhelmed by a Celtics team who does not seem to have a weakness. Tatum and Jaylen Brown are some of the best scorers in the league. The depth off the bench is amazing. Derrick White, Grant Williams, and Malcolm Brogdon all make an impact on the floor. Robert Williams III and Marcus Smart are two of the NBA’s premier defenders. However, the Heat have shocked the NBA world so far, and have no reason to stop here. Miami and Boston should be another marquee series.

The NBA Conference Finals will start on Tuesday, May 16th with the Lakers and Nuggets. Tune in every night to an alternating schedule between East and West championship series. ESPN will broadcast the Lakers vs Nuggets. TNT is set to televise the Celtics vs Heat. Enjoy the conference finals, and later the NBA Finals.