Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports
Let’s rank the four teams left standing in the NBA Playoffs by their championship chances.
The bubble is back.
Well, kind of.
After the NBA suspended play due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the league restarted the season in August in Florida, closing out the regular season before shifting into the playoffs. The final four teams standing in the bubble? The Miami Heat, the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Denver Nuggets.
There is no bubble this season, but again those are the final four teams left as the NBA shifts to the conference finals this week.
How do the four teams stack up? After a rigorous voting process among the SB Nation staff, here is how we rank their championship chances.
4. Miami Heat
Just when you thought they were out, they keep marching forward. The Navy Seal mentality that head coach Erik Spoelstra discussed after making the playoffs has led them to the cusp of another finals appearance after dispatching the New York Knicks in six games. The Heat’s hot shooting against the Milwaukee Bucks died down significantly; they only shot 30.6% from deep and 42.5% from the field for the entire series. However, what Miami did was make games uncomfortable, knowing that they had the guys to pull out a close game.
According to NBA.com, the Heat led the NBA in clutch wins in the regular season, and a large part of that is just finding different ways to win. The three point shot not falling against the Knicks? Just dominate in the paint. In the series clinching victory Miami scored 38 points in the paint compared to New York’s 20, and forced other Knicks outside of Jalen Brunson to create their own shot. The Heat’s defense will also travel, with their three point defense being among the best in the NBA.
Now they have to play the Celtics, a team this Miami Heat team knows well. Last season, the teams squared off in a seven game thriller that the Celtics ended up winning, and the teams split the season series 2-2. Of course, all eyes will be on Jimmy Butler, who is averaging 31.1 points in the playoffs to go along with five assists and two steals per game, but for the Heat to pull off another upset, they need big man Bam Adebayo to be as forceful as he was in the Knicks series. Butler hurt his ankle in game 2 of the second round, and wasn’t the same Butler since, so Miami will need more great performances from their All-Star.
A lot of people aren’t giving Miami a chance in this series.
The Miami Heat have a 3% chance of reaching the NBA Finals, according to ESPN Analytics pic.twitter.com/CbeoYzZQOx
— ESPN (@espn) May 15, 2023
Like, near zero percent chance of winning. However, that’s where the Heat want to be; that’s where they like to be. Because if you sleep on them, Heat in 5 won’t be a cool Twitter phrase, it’ll be reality. —JPA
2. Los Angeles Lakers
It takes a very strange set of circumstances to turn the Lakers into an underdog you really want to root for, but here we are.
This is the position Los Angeles desperately wanted to return to, albeit not in the way they expected. The “big-three” dream of LeBron, AD and Russell Westbrook never materialized and turned this team into a horror show, but sound team building at the trade deadline, paired with smart moves has put this team on the precipice of the NBA Finals.
On paper there’s very little reason to believe in the Lakers. LeBron’s age is starting to show, Anthony Davis can’t do it alone, and the depth beyond Los Angeles’ starting five is shaky at best. However, when the stars align this team is as good as any in the NBA, as the Lakers showed against the Warriors.
LeBron’s all-around brilliance, paired with Davis’ presence in the paint means that on any given night they have the potential to be the best big to remaining in the NBA. Against the Warriors they combined to average 46.2 points, 23.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists and 3.4 blocks. These are game-changing players on both ends of the floor, and if they’re on it the Lakers are a really tough out.
When you couple the LeBron/AD factor with D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves you get a unit that is much bigger than the sum of its parts. The Nuggets and Joker represent a major challenge, but this team isn’t going to let its chance slip away. If the Lakers can get four solid games out of their stars there is more than a decent chance they will make the finals.
It would be a remarkable result considering how this team began 2022-23. — James Dator
2. Boston Celtics
It took an historic effort from Jayson Tatum in the closing minutes of Game 6, and then in Game 7, to push the Boston Celtics past the Philadelphia 76ers and into the Eastern Conference Finals. After starting out ice cold in Game 6, Tatum outscored the Sixers himself in the fourth quarter Thursday night, including knocking down four three-pointers in the final 4:14 to help the Celtics stave of elimination.
Then in Sunday’s Game 7, Tatum outscored the Sixers in the third quarter, turning a three-point Boston advantage at the half into a 26-point lead entering the fourth quarter. Tatum finished the game with 51 points, breaking the Game 7 mark set by Steph Curry a few weeks ago against Sacramento.
Standing in the way of Boston returning to the Finals? The Miami Heat. The two teams meet in the ECF for the fourth time overall, and for the second-straight season. As we saw in the opening round when the Atlanta Hawks pushed Boston to a Game 6, the Celtics are capable of letting teams hang around. While they got away with it against Atlanta, they might not get away with it against Jimmy Butler and the Heat.
Butler is the first player in franchise history to average at least 30 points through his first 10 games of a postseason. He also leads all remaining players in the playoffs with an average of 31.1 points per game. Butler has also done a great job of getting to the line, drawing an average of 6.8 fouls per game. Add in what Bam Adebayo can do on both ends, and there are reasons to think this could be another series that goes the distance, despite the Celtics being consensus favorites. — MAS
1. Denver Nuggets
The skepticism the Nuggets faced entering the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the West was understandable, to a certain point. Denver had limped to a 12-11 finish after the All-Star break, and there were legitimate questions about whether its defense could withstand the superstar gauntlet in the conference. It all feels so foolish now.
The Nuggets roar in to the Western Conference Finals looking like the most complete team still standing. Nikola Jokic is starting to feel like the best player in the world. The defense has length and athleticism around their gravity-bound superstar center, with Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Bruce Brown all guarding at an elite level. When Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. get hot, Denver feels like the team to beat.
Jokic will again be in the spotlight in his matchup with Anthony Davis for a shot at the NBA Finals. The Suns dared Jokic to beat them as a scorer in single coverage, and all he did for the series was average 34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, 10.3 assists on 59.4 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent shooting from three. Davis is playing like the best defender alive right now, but Jokic is equipped to give him problems. It’s going to be on the rest of the Nuggets to hit shots and avoid fouling. This is starting to feel like Jokic’s year, but he’s really going to have to earn it with LeBron James and AD standing against him. — Ricky O’Donnell
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