NBA playoffs: the Conference Semi's

After the Western Conference finals, four teams remain in contention to win the strangest season of basketball that we’ve ever seen: the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, LA Lakers, and the Denver Nuggets.

Those who may not be following the playoffs might be saying, “What about the Bucks? Aren’t they, like, really good?” Yes, they are good — the best team in the 2019-2020 regular season, in fact, led by superstar and MVP favorite Giannis Antetoukunmpo. However, the Bucks proved to be no match for the blazing hot Jimmy Butler and the Heat, stacked with young talent. The Heat put away the Bucks in 5 games, bringing their total losses in the playoffs to a grand total of one. The game they did lose, mind you, was a hotly contested three point contest in overtime.

To be fair to Milwaukee, all of the games were only won by roughly ten points or less, but it didn’t feel that way. Miami controlled the series from the start with Butler ripping through the Bucks’ league-best defense for 40 points and Goran Dragic adding 27 himself. The “Greek Freak” was held to just 18 points, but he also missed more than half of the first half due to foul trouble. The Bucks were also missing defensive stud Eric Bledsoe, so it’s safe to say not all hope was lost.

It was the next game when the concern set in. Giannis seemed to come back to life, dropping 29 points with 14 rebounds, but he also committed a fatal foul at the end of a tie game that sent Butler to the line for two game winning free throws. This followed a three-point foul on Khris Middleton that tightened the game up. It was close, but the Heat pulled through and put the Bucks in a dire 0-2 position.

Still, though, an 0-2 comeback has been seen before. As for an 0-3, the same doesn’t hold true. That is the situation that Milwaukee found themselves in after the Heat rallied in the fourth quarter from a 12 point deficit win by what ended up to be the largest point differential in the series, outscoring the Bucks 35-9! in the final ten minutes. After the game, Giannis [called](( a spade a spade: “They [played] harder than us.”

While the Bucks were able to squeak out a close win in Game 4
and avoid the sweep, the series was all but over. The silver lining was Khris Middleton, who scored 36 in the fourth game and single handedly won them the game after Giannis was injured. Middleton continues to be a rising star, with his highest career point average this season. With Giannis out again, the Heat were able to seal the deal in Game 5.

Elsewhere in the East, in a much less one-sided series, the Celtics overcame the Raptors in an exhausting, but exciting, 7 game contest. It didn’t start like a 7 game series, however, and was one three-pointer away from being exactly the opposite. Boston took Game 1 easily, exerting control on both sides of the ball. They were able to stifle Toronto’s efficient transition offense, and the Raptors left gaps in their defense that Boston was able to take advantage of, especially from the corner-three, where they have been very efficient this season.

Game 2 was closer with Toronto being better prepared, but no team could have been prepared for the 3-point barrage that Marcus Smart released in the fourth quarter, hitting five three’s and a free throw for a total of 16 points. Kemba Walker built on Smart’s momentum hitting a pair of clutch shots to propel the team past Toronto in the final minutes. All the while, Celtics’ young star Jayson Tatum continues to shine more brightly by improving his playmaking.

It was Game 3 that shook the series up, and it was anyone’s game down to the last seconds. Toronto was able to save their season when a perfect inbound pass from Kyle Lowry to OG Anunoby led to a game-winning three-pointer with 0.5 seconds on the clock. The ending encapsulated the game, which was a tight one with numerous lead changes. Lowry also contributed 31 points, while Kemba Walker dropped 30.

Each team won two games of the next four, but each win was not created equal. The Celtics blew out the Raptors 111-89 in Game 5, and it was never close from start to finish. And of course, the Celtics won the one that mattered most, Game 7. Game 6 was possibly the most exciting of the series, a 2 OT thriller ending in a flurry of amazing shots and 33 total points from Lowry in a 125-122 Raptors win. In the end, though, it was the Celtics defense that gave them the edge to win the final game.

Over in the West, the Lakers put away the Rockets five games in another lopsided series. Houston took the first game, starting strong and fast, putting up a stellar defense, and holding Lakers stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis to just 22 points in the second half. On the Laker side, they committed numerous fouls, fouling James Harden 11 times alone. After the game, LeBron remarked on Houston’s speed on both sides of the ball and admitted that his team wasn’t ready for it. They certainly adjusted, however, because the Rockets didn’t win another game in the series.

James and Davis bounced back in Game 2, combining for 64 points, 21 rebounds, and 13 assists with James nearly achieving a triple-double. Veteran guard Rajon Rondo also contributed, showing signs of a break out. For Houston, star Russell Westbrook struggled on offense, and their bench gave them virtually no help, unlike the Lakers.

Rondo maintained his momentum into Game 3, leading a fourth quarter surge that pushed the Lakers ahead, while also scoring 21 and dishing nine assists. James remained stellar, with 29 points in the first half, 36 total, and a lockdown defense. Harden nearly had a triple-double, but it wasn’t enough.

The Lakers cemented their dominance in Game 4 led by Davis’ 29 points, in a 110-100 win in which they got a lead early and kept it, at one point stretching the lead to 20 points. Westbrook resurfaced to score 25 and Harden dropped a solid 21, but neither contributed many assists or rebounds leaving the former MVPs in an all too familiar spot.

The Lakers drove the nail in the coffin with a 119-96 blowout, leading Game 5 by as much as 30 at one point.

In another upset, the Nuggets came back from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Clippers. The Clippers dominated in Game 1 with a 120-97 win, being fully healthy for the first time in a while. They got back the hyper energetic defensive leader Patrick Beverly, who provided a boost for the team, as did the return of forward Marcus Morris. Stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were in sync, as was all-star sixth man Lou Williams. The Nuggets simply lacked energy after recovering from a long 7 game series against the Jazz.

The Nuggets regained their energy for Game 2, however, as they burst out with 44 points in the first quarter to jump to an early 23 point lead. This was enough to keep the Nuggets ahead for the game, and they were able to hold on when it got close with big three point shots from defensive star Gary Harris. The Nuggets also put up a fantastic defensive performance behind Harris, Leonard, and George, to overcome a lack of scoring from them. The Nuggets’ stars Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic posted solid numbers, but they lacked energy.

Game 3 tipped the series back to LA behind Paul George’s stellar play on both sides of the ball, dropping 32 points and locking down Murray. Leonard added another 23 points and 14 rebounds. The Clips tacked on yet another win in Game 4 leading from start to finish, although Denver kept it close. Leonard put up 30 points and cracked down on defense in the second half with four steals. The rest of the team followed suit on defense.

Game 5 is where the series got interesting. The Nuggets rallied in the second half for a comeback to win 111-105. While Murray and Jokic combined for 48 points, it was help from elsewhere on the roster that pushed them past LA in the end. Veteran Paul Millsap dropped 14 points in the second half, and rookie Michael Porter Jr. helped seal the deal in the final minutes. The energy was similar to when the team crawled back from the same 3-1 deficit in the previous series.

Game 6 had a similar storyline with the Nuggets coming from behind after trailing by 19 points in the third quarter for a 111-98 win. Clutch shots came from all over their lineup, and they collectively played astute defense, with 11 stops in the second half. The team found themselves down yet again in Game 7, but were miraculously able to rally behind Jamal Murray’s 40 point performance to make a historic series comeback.

In the semi-finals, the Celtics will play the Heat, while the Nuggets face Lebron James and the Lakers.