A month after the 2022 NBA playoffs tipped off, we’ve whittled our way down to the final four. Those teams are halfway to their ultimate goal, needing eight more wins to claim the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy; all that stands in the way of the Heat, Celtics, Warriors, and Mavericks are one another.
Before the third round gets underway, let’s take a look at the five most interesting players in the Eastern and Western Conference finals, in terms of both the questions facing them and the possibilities they could unlock for their respective teams. As always, these are the most interesting players to me; there’s no accounting for taste, after all.
We begin with the wide-smiling monster last seen reducing Phoenix to a smoldering crater:
The question leading into Doncic’s first Western Conference finals appearance—a milestone in the young star’s career after two straight first-round exits—is massive, but simple: Can the Slovenian wunderkind be the best player in a series that also features Stephen Curry?
With Dallas facing elimination after going down 3-2, Doncic annihilated the Suns, scoring 68 points on 45 shots with a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and more steals (six) than cough-ups (three) over the final two games of the series. He torched Mikal Bridges, shooting 58.1 percent from the field against the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up. He hunted Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton, picking apart any other Sun unlucky enough to wind up staring him down, and had an awfully good time doing it, while completely overwhelming what was the NBA’s no. 3 regular-season defense. Next up: the NBA’s no. 2 regular-season defense—one that, when it had to deal with Doncic this season, did its damnedest to limit his ability to get the rest of the Mavericks going.
As you’d expect, the Warriors didn’t stick with just one pick-and-roll coverage against Luka during the season; show a player like him a steady diet of anything, and he’ll eat it alive. Their preferred approach, though, was akin to what they dialed up against Nikola Jokic in Round 1 and Ja Morant in Round 2: a soft scheme rather than ratcheted-up pressure, with the primary defender fighting over the top of the screen to stay attached to Doncic while the screen defender drops back in hopes of taking away easy lobs, and everybody else stays at home to stifle Luka’s lethal drive-and-kick game.
That went pretty well: Golden State ranked tied for seventh in the league in points allowed per chance on possessions featuring picks for Doncic, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking. It held him to just 5.5 assists per game across four outings (down from his season average of 8.7), with more total turnovers (23) than dimes (22), and limited Dallas to a pedestrian 107.4 points per 100 possessions with Luka on the court, a bottom-five rate of offensive efficiency. Nobody’s really got the personnel to stop Luka. But between Andrew Wiggins at the point of attack, Kevon Looney as a smart and stout back-line defender, all-time stopper Draymond Green (who missed three of the four meetings with Dallas this season), and physical and athletic rookie Jonathan Kuminga as a potential spot-minutes option, Golden State looks to have a good shot to at least make the 23-year-old work for every bucket or assist.
Dallas will likely test that by doing what it did to bury both Utah and Phoenix by downshifting to small-ball, with the resurgent Maxi Kleber at center and three other perimeter players flanking Doncic. That alignment often forces opponents to switch screens on the perimeter to take away pick-and-pop 3s (particularly with Kleber shooting 49.2 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs). Start switching, and Luka can start hunting the likes of Curry, Jordan Poole, or whichever slow-footed frontcourt player happens to be on the court, which is bad, bad news. He averaged nearly 1.2 points per chance in isolation against Golden State this season, tantamount to the best offense in the league whenever he’s going 1-on-1.
If the Warriors can keep Doncic from playing bully-ball on those switches, settling for stepbacks rather than collapsing the defense, they might be able to tamp Dallas’s half-court offense down. But if Luka’s hell-bent on punishing his preferred matchups all the way to the post or the paint—if he’s more LeBron than Harden—then Golden State could be in for a long series.
Tatum opened the 2022 postseason by outdueling Kevin Durant in the first round. I’m not sure I’d say he was better than Giannis Antetokounmpo in Round 2, but averaging 33.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 5.3 assists on .600 true shooting over the final four games of the series—including a 46-point masterpiece in Game 6 to stave off elimination—was awfully impressive. Now, he’s got the chance to not only make his first NBA Finals, but to do it by running through the other player who’s got a case for being the best player in the East this postseason: Jimmy Butler.
After a brutal and physical series against the Bucks in which he averaged 40.9 minutes per game, Tatum won’t get a breather against the Heat, who can throw a handful of tough defenders at him from P.J. Tucker—who’s held Tatum to 3-for-14 shooting with four assists and two turnovers as his primary defender across five meetings over the last three seasons, according to NBA Advanced Stats matchup data—and Butler, to less heralded wings like Max Strus and Caleb Martin, to a looking-healthy Victor Oladipo and Bam Adebayo (who famously snatched Tatum’s soul at the rim two years ago). The Celtics have constructed a roster full of players capable of making the extra pass and generating good shots, but against a defense as well-drilled, versatile, and dangerous as Miami’s, which excels at grinding opponents’ actions into a sludgy paste, there will be times when the best and perhaps only offensive answer is for Tatum to create in isolation.
He is, as he showed against Milwaukee, very capable of that:
It wasn’t his strong suit against the Heat during the regular season, though. Tatum averaged just 0.61 points per direct isolation against Miami, frequently struggling to create space or cash in the looks he was able to generate against the Heat’s wing corps:
The Celtics’ hellacious defense gives them a chance to win every night. What makes them favorites, though, is the prospect of Tatum being special: not just bullying smaller marks like Gabe Vincent or Tyler Herro, or drilling pull-ups over a dropping Dewayne Dedmon, but staring down an elite defender like P.J., Jimmy, or Bam, and making something out of nothing. If he can do that enough times in this series, the Celtics will be one step closer to that elusive Banner 18.
Two summers ago, Adebayo was the swing piece in Miami’s six-game victory over Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, averaging 21.8 points on 60.8 percent shooting, 11 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.7 steals, and a block against a Celtics team that just physically could not handle him:
That version of the Celtics, though, skewed extremely small, with Daniel Theis as the only big man to get rotation minutes. This year’s model is a much different animal.
Al Horford’s back from his exile in Philadelphia and Oklahoma City, and playing maybe the best basketball of his lengthy postseason career. Robert Williams III has moved from the fringes of the rotation into All-Defensive Team consideration—and, according to head coach Ime Udoka, he’s expected to be fully ready to go for Game 1 after missing the final four games against Milwaukee. Grant Williams only stands 6-foot-6, but he just spent seven games standing up to Giannis; underestimate his defensive acumen at your own peril. Theis, the starting 5 when Bam feasted on Boston, is now the fourth option up front on a C’s team that just got through smothering every secondary scoring threat Milwaukee had available—miss you, Khris—which rendered even a superhuman effort by Giannis mostly moot by series’ end.
Butler’s been absolutely phenomenal through two rounds. But even if Erik Spoelstra can pencil him in for the 29 points and six assists he’s been averaging—which, given the quality and depth of Boston’s perimeter defenders, I’m not so sure about—Miami’s going to need another source of offensive firepower and playmaking. Kyle Lowry was supposed to help with that, but after missing most of the last month with a hamstring injury that will keep him out of Game 1, it seems unlikely he’ll be back to full form in time to make a major difference against a defense this gnarly. Herro, newly minted Sixth Man of the Year, might be able to shoulder a larger share of the load … but if an undermanned Sixers team could blitz and trap him into 11.3 points per game on 38 percent shooting with more turnovers than assists over the final four games, the full-strength Celtics might put just him in a wood chipper.
Maybe Vincent and Oladipo make enough plays to bolster the Heat’s oft-flagging half-court offense for a spell. Maybe Strus and Tucker hit half the 3s created for them. Hell, maybe the memory-holed Duncan Robinson gets dusted off and turns back the clock. But against an opponent as tough as Boston—one without glaring weak points in its rotation on either end of the floor—Miami’s going to need more than “maybe.” Adebayo’s going to have to be the one to give it to them.
Adebayo taking fewer than nine shots per game was fine through the first two rounds, when Spo could call on Jimmy and the gang to carry the load while Bam focused primarily on defanging Trae Young, James Harden, and Joel Embiid. This series, though, feels like it’ll require the return of the aggressive Bam who responded to a 12-point performance in a January 31 loss to Boston by averaging 20 and 10 on 59.5 percent shooting for the rest of the season. That guy’s got the skill, physicality, and athleticism to have Butler’s back in going toe-to-toe with Boston. Without him, though, Miami just might not have the muscle to make its second Finals trip in three years.
You’d be forgiven if your eyes were elsewhere in Game 6 of Warriors-Grizzlies—on Klay Thompson reclaiming his mantle, on Kevon Looney briefly turning into Dennis Rodman, on Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks trying to go lightning bolt for lightning bolt with Steph Curry. Rewatch that second half, though, and see if you don’t come away absolutely floored by the (ahem) grit and grind displayed by a player long since considered largely devoid of either.
With Memphis charging hard without Ja Morant and threatening to force a Game 7, Wiggins stepped up, scoring 15 of his 18 points after intermission. He crashed the glass, grabbing six of his 11 rebounds in the second half; he drilled tough shots late in the clock, responding to Grizzlies buckets to keep Golden State on top. And he did it while continuing to serve as the Warriors’ most versatile perimeter defender, holding point guard Tyus Jones and spring-heeled big man Brandon Clarke—both of whom had wrecked Golden State in Memphis’s blowout Game 5 victory—scoreless when he guarded them in Game 6.
After his disappointing tenure in Minnesota, and after a couple of years learning Golden State’s system, Wiggins has emerged at age 27 as a dude capable of playing the type of tough-ass two-way basketball that helps you win in the playoffs. Now, all he has to do is prove he can do it while getting battered by a smirking Slovenian.
Wiggins will get the primary assignment on Doncic from the jump; it’ll be up to him to at least slow Luka down, forcing Doncic to shake him around screens, and using his length to contest Doncic’s pull-ups and floaters from behind without fouling. When Dallas downsizes and forces Golden State’s centers off the floor, he’ll have to do the uncomfortable dirty work of tracking back to rebound and finish off possessions. And on the other end, when the Mavs are able to force the ball out of Steph’s hands and rotate to take away the first good look, he’ll have to be ready to rise and fire off the catch or drive a closeout off the bounce, using his athleticism to get into the teeth of the Dallas defense. He has to, has to, has to make shots: Wiggins is 13-for-27 (48.1 percent) from 3-point range in the Warriors’ eight wins this postseason, and just 3-for-13 (23.1 percent) in their three losses.
He has to, in essence, be the best damn 3-and-D player he can be—to succeed and thrive where Mikal Bridges crashed and burned. That might not be the rarefied air so many pundits projected “Maple Jordan” to enter when he exited Kansas as the no. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft. But it might be precisely the kind of thing that swings a playoff series, and returns the Warriors to the Finals.
Which brings us to our final selection …
OK, so it’s not exactly a clever zag to ID the two-time MVP and three-time champion as an interesting player. Sue me.
After a “down” regular season—which, by his immaculate standards, still means averaging more than 25 and six assists per game and captaining what was a near-top-five offense in his minutes—Curry’s played better through two rounds, averaging a shade under 27 and six on .601 true shooting while posting the highest usage rate and lowest turnover percentage of his postseason career. For all the well-deserved ink spilled on Jordan Poole’s emergence and Klay’s Game 6 resurgence, it’s worth remembering what makes so much of that, and everything else in the Bay, possible: the constant threat of Curry holding or receiving the ball in space. And just as the Warriors have their hands full in determining how to structure their coverages on Doncic, Jason Kidd and Co. likely aren’t thrilled to have to deal with Steph for the next couple of weeks.
Try to trap the ball out of his hands, as the Nuggets did, and watch Draymond Green and the rest of the squad go to work, producing nearly 1.3 points per chance against blitzes on Steph in Round 1:
If you don’t put two on the ball—letting everybody stay home, and trust Steph’s defender to deal with him one-on-one—there’s just one problem: Curry averaged 1.2 points per possession in isolation during the regular season, best in the NBA among players to run at least 100 isos, according to Synergy:
Dallas actually has a pretty decent answer to that: Reggie Bullock, who used his length to hector Curry into 8-for-27 shooting during four regular-season meetings with the Mavs. But when the Mavs shift to the small-ball looks where they switch everything, all Steph needs to do is get one stiff screen on Bullock and he’s off to the races.
The Mavericks’ defense is no joke. The complete turnaround they were able to pull off after looking left for dead in the first two games against Phoenix is one of the most impressive feats we’ve seen in these playoffs. But with all due respect to the Suns, a healthy Stephen Curry’s a different animal—just ask PatBev; he’ll shoot you straight—and he’s now within shouting distance of a sixth trip to the Finals and a fourth championship that would further burnish his legend and vault him even higher in the ranks of the all-time greats. I can’t wait to see what Dallas has in store to keep him from it, and whether, at age 34, the greatest shooter of all time is able to get there anyway.