If the four teams in the NBA’s 2023 conference finals look familiar, it’s because the four of them were just here. The Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics, and Miami Heat all played in the 2020 conference finals in the Disney bubble. Now, just three (extremely long) years later, they’re back in the driver’s seat and just four wins away from a trip to the Finals.
It wasn’t easy getting back. In the West, the Lakers knocked off another juggernaut to advance, beating the Golden State Warriors in six games and handing them a list of existential offseason questions. Meanwhile, the Nuggets outdueled the Phoenix Suns, giving the newly formed superteam a frustratingly long summer of self-reflection.
On the other side of the bracket, the Heat refused to relent (again) against the New York Knicks, and the Boston Celtics came back from a 3-2 deficit to outlast the Philadelphia 76ers in seven games.
And now, after a month of full-blown chaos, some of the NBA’s biggest names will face off for a chance to play on its biggest stage. To preview the action—and discuss some of the ripple effects from the second round—the Ringer NBA team teamed up to answer five burning questions.
What story line will decide Lakers vs. Nuggets?
Rob Mahoney: Whether Anthony Davis can both slow down Nikola Jokic and stifle everything else he creates. The Warriors were at their best in their second-round matchup against the Lakers when they involved Davis directly in the pick-and-roll, pulling him away from the basket and forcing L.A.’s supporting cast to cover all the space behind him. Hopefully the Lakers defense got used to that arrangement because it will basically be the default for every possession in the Western Conference finals—only, instead of Davis guarding Draymond Green or Kevon Looney, he’ll be checking a two-time MVP who can score or facilitate from anywhere. Jokic has been shooting 48 percent from deep in these playoffs, picking coverages apart on the short roll, and absolutely dominating inside. Can the Lakers defense, which has been absolutely exceptional to this point, really stand up to that? It’s a lot to ask of any team, especially when Jokic turns every player around him into a problem.
Seerat Sohi: Fatigue. The Lakers are coming off playing a game every other day against the breakneck movement of the Warriors, LeBron James is operating on one healthy foot, and after three nights of rest, the Lakers will have to get used to huffing and puffing in high-altitude Denver. On the other hand, the Nuggets have shrunk their rotation to eight players. If James can summon the stamina to consistently punish them on the interior, Michael Malone will likely have to bring Bruce Brown off the bench even sooner than he’s become accustomed to lately—a development that could push the burden of attrition back to the Nuggets.
Michael Pina: Who will guard Jokic? Will the Lakers stick Davis (by far the best defender in these playoffs) on him to try to limit huge scoring outputs from the two-time MVP? Or will they opt for a different matchup that lets AD stay around the paint? Aaron Gordon could be an intriguing option for Davis to defend, but that matchup doesn’t help with their most obvious defensive dilemma: Jokic. The Lakers will spend this entire series trying to answer one of basketball’s most complicated questions.
Zach Kram: The Nuggets traded for Gordon so that they’d have a better defender against the West’s best big wings. He fulfilled that promise against Kevin Durant in the last round and now gets a chance against James. I trust Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brown—two more shrewd, defensively oriented acquisitions for Denver—to slow the Lakers’ other perimeter scorers. And if Gordon can keep LeBron relatively in check as well, the Lakers won’t be able to score enough to win this series.
Matt Dollinger: How deep can LeBron dig? I loved James pretending Friday that he didn’t know he’d get three nights of rest if the Lakers finished off the Warriors in Game 6. Something tells me the 38-year-old was well aware of the rare respite he’d get, which might have been why he played 43 minutes and topped 30 points for the first time this postseason. Or maybe it was a complete coincidence. Either way, LeBron has to be well aware that this could be his last shot at a title, particularly as (arguably) a team’s best player. Chances are he’ll come out looking fresh in Game 1.
What story line will decide Celtics-Heat?
Pina: How will the Heat score? Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo will have to carry major scoring and playmaking responsibilities, and there will be stretches of this series that tilt on whether Miami can punish Boston’s new (old) starting five from behind the 3-point line. The hot outside shooting that lifted them over Milwaukee crashed back to earth in Round 2, and a lot of pressure will be on Kevin Love, Caleb Martin, and any other role player Boston leaves open to knock down more shots than they miss.
Kram: The Celtics defense has been inconsistent thus far in the playoffs, ranging from completely submitting opponents to getting completely dominated by them in pick-and-rolls. But on paper, the Heat should have an immense challenge scoring in this series. Miami ranked 25th in the regular season in offensive rating, while Boston ranked second in defense. As long as the Heat don’t enjoy as much shooting luck as they did against the Bucks in the first round, they might struggle to score into triple digits in most of this series’ games.
Dollinger: Can Max Strus average 20 points per game? I just don’t see how Miami can muster enough offense without that happening. The losses of Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo will be felt more dramatically against the Celtics than against the Knicks. If Strus can’t catch fire (he’s averaging 10.9 points in 29.4 minutes on 36.9 percent shooting from deep), then Miami will need Kyle Lowry or Love to dial the clock back for a game or two to stay competitive. The options aren’t great, but Miami has gotten this far anyway.
Sohi: The aggression of Adebayo. The Heat were a missed Butler 3 away from the NBA Finals last season, and you can count on Mr. Him to keep siphoning heroic, gritty performances from his belabored frame as much as you can count on anything. The difference this year is that Adebayo is finally calling his own shots. Al Horford, likely his primary defender, is a year older and slower, while Robert Williams III hasn’t looked like himself this postseason.
Mahoney: Whether the Heat still have enough. With every passing round, it gets more incredible that Miami is still here, making it all work with a seventh-seeded roster minus a 20-point scorer and an important reserve. Contenders have completely fallen apart for less, but here are the Heat, just four wins away from getting a crack at the title. Those next four wins will be the most daunting yet; Miami’s scrappy rotation now runs up against the deepest roster in the field—a Boston team with enough collective talent to adjust and outlast. Erik Spoelstra will have his hands full trying to match up with that kind of opponent, not only on a position-by-position level but also in terms of the collective, revolving optionality the Celtics have but his team doesn’t. At this point we should know better than to count out the Heat, but to win this series, they’ll have to stretch an already over-performing roster further than they ever have before.
Play matchmaker for one NBA team that needs a new head coach.
Mahoney: Monty Williams to the Raptors. The vibes in Toronto last season were a cry for help. Some of that could take care of itself with a roster shake-up, but just to be on the safe side, let’s get a coach in the building with a history of establishing real and lasting team culture. Quibbles can be made with some of Williams’s tactical choices from time to time, but he’s a sharp coach with a high approval rating who gets his teams to play collaborative basketball. The Raptors, frankly, could use some of that.
Pina: My half-joke answer is Steve Nash to the Phoenix Suns. It would be incredible to see one of the greatest players in the franchise’s history lead it to its very first championship, even if things ended on a sour note between him and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. My real answer is Williams to the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that’s in desperate need of a tonal reset via an authoritative voice who’s able to push Giannis Antetokounmpo (i.e., no more 3s or bail-out pull-up twos) in ways Milwaukee’s old staff could not.
Kram: Mike D’Antoni to the 76ers, assuming Doc Rivers doesn’t stick around after another playoff disappointment. Philadelphia is already most of the way to assuming a Houston East identity with Daryl Morey, James Harden, P.J. Tucker, and more. Now bring in D’Antoni, too! Trade for Chris Paul! And run back the full 2018-era Rockets team half a decade later.
Sohi: Kenny Atkinson to the Raptors. Despite a year of sub-.500 ball, the Raptors front office is still convinced this roster is stronger than its record. I’m not exactly in agreement with them, but if the Raptors want to dust off the cover and run things back, they need an injection of good vibes—a coach who can develop young talent, ease the throttle off the pressure of wins and losses, and foster a culture of accountability built on incremental, individual gains. That was Atkinson in Brooklyn.
Dollinger: Nick Nurse to the Suns. Neither Nurse nor Williams, the Suns’ former head coach, deserved to lose their jobs, but that’s life in the NBA, even when you’re a recent Coach of the Year recipient (Williams in 2022, Nurse in 2020). You get the feeling Mat Ishbia wants to take a big swing. Bringing in a head coach who has won a championship and whom Kevin Durant apparently admires meets the criteria.
Make one bold offseason prediction about a losing playoff team.
Pina: You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts! Draymond Green will opt out of his contract and sign with the Dallas Mavericks.
Sohi: The Phoenix Suns will have a hard time finding a suitable trade return for Chris Paul. The Point God can still be productive in the right scenario, but his best days are behind him, and the book is out: the farther you go in the playoffs, the more likely he is to be unavailable. That should make contenders shy away. His best bet is to find a team trying to make the jump into the playoffs, but those teams will probably want to retain the hard-hat and lunch-pail types Phoenix needs to retool around Booker and Durant.
Kram: NBA media will spend weeks debating possible Damian Lillard trades to a handful of teams, only for Lillard to remain a Blazer for yet another season.
Mahoney: The Bucks will swing a blockbuster deal in the offseason, giving Giannis Antetokounmpo a new costar. The primary takeaway from Milwaukee’s shocking first-round exit was that running it back would be unacceptable. That’s why Mike Budenholzer is out of a job, and it’s why the Bucks will have an active offseason on the trade market—revamping their roster even if that means trading Jrue Holiday, sign-and-trading Khris Middleton, or both. Milwaukee has a lot of its future firsts out the door already (due mostly to the costs of acquiring Holiday in the first place), but there’s enough in the cupboard to get a deal done and refresh a roster that badly needs it.
Dollinger: James Harden isn’t going back to Houston. I believe all the reports and the rumored mutual interest, but I also believe Harden is eventually going to change his mind and stay in Philadelphia. Losing the way the Sixers did in Game 7 is comically inexcusable. But the East is going to be worse next year, Joel Embiid just won MVP, and Harden topped the 40-point mark twice in the second round. Do you really walk away from a contender that can pay you for the sake of playing no-expectations basketball in Houston? Daryl Morey will talk him into staying.
Which two teams will meet in the Finals?
Kram: Nuggets and Celtics. A postseason full of upsets will end with a no. 1 seed facing a no. 2 seed in the Finals, as chaos ends and normalcy returns to the playoff bracket.
Dollinger: Lakers and Celtics. Denver is a wildly competent basketball team compared to Golden State, but this Lakers team believes in themselves and has done it before. A brief recharge could help them steal Game 1. And I’m picking the Celtics, even though I fully believe Jimmy Butler could play them one-on-five and keep it within single digits for an entire quarter.
Mahoney: Nuggets and Celtics. After all the upsets on both sides of the playoff bracket, things should finally go chalk in the conference finals—with the Nuggets solving the Lakers as that series goes on and the Celtics giving the Heat a bit more than they can handle.
Sohi: Lakers and Celtics. Reject modernity, embrace tradition. Anthony Davis presents potentially unsolvable quandaries for Denver on both ends of the floor. He’s one of the only people in the world with a shot at guarding Jokic one-on-one, and he can punish Denver in the paint. The Celtics, in the past six quarters against the Sixers, have regained the vengeful competence that made them one of the best teams in the NBA in the early half of the season.
Pina: Nuggets and Celtics. They’re the two most talented and balanced teams remaining in these playoffs. Both have MVP candidates, lineup versatility, and an explosive offense that the opposing defense may not be able to stop. It would be an incredible series, if we get it.