THE stage is set for the NBA Eastern Conference finals between 17-time champion Boston Celtics and three-time winner Miami Heat.
The Celtics slammed the door on defending champion Toronto Raptors, 4-3, while the Heat eliminated NBA regular season frontrunner Milwaukee Bucks,4-1.
The best-of-seven series will begin on Sept. 16.
In the West, top seed Los Angeles Lakers are back in the finals for the first time since 2010 when Kobe Bryant won his fifth and last NBA championship.
But the Lakers and Lebron James will have to wait for the winner of the LA Clippers-Denver Nuggets semifinal showdown.
The series is tied at 3-3.
Let’s now take a look at what could happen in the still spectator-free quarantine bubble at the Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.
No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Miami Heat
Season series: Celtics, 2-1.
Players to watch: Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown , Gordon Hayward, Brad Wanamaker and Enes Kanter (Boston) and Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Jae Crowder, Duncan Robinson and Andre iguodala.
Coach: Brad Stevens (Boston) and Eric Spoelstra (Miami).
It is interesting to watch the Celtics, who are playing in the finals for the third time in four years, and the Heat, who are back in the finals for the first time since 2014.
They made it at the expense of the top two seeds, Bucks and Raptors.
But while the Heat needed only five games to send the Bucks and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo home, the Celtics had to dig deep to their tank to finally dislodge the Raptors.
What are their chances against each other?
Can Boston’s talent prevail over Miami’s tenacity?
Is Tatum good enough to win an NBA championship for the Celtics? What about Butler’s time-tested leadership”
The team’s primary weapons will still be Tatum and Butler.
Tatum, who has blossomed from a promising youngster into a full-fledged superstar under coach Stevens, is averaging team-highs of 25.3 points and 10.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 11 games in the playoffs.
Tatum is clearly now the team leader following the departure of veterans Kyrie Irving and Al Horford last year.
As Miami’s top gun, Butler has 21.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.2 assist in nine playoff games.
Butler, now called “Jimmy Buckets” by Miami fans, was linked to several trade rumors to Boston for years. But the trade never materialized because Boston was willing to offer only second-tier players for Butler.
The supporting cast of Stevens and Spoelstra, two of the brilliant coaching minds in the league, can also spell the big difference in what could be another entertaining series.
The Celtics will rely on Brown (21.0ppg, 7.6rpg), Walker (19.6ppg, 5.3apg), Smart (13.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Theis (9.5ppg, 6.6 rpg).
The Heat, on the other hand, can consistently get the big numbers from Dragic (21.1 ppg, 4.7 apg, 4.4 apg), Adebayo (16.2ppg, 11.7 rpg), Herro (13.5ppg, 4.1 rog) and mid-season acquisition Crowder (12.8ppg, 6.2rpg)
Coming into the playoffs, the Heat are well-rested.
The Celtics are tired and weary.
An interesting observation of the NBA was the total minutes played of the two team’s key players in the playoffs could also provide the difference.
Boston — Tatum (433 minutes), Brown (426), Smart (419), Walker (413l) and Daniel Theis (304).
Miami — Butler (318), Adebayo (318), Dragoc (312), Herro (291), and Crowder (270).
Boston now hopes Hayward will be able to return in time.
Hayward, who suffered a sprained ankle in Boston’s first playoff game last Aug. 17 and was ruled out for four to six weeks, was the Celtics’ fourth-leading scorer with an average of 17.5 points in 66 games during the regular season.
Hayward came up big in one of Boston’s two victories over Miami in the regular season.
That was when Hayward exploded with 29 points on 10-of-14 shooting and nine rebounds as the Celtics defeated the Heat, 109-101, despite playing without Tatum in late January.
Overall, Hayward averaged 22.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists in two games against Miami.
Stevens hopes Hayward can provide the much-neded firepower — and fresh legs — against the well-rested Heat in what could be another long series.
Prediction: Celtics in 6.
NOTES — Belated happy birthday to Olga C. Oña, a good friend way back in my college days at Lyceum of the Philippines.
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