he NBA Playoffs: Setting The Stage for The Eastern Conference Finals

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With the powerhouse Brooklyn Nets swept in a 4-0 series by the Boston Celtics, the Celtics have proven themselves to be worthy title contenders. After a disappointing start to the season, the Celtics, led by superstar forward Jayson Tatum and all-star guard Jaylen Brown, made a great turnaround and are looking to advance to the NBA Finals.

The Boston Celtics knocked off the reigning-champion Milwaukee Bucks to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals on May 15. After physical, back-and-forth games between the two teams, the series only became more competitive after the Celtics’ victory in game four. In game five, the Bucks edged out the Celtics in a one-possession game, giving the Bucks what seemed to be a tenacious grip on the series. Leading the Bucks to overcome a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter, Giannis Antetokounmpo dropped 40 points while connecting on 16 of 27 field goals, which was his most efficient shooting game of the postseason. Jrue Holiday shut down the Celtics’ two final offensive possessions with a block and a steal, and his defensive contributions were crucial to the team's success.

The Celtics, however, were not ready to be sent home in game six—thanks to Jayson Tatum's 46-point performance with 16 in the fourth quarter, Boston held off another potential Bucks comeback. After the game, Celtics coach Ime Udoka said, “We had the right resolve […] We let an opportunity slip away [in game five] but we still had a chance to make it a better story.” Despite the Bucks’ defeat, Antetokounmpo had another night that was nothing short of spectacular. With 44 points and 20 rebounds, Giannis kept Milwaukee in the game for the entirety of the fourth quarter.

However, the streak of away-team success came to an end with the next game when Boston brought it back to TD Garden and clinched their spot in the Conference Finals for the 36th time in franchise history. In this second-half rout of the Bucks, the Celtics ended up scoring 22 three-pointers, an insuperable challenge for the Bucks to overcome. With only four of 33 three-point attempts connected, Milwaukee had the second-worst all time shooting percentage in the playoffs by any team with at least 30 attempts from behind the line. Antetokounmpo’s lackluster play in the second half left something to be desired, as he converted on just three of 11 field goals in the paint. But, as Giannis put up historic numbers in the series, becoming the first player ever to reach 200 points, 100 rebounds, and 50 assists in a single playoff series, he can’t be blamed for the Bucks’ defeat. Instead, Celtics’ players such as Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Grant Williams, and a 35-year-old Al Horford stepped up in big games and delivered all throughout the series.

In the other half of the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat eliminated the Philadelphia 76ers in a 4-2 series to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Superstar center and MVP runner Joel ‘The Process’ Embiid was out for the first two games of the series with an orbital fracture and a concussion on top of his already-torn thumb ligament. Despite backlash from the fanbase, head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers started veteran center DeAndre Jordan for the two games The Process was out. This decision was heavily criticized by 76ers fans as Jordan’s lackluster athleticism and limited mobility on the court presented more of a liability than an asset, as he totaled only 10 points and seven rebounds in the 30 minutes he played in the series.

Despite returning for the rest of the series, Embiid continued to be hampered by his injuries, scoring less than 20 points in the majority of this series’ games. Superstar guard James Harden, new to the Sixers this season, continued to show signs of aging as he also scored less than 20 points for the majority of the games in this series. Rivers reiterated that he was not solely blaming Harden for the loss after game 6, saying, “I don’t lay the feet at anybody. . . We lost together as a group.” As Harden continues to transform his style into more of a playmaker than primary scoring option, Philadelphia is faced with the difficult decision this offseason of signing Harden to a maximum contract or allowing him to leave in free agency.

On the other hand, the Miami Heat have once again proven their dominance this round. After a disappointing performance in the postseason last year, Miami Heat forward Jimmy ‘Buckets’ Butler has arguably been one of the best players in this year’s playoffs, averaging 29.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 5.2 assists. Butler ‘twisted the knife’ even further after game six by saying, “Tobias Harris over me?”, a reference to the 76ers front office not offering Butler a maximum contract in 2019. Still, this series was not a one-man-show by any means. Guards Max Strus and Gabe Vincent and veteran forward PJ Tucker, have all contributed massively to the perimeter shooting of the team. Thus, the offensive liabilities of players such as Butler were covered. On the other end of the court, head coach Erik Spoelstra continuously made brilliant changes and switches to the defensive tactics of the team, including focusing on the 76ers in transition and clogging the paint to slow down Embiid.

This Eastern Conference Finals will be the perfect combination of young v.s. old, traditional v.s. modern, and Jayson Tatum v.s. Jimmy Butler. However, with the fall of the Bucks and the 76ers in the second round of the Eastern Conference, we must ask if we should continue to “Fear the Deer” and “Trust the Process.”