The stars, schemes and stats that will decide these surprising conference finals

NBA

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After two thrilling rounds of the 2024 NBA playoffs, we’ve reached the final four teams still vying for the title.

The defending champion Denver Nuggets? Gone, bounced by the Minnesota Timberwolves after a wild second-half comeback in Game 7.

The Oklahoma City Thunder, the top seed in the Western Conference? Eliminated by the Dallas Mavericks, whose trade deadline makeover created a dangerous championship contender around superstars Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

And then there is the East bracket, featuring a conference finals matchup few could have predicted heading into the season: the league-leading Boston Celtics against the underdog Indiana Pacers, who needed a Game 7 win inside Madison Square Garden to reach their first conference finals since 2014. The Celtics, meanwhile, are here for the sixth time in eight seasons.

Ahead of each series’ Game 1 — Celtics-Pacers begins Tuesday (8 p.m. ET on ESPN) while Wolves-Mavs tips on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET on TNT) — here’s a look at the factors that will determine which contenders will advance to next month’s NBA Finals.

MORE: NBA playoff schedules and news | Offseason guides


How the Wolves and Mavericks got here

Minnesota swept the Phoenix Suns out of the first round, taking down one of the preseason favorites to win the championship. Then, in the conference semifinals, it ousted the defending champs in the Denver Nuggets in an epic seven-game series. Anthony Edwards has been sublime, averaging 28.9 points on 50.4% shooting (39.8% from 3), 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game — all a tick above his regular season numbers when he had his best year as a pro since being drafted No. 1 in 2020.

Minnesota’s series win against Denver was far from a one-man show, however. The Wolves rallied from down by 20 points in Game 7 with six players scoring in double figures and staunch defensive performances from Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Jaden McDaniels and Edwards, who has said his goal is to become the best player in the league on both sides of the ball.

In Dallas, the starpower of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving made a deep playoff run a possibility, but the Mavericks’ defense and role players keyed the Mavs’ run through the first two rounds. The Mavs, who had the league’s stingiest defense in the final 20 games of the regular season, have held foes to 101 points or fewer in six of their eight playoff wins. Forwards P.J. Washington and Derrick Jones, the Mavs’ best on-ball defenders, both had clutch shooting performances to make the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder pay for loading up against Dallas’ star duo.

Doncic has struggled by his standards while dealing with a sprained right knee, but he finished the West semifinals strong, averaging a 30-point triple-double on .568/.529/.900 shooting splits in the last two games.

— Tim MacMahon and Dave McMenamin


Are Edwards and the young Wolves ready for the moment?

Can a team led by a 22-year-old star in Edwards be ready to break through with an NBA Finals appearance so soon? The Wolves’ West finals foe went through a similar ascension two years ago when Doncic — just 23 at the time — led them to the conference finals where they lost to the more-seasoned Golden State Warriors in five games.

The Mavs took their lumps and reloaded, trading for a former champion in Irving last year and adding Washington and Gafford at the deadline this year. When asked after the Denver series if the “Timberpups” needed to take a few more postseason lumps before winning a title, Minnesota’s leaders argued they’ve already dealt with enough disappointment.

“We lost last year,” Towns said during the postgame news conference. Edwards, sitting to Towns’ right, then chimed in: “We lost the last two years. God damn, how many times we got to lose? How much you want us to lose?”

If there’s one characteristic that defines Edwards, it’s his unwavering confidence. So, the Wolves guard rejecting some predetermined timeline a player must endure in order to win a ring comes as no surprise. The Wolves showed some vulnerability against the Nuggets, losing Games 3, 4 and 5 after going up 2-0 and sometimes losing their composure in those losses. However, the resolve they showed by winning Game 6 by 45 points and never giving up in Game 7 could be evidence enough that this team’s time is now.

— McMenamin


How will Dallas size up against the jumbo Timberwolves?

Upgrading the center rotation played a massive role in the Mavs rebounding from last year’s lottery finish to make a run to the West finals. General manager Nico Harrison added Dereck Lively II in the draft and Gafford at the trade deadline, giving the Mavs a tag team of energetic lob threats and rim protectors. They’ll have a big challenge in front of them this series against a Minnesota team that starts two 7-footers in four-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns.

Both Dallas bigs have made major contributions. Lively, in particular, was a major force against the Thunder, when he had the best plus-minus in the series (plus-71) by a wide margin.

“It’s easy to say that he should start,” coach Jason Kidd said without prompting after Game 6. “But he’s playing his role for us, and that’s coming off the bench and giving us energy and finishing in the paint.”

It’s uncertain if stretch big man Maxi Kleber will be able to return from his right shoulder injury at any point during this series. He has begun basic basketball activity, such as form shooting from short range and defensive slides, and is scheduled to be re-evaluated later this week.

Kleber unlocks the Mavs’ lineup versatility. He provides coach Jason Kidd the option of playing big with Kleber at power forward alongside one of the centers or small with a five-out offense that could pull Gobert away from the paint, the latter of which Dallas employed successfully in a 2022 series win over Gobert’s Jazz.

— MacMahon


Matchup to watch: An elite battle on the perimeter

It’s the league’s highest-scoring tandem against one of its best pair of perimeter defenders. Edwards already showed the Timberwolves’ hand, declaring in his post-Game 7 interview that his matchup would be Irving, meaning that McDaniels will be the primary defender on Doncic.

The smothering defense of McDaniels and Edwards factored into one of the most memorable moments of the Mavs’ stumble into the lottery last season. Down three in the final seconds of Irving’s Mavs home debut, Irving and Doncic passed the ball back and forth, unable to get a decent look, before Irving coughed up a turnover — a scene that foreshadowed Dallas’ disappointing finish.

But Irving and Doncic combined for 69 points in that loss and matched that total in a Jan. 7 win over the Wolves, which was the only occasion they both played in four meetings against Minnesota this season.

— MacMahon


Series wild card: The Wolves other defensive menace

After the final question had been asked and answered in Edwards’ and Towns’ joint Game 7 news conference, Edwards remained at the dais for a couple minutes in order to shout out McDaniels, calling him the Wolves’ postseason MVP so far.

The 6-9 forward was crucial in finishing off the Nuggets, averaging 22 points on a 75% shooting clip over the final two games while also playing the type of defense that caused Nikola Jokic to say that Minnesota has two Defensive Player of the Year-level players in McDaniels and Gobert.

For all the talk about Edwards’ age, McDaniels is just 23 years old himself and will be tasked with stopping a basketball wizard in Doncic in the conference finals. His performance could very well swing the series. McDaniels displayed a refreshing honesty in the conference semifinals when assessing his defense, admitting he needed to “stop disrespecting” Aaron Gordon by allowing the Nuggets forward to take open shots in the Nuggets’ wins and, in the closeout game, lamenting that he “kind of let Jamal [Murray] get away from me” at times. Like the rest of his team, McDaniels sounds intent on competing well into June.

“It ain’t the championship, so we still got to keep playing,” McDaniels said on Sunday. “But it’s good to beat the defending champs. It shows how good we can be.”

— McMenamin


Stat that could swing the series: Strength vs. strength at the rim

Since Feb. 10, when Gafford and Washington made their team debuts, the Mavericks ranked second in the NBA in field goal percentage on layups and dunks, according to Second Spectrum.

The Timberwolves, for their part, allowed the league’s lowest field goal percentage on layups and dunks for the entire season.

— Matt Williams


How the Celtics and Pacers got here

Boston has comfortably run through the opening two rounds of the playoffs. The Celtics dispatched the Miami Heat in five games as Jimmy Butler missed the series with a knee injury, and only a historic shooting performance by Miami in Game 2 prevented a sweep.

The Celtics coughed up another Game 2 loss at home to Cleveland, but Donovan Mitchell‘s exit with a calf injury after Game 3 turned that series into another five-game triumph.

Indiana, meanwhile, has reached this point with a breakneck offensive pace led by Haliburton. But there is so much more to the league’s second-rated offense. Siakam attacks relentlessly and gives the young club some much-needed playoff experience at the top of the rotation, while backup point guard T.J. McConnell is integral to arguably the NBA’s best bench because of his underrated midrange jumper and his ability to hound opposing players for 94 feet.

Pundits will inevitably point to Indiana’s first two playoff opponents and cite injuries to the Milwaukee BucksGiannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard and the New York KnicksJulius Randle and OG Anunoby, among others. But the Pacers have enough young talent — especially on offense — to become a perennial player in the East’s playoff picture.

— Tim Bontemps and Chris Herring


Porzingis’ availability is Boston’s biggest unknown

The 7-foot-3 center, acquired by the Celtics during the offseason to give them a different look against switching defenses in the playoffs, has been sidelined with a calf injury since Game 5 against Miami. He has slowly begun ramping up his activity over the past couple of weeks but is expected to miss at least the first two games of this series, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Friday.

Porzingis is an elite rim-protector and 3-point shooter who recorded career highs in field goal percentage (52%) and effective field goal percentage (59%) this season and allowed just 44.3% shooting in the paint, second best among players to contest at least 300 shots this season, according to Second Spectrum tracking data.

— Bontemps


Can Indiana’s defense afford to double Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown?

In not seeing the Bucks or Knicks at full strength, Indiana was generally able to avoid having to defend multiple stars at once. Because of that, the Pacers were able to throw multiple defenders at Knicks guard Jalen Brunson, just as they were able to throw swarms at Damian Lillard in the first round.

The question now is whether Indiana can defend the high-powered Celtics well enough. If the Pacers try single coverage against Boston’s superstar wings, the Celtics could dominate the free throw battle. No team in the league sent opponents to the line at a higher rate than Indiana this season.

Doubling could prove just as risky. The Celtics took and hit more 3-pointers than any other team. However, the Pacers surrendered fewer attempts and makes than any other team in the league during the regular season.

— Herring


Matchup to watch: Haliburton vs. Boston’s stingy backcourt

To have a chance in this series, Indiana will need elite offensive production from its star point guard against arguably the league’s best defensive backcourt in Jrue Holiday and Derrick White.

The Pacers got such a performance during their in-season tournament victory against Boston on Dec. 4, when Haliburton had 26 points with five 3-pointers, 13 assists and 10 rebounds to advance to the IST semifinals in Las Vegas.

Holiday and White, however, are both long and rangy enough to give Haliburton plenty of trouble throughout the series. Boston’s duo is coming off a Game 5 victory in which it helped hold Cleveland guards Darius Garland and Max Strus to a combined 23 points on 7-for-27 shooting.

Indiana’s turbocharged offense is built around the scoring and playmaking of Haliburton. Holiday and White present the toughest challenge yet.

— Bontemps


Series wild card: The rebounding battle

If the Pacers’ defense is spread thin — because Indiana opts to double-team or due to Boston’s ability to space the floor with shooters — the question of rebounding could be critical, just as it was in the conference semifinals between New York and Indiana.

In Game 5 of that series, during which the Knicks started 6-1 guard Miles McBride over 6-8 forward Precious Achiuwa, Indiana struggled defending Brunson. When the Pacers sprinted at him, he dumped the ball to McBride, who served as a screener and release valve on offense.

Boston will have similar counters, ones that are potentially more efficient than New York’s. The Pacers, who struggled mightily at times to keep the Knicks off the offensive glass, might have that problem against the Celtics, too. Indiana ranked 26th in defensive rebound rate during the regular season. By halftime of that Game 5, the Knicks had more offensive rebounds than the Pacers had total rebounds.

— Herring


Stat that could define the series: Points!

The Celtics and Pacers ranked first and second in offensive efficiency this season, but the East finalists got there in dramatically different ways: Boston led the NBA in made 3-pointers, while Indiana led the league in paint points.

This is the sixth playoff series since 1998 to feature the top team in made 3s against the top team in paint points, and it’s the first in a conference finals or later since the 2000 NBA Finals between the Pacers and Los Angeles Lakers. In the past five such meetings, the team that led the league in paint points won three of them.

— Williams

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