Following the Western Conference semi-final closeout by the Denver Nuggets over the Phoenix Suns last week Thursday (4-2), in a series that was never close, the National Basketball Association (NBA) featured three other semi-final encounters last weekend that all had the drama of a Hollywood suspense thriller. The popular theme to the closeout games (except for the New York Knicks vs Miami Heat) was the 20+ points margin of victory.
Two years ago, the Nuggets were embarrassed by the Suns in a post-season sweep, but this year it was the Nuggets who stood at the better end of a humiliating situation, particularly in Game 6. Last Thursday night, the Nuggets went on a 23-2 run during the latter part of the first quarter to take a 44-26 lead and never looked back, resulting in a 125-100 victory.
Last year's Most Valuable Player (MVP) Nikola Jokic scored 32 points (with 12 assists and 10 rebounds for his fourth triple-double of the post-season), Jamal Murray added 26 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope finished with 21 to motor the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2020.
As a fallout to the eclipse of the Suns, team management announced last Saturday that Head Coach Monty Williams, who served as a vital component to the Suns' turnaround over the last four seasons, had been relieved of his duties, signalling the high expectations with a core led by Kevin Durant and Devin Booker and also the perils of being a head coach after an ownership change (billionaire Mat Ishbia purchased the team from Robert Sarver late last year).
So, the Nuggets are in the conference finals for the first time since they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the Florida bubble during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Lakers went on to be crowned champions. And they now have a second bite at the proverbial apple after the Lakers erased the shine off the defending champion Golden State Warriors last Friday night in their semi-final series, winning 4-2.
The Warriors, trailing 1-3 in the series, staved off elimination last week Wednesday by defeating the Lakers 121-106 at home, but last Friday, with everything on the line, their dreary performance on the road came back to haunt them. Stephen Curry had 32 points, but his supporting cast provided very little as the Lakers closed the series with a 122-101 win, and Anthony Davis swallowing 20 rebounds.
The Nuggets have never defeated the Lakers in a play-off series (0-7) and have never reached the NBA Finals, but this is as good a chance as any, and they already established a footing in Game 1 this past Tuesday. The teams split the regular season matchups 2-2 — each team winning on their own floors — but the Lakers are a different team since the last regular season encounter in early January, and this series promises to be like boxers in an elevator, especially if Anthony Davis remains in the game (mentally and physically). This series promises to be a dogfight.
The Boston Celtics visited the home of the Philadelphia 76ers last week Thursday and repelled the Conference Finals ambitions of the NBA MVP, Joel Embiid, and his cohorts in a 95-86 win. Jason Tatum missed 14 of his first 15 shots in the game but came alive in the fourth quarter to ensure that the Celtics' season would be extended. Then, in the only Game 7 of the conference semi-finals, the 76ers strolled into Boston last Sunday and were completely throttled.
With the encounter tied at 55 early in the third quarter, Boston went on a dominating run to open up an 83-58 lead, outscoring their opponents 33-10 in the third stanza. Philadelphia was then left with the Sisyphean task of overcoming a hefty deficit, but with Embiid (15 points) and James Harden (9 points) unable to come up with the goods, Boston earned the trip to their fifth Conference Finals in the last seven years, and their third against the Miami Heat in the last four years.
Philadelphia has now been eliminated in the conference semi-finals over the last three seasons and Embiid has cemented his reputation as a player who can't deliver when it matters, having now gone 0-5 in conference semi-finals. And the domino effect resulted in the firing of Head Coach Doc Rivers on Tuesday of this week. In the same breath, Tatum, who is now 5-1 in game sevens, finished with 51 points, the most ever scored in a Game 7, surpassing the 50 Curry scored on April 30 in a Game 7 against the Sacramento Kings. Boston's four-time All-Star wing was easily the day's most impressive player, scoring 25 in a back-and-forth first half and 17 more in Boston's 33-10 third quarter that turned a three-point lead into a runaway.
Now Tatum and the rest of the Celtics need to transpose that Game 7 performance into a no-love-lost series against the Heat, who are the lowest seeded team in the conference finals, in a rematch of last year's conference finals that went seven games before Boston prevailed. This play-off version of the Heat is hampered by injuries to Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo, but Jimmy Butler is doing everything to make this his play-offs and this year's conference semifinal series has the potential to be thrilling.
The Heat eliminated the New York Knicks last week Friday to become the second No 8 seed ever to reach the conference finals. Incidentally, in 1999, the No 8 seeded Knicks advanced to the conference finals and eventually the NBA Finals, where they were defeated by the San Antonio Spurs in five games. The Knicks have been the only No 8 team to ever reach the NBA Finals, but the Heat are making their presence felt in the play-offs this year and will be looking to go one better than their 1999 counterpart.
Over in the West, the Lakers are on a quest to make their own history as a No 7 seed has never made it to the NBA Finals. And the lowest seed to ever win the NBA Finals is the 1994/95 Houston Rockets, who at No 6, beat four 50-game winners in the process — Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs and Orlando Magic (who they swept in the finals). History is in the making, but it is left to be seen if history is to be repeated or if new chapters will be written.
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