NBA: Close semi-finals with favourites finding it hard
Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (35) in the second half of Game 5 of an NBA Western Conference basketball semi-final play-off series Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Denver.

The 2022/23 National Basketball Association (NBA) conference semi-finals series have created quite a stir in the last week, and the only remaining top seeded team that's keeping its head above water is the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets finished the regular season atop the Western Conference with the fourth-best record in the league (53-29) and, after dispatching the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round (4-1) by an average winning margin of 12.5 points, they squared up with Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and the rest of the Phoenix Suns in their conference semi-final series.

The Nuggets are undefeated at home in the play-offs (6-0), including 3-0 against the Suns, with an average winning margin of 14.7 points in those three games. The Suns did win Games 3 and 4 of the series, but those were by narrow margins (average six points) and came with mammoth scoring efforts by Booker and Durant, with both playing almost every minute of every game. Denver's defence has been throwing everything at Booker and Durant with very little success in mitigating their scoring, but the offensive effort of the NBA's two-time Most Valuable Player (MVP), Nikola Jokic, with a supporting cast that includes Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, have done enough to neutralise their high scores.

The expectation of the series coming in wasn't very high as JustBet had the Nuggets favoured by a wide margin to advance, but with Booker and Durant playing at an outstanding level, the series took on a different complexion and would have been turned up a notch if Chris Paul hadn't sustained an injury in the middle of Game 2 — it has been riveting, nonetheless.

Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins (left), dunks next to Los Angeles Lakers centre Anthony Davis during the second half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball second-round play-off series Wednesday, May 10, 2023, in San Francisco.(Photo: AP)

In the Eastern Conference's 'Jekyll and Hyde' semi-final series between the No 2 Boston Celtics and the No 3 Philadelphia 76ers, no team appeared to have the ability to hold homecourt advantage as they both lost games on their home floor. Following on this trend, Philadelphia visited Boston on Tuesday, April 9, and with major contributions from Tyrese Maxey and the newly crowned league MVP, Joel Embiid (30 and 33 points, respectively), they took a tight grip on the series after a 115-103 victory, making for another entrancing conference semi0finals.

However, the most intriguing storylines from these semi-final series involve the four teams not yet mentioned. In the West, the No 7 seeded Los Angeles Lakers have put on a show in these play-offs and have flexed their muscle against the No 6 seed Golden State Warriors in the semifinals. The Lakers pushed past the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Play-In, then outworked the Memphis Grizzlies for a 4-2 first-round win. This secured their spot in the conference semi-finals and provided an opportunity for LeBron James and Stephen Curry to add another chapter in their post-season rivalry.

LeBron and Stephen collided in every NBA Finals from 2015 to 2018, with the Warriors' sharpshooter winning three of those four encounters, but Golden State have performed miserably on the road this season (the last two first-round away games against the Sacramento Kings being exceptions) and this has continued into the conference semi-final round. Apart from Games 2 and 3, when the Warriors and Lakers exchanged blow-outs — 127-100 and 97-127, respectively — the games have produced close encounters, but it has been the uncharacteristic wilting in the third and fourth quarters by the Warriors that placed them neck-deep into trouble.

LeBron and the Lakers travelled to Chase Center on Wednesday night (May 10) with every intention of putting the season of the defending champions to bed in five games, but the Warriors had other ideas. The final statistics for the game displayed relative parity between the contestants except for the rebounding disparity. The Warriors won the battle of the boards 48-38 and, following the trend throughout this series where the winner of this category wins the game, staved off elimination and forced a Game 6 tonight after a 121-106 victory. The Warriors will be on the road tonight and will need everything in their arsenal to extend their season to Sunday's Game 7 — not an easy ask considering their dismal away record this year, plus the Lakers are 5-0 at home this post-season.

The Lakers' impressive play-off run, after a very shaky start to the season, has come as a surprise to many (and the jubilation of others), but not as much of a shock as what is happening in the East with the Miami Heat. Miami made the play-offs after surviving a do-or-die game against the Chicago Bulls in the Play-In Tournament, then embarrassed the Milwaukee Bucks — who finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA (58-24) — in the first round and became the first Play-In team to win a play-off series.

The No 8 seed Miami Heat advanced to face the No 5 seeded New York Knicks and placed a stranglehold on the series last Monday night (April 8) following a 109-101 home victory, to get within one win from the Eastern Conference Finals. For the Knicks, that loss came down to one simple factor, rebounding — more specifically, offensive rebounding. New York ranked third in rebounding this season and had gotten the best of Miami on the boards up to that point in the series, but Game 4 was a different story. While Miami's rebounding margin of 44–35 isn't very disparaging (on the surface), New York got destroyed on the offensive glass in the fourth quarter — Miami collected seven offensive rebounds while New York collected only one. The overall rebounding margin in the fourth was 17–8 in favour of Miami, dashing any hopes of a favourable outcome for the Knicks. Mitchell Robinson, who was inhaling rebounds for the Knicks earlier in the play-offs, had just one board in the fourth quarter.

Then, trailing 1-3 in the series and everything to play for, the Knicks welcomed the Heat into Madison Square Gardens on Wednesday night and turned the screw. The Knicks returned to the formula that got them success all season and engineered a 112-103 victory that ensured a Game 6 in Miami tonight. Statistically, the encounter was fairly even except where the Knicks out-rebounded their opponents 50-34, with Robinson grabbing a game-high 11 boards. There's no telling what will happen tonight, but the Knicks have their proverbial backs against the wall and survival mode is their only option if they have ambitions for a Game 7 on Sunday.

Coming off last weekend, where a horse named Mage, at 15/1 odds — the eighth-best odds offered — came on strong in the final stretch to claim the 149th annual Kentucky Derby, with 45-year-old Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano aboard, it may be fitting that a seventh and/or eighth seed could find themselves in the NBA's Conference Finals when the dust finally settles this weekend.

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