Almanac Basketball – NBA 2020 Play-Offs: Conference Semi-Finals review

With less teams and no delays, the NBA has found a groove to produce consistently exciting finishes. Unlike many other sports, the American basketball league manages to facilitate close encounters incredibly consistently. In the four Conference semi-final match-ups alone, two of them went to a deciding game seven, while there were six games that were decided by five points or under.


In the space of a fortnight, major upsets in both conferences changed the make-up of the entire playoff picture.


Out East, Toronto continued their title defence with a series against the Celtics. Having cruised through the first round, both sides were primed to duel it out. Boston leapt out of the blocks, stunning the Raptors to quickly lead 2-0. With home advantage all but a thing of the past in the NBA bubble, Toronto had to win game three if they were to stop Jayson Tatum and his Celtics.


One thing about Boston is that they have an even starting line-up. Unlike other dominant teams that rely on one to two players, the Celtics have a first five that are All Star worthy in their own right. Tatum may have shone as the star, but Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Daniel Theis and Marcus Smart have all improved during playoff time. An even line-up is very Toronto-like, and made for an interesting battle.


Without reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, Toronto had found a way to produce a team-oriented style that consistently worked. With Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet shooting well, Pascal Siakam becoming a presence and OG Anunoby rising in status, Toronto looked like a completely new, yet just as threatening unit as they were 12 months ago. But the first two games of the series saw Lowry and VanVleet shoot awry, and Siakam couldn’t stop Tatum.


Of course, game three went down to the final second. With Boston ahead by two, Toronto’s fortunes were on the line. Not one to play it safe, the Raptors executed a play where the pass in flew across the court, over the heads of the big guys to OG Anunoby in a one-on-one outside the three-point line. Instead of going to the trusted Lowry or Siakam, Toronto shocked Boston by trusting Anunoby. With no time to land and wind up for the shoot, the young guard caught, twisted and released the shot all in one motion, and crucially just before the buzzer. Amazingly, it soared through. Bang. Three. Toronto won by a point. The series suddenly went from being out of control to well within reach. Lowry and Siakam returned to game four fresh and claimed a crucial tying win.


This was where Boston’s depth came into play. With Tatum playing well yet being slowly stemmed, it was Brown who stood up. The Celtics ran out 22-point winners in game five, but Lowry dominated in game six to set up an overtime victory that took the series to game seven. Having saved themselves multiple times in the series, Toronto had to overcome a late deficit once again if they were to advance. Unfortunately, lightning definitely doesn’t strike thrice – Tatum and Brown were too desperate, and Boston advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals after a dramatic five-point win.


Days before this crazy finish to the Celtics/ Raptors series, Miami Heat had shocked the NBA world. Their 4-0 blitz of the higher placed Indiana Pacers was impressive, but what they did against the top seeded Milwaukee Bucks made the league sit up and notice.


Game one raised eyebrows, especially when former Philadelphia small forward Jimmy Butler went off for 40 points. The Bucks had reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and All-Star Khris Middleton, yet the Heat had a rounded team all performing. Despite Giannis and Middleton performing to their lofty standards, Butler, Goran Dragic, young Duncan Robinson, Bam Adebayo and Jae Crowder all shone to fly out to a 3-0 advantage.


From there, the series was all but over. The Bucks claimed game four in overtime, but it came at a cost – Giannis was injured, and would sit out game five. Despite Middleton’s best efforts, Miami possessed a team in form. When Tyler Herro and Andre Iguodola can come off the bench to ice games, you know you have a great side. Six Miami players scored over 10 points in their game five win – an amazing feat that suggests the Heat could be the team on a fairy tale run as they now head to the Eastern Conference Finals.


Out West, proceedings weren’t as shocking.


There has been plenty of noise about the lacklustre form of LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ LA Lakers coming into the playoffs, but they put all doubters to bed once again in the Semi Finals. With James Harden and his three-point shooting Houston Rockets squeezing through in seven to reach the Lakers, they fed off their adrenaline to snatch game one. The series marked a clash between two completely different styles of basketball – the Lakers, with LeBron and Davis’ size, reverted to older basketball where big power forwards dominated under the post, while Houston played no true centre as they instead played a version of ‘small ball’ where all five players looked to shoot from beyond the arc. In response to the ‘small ball’ tactic paying off in game one, LA went on to take the next four and emphatically seal the series.


In these four games, LeBron was everywhere. He and Davis became the threatening duo they promised to be. Both consistently scored over 25 points, while LeBron dished out assists like they were dollar bills and Davis cleaned up a heap of rebounds. The pair rolled past the Rockets, and an even spread of contributors in game five suggested the Lakers had found their form heading into the Conference Finals. If they can continue building, they may find themselves very hard to beat with their versatility and experience.


The other LA team in the Clippers threatened to win just as comfortably. Kawhi Leonard was LeBron like in this series, consistently scoring heavily and becoming a thorn in the Nuggets’ side. Fresh off a game seven spine-tingler over the Jazz, the in-form Jamal Murray couldn’t recreate his golden touch beyond the arc as the Clippers ran away with game one. But this was to be no sweep – Nikola Jokic and Murray both performed much better to square the ledger 1-1, only for LA to hold on to a six-point advantage in game three. The series soon came between four players – Jokic and Murray for the Nuggets, Leonard and Paul George for the Clippers.


Just as the series looked like heating up, a Leonard masterclass extended the gap to 3-1 and it all looked over. But the Nuggets, who must have been exhausted, rallied to take it to yet another game seven. Leonard and George continued to score highly, but Jokic and Murray matched them in clutch moments. In the space of days, the series went from seemingly over to right in the balance. Who was going to face the Lakers?


In the last three games of the series, Denver found themselves down by double-digit margins. In each match, the superb passing of Jokic and the dead-eye shooting from Murray brought them back into the game. The trend continued – after storming back from 3-1 down to beat the Jazz in seven, they did the exact same to the Clippers.


A notoriously disliked side, the Clippers received no sympathies. The comparison between Leonard and LeBron James was thrust to another year, as the Laker champion advanced further then his LA counterpart. The Clippers had once again failed to reach the Conference Finals – a mark the franchise has never achieved. Call it a playoffs hoodoo – Denver were the beneficiary, and now reach the final four. With upsets occurring often, it’s impossible to predict who will claim each conference and move onto a historic finals series.



To read more of Sean’s work, click HERE.


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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