It seems hard to imagine that there are only four NBA teams left standing. The energy in Madison Square Garden, along with the first round performances of Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, and Jayson Tatum seem like a year ago. But there are now four teams remaining in the playoffs with the best chance of breaking their championship drought.
Despite spending plenty of money this offseason, the Hawks found themselves six games under .500 entering all-star break. They decided to cut ties with coach Lloyd Pierce and promoted Nate McMillan to head coach. After that, the Hawks finished the season 27-11 clinching the fifth seed. They defeated the Knicks in five games thanks to the heroics (and foul hunting) of Trae Young. But perhaps more impressive was their second round series against the 76ers where they won game seven on the road. Young's last second winner in game 1 against the Knicks, has set the tone for a postseason in which he's averaged 29 points and 10 assists. McMillian also deserves a ton of credit for turning around Atlanta's season. With their confidence sky high, there's a real possibility they might sneak into the Finals.
Once again, the Bucks had another impressive regular season finishing as the third seed, but appeared to have a difficult journey as they opened the playoffs against a familiar Miami Heat team that defeated them in five games last year. The Bucks convincingly swept the Heat after nearly blowing game one. In the semifinals against the Brooklyn Nets, the Bucks overcame deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 to win in seven hard fought games despite Kevin Durant's brilliance. Giannis Antetokounmpo's stepped up in a big way, scoring 40 points in the deciding game through smart decision making. Moving forward, he should stay in the post because Milwaukee's offense is more efficent that way. They should also run more plays for guys such as Jrue Holiday and Kris Middleton, to get more involved in the offense. If the Bucks want to get over the hump, this is their recipe.
In November, the Suns boosted their playoff chances by acquiring future hall of famer Chris Paul. With an already promising core of Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, and Miles Bridges, this proved to be the missing piece they needed as Phoenix won 51 games during the regular season. Their first playoff opponent in 11 years were the defending champion Lakers who were favored by some (including myself) to win. They came back from a 2-1 deficit, winning the next three games with Booker capping the series with a 47 point masterpiece. They then followed this with a sweep of the Denver Nuggets to advance to the conference finals. Currently, they are up 1-0 thanks to Booker's 40 point triple double. Booker has balled out in his first postseason appearance, even though Paul hasn't been healthy throughout this postseason. With a healthy Paul, I think Phoenix has the best chance of winning their first championship.
Los Angeles Clippers:
It's crazy that the Clippers are finally in the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history after years of blown leads. It seemed like it would be another failure as they fell behind 2-0 to the Mavericks in the first round. Led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, they overcome that deficit as well as a 3-2 lead to defeat them in seven thrilling games. Against the top seeded Jazz, they once again tied the series at two games apiece after falling 2-0. George changed the course of the series, with signature performance despite no Leonard to send the series back to L.A. up 3-2. The Clippers capitalized on this opportunity to win the series. Right now, they are down 1-0 to the Suns and must grab home court advantage by winning game two. Leonard's health is still a question mark and it's possible he'll rest of the playoffs with an ACL injury.
My Updated Predictions:
In the Eastern Conference Finals, I'm picking the Bucks to defeat the Hawks. Atlanta is coming into the series with supreme confidence, but if the Bucks play Giannis in the post, and run plays through Middleton and Holiday, they should win the series. Holiday can also be counted upon to shut down Young. Holiday is one of the better perimeter defenders and he'll be everything the Bucks invested in him if he shows up. However, Atlanta's offense is more efficent and with their improvement on the defensive end, Giannis could be headed home again.
As for the Western Conference, the Suns will probably win the series if they win today. The Suns have played exceptionally well together from a coaching to a playing standpoint and it has shown in their play. The Clippers can't be counted out after what they've done, but they must win game two to prevent Paul from returning with the Suns up 2-0. If the Clippers lose, it's difficult to envision a comeback, which is why this upcoming game has major implications on the outcome of this series. That being said, I think Phoenix wins this game as well as the series.
If the Bucks and Suns face off in the Finals, it's going to come down to who's the better coach. Both teams have talented rosters and defend the basket well. However, Mike Budenholzer hasn't seemed to unlock the Bucks offense while Monty Williams has the Suns offense playing extremely well. Therefore, Phoenix wins their first NBA championship.