Less than a month remains until the start of the NBA Finals, and they could potentially start even sooner depending on the progression of these current series. Instead of just checking in on the rest of the playoffs today, it seems like a good time to assess the strength of each team still standing, with particular emphasis on which teams would give the Clippers the most trouble.
Here are the top five remaining contenders for the NBA title.
The Celtics have looked the most formidable of any of the teams remaining in the bubble. They are up 3-2 against the defending champs, and were 0.5 seconds away from possibly already being through to the conference finals. They have everything a championship contender could want: an ascendant superstar in Jayson Tatum, quality two-way wing depth, a rim roller in Daniel Theis, a pick-and-roll maestro in Kemba Walker, and a creative and adaptive head coach in Brad Stevens. The Clippers went 1-1 against Boston this year and were dangerously close to getting swept altogether. The Celtics have the best net rating of any team in the playoffs (plus-9.3, per Cleaning the Glass), and the eye test matches the numbers here.
The Lakers are only tied in their series against the Rockets, but they earn the second spot because they have two true superstars, something that only the Clippers can claim among the remaining teams. The Lakers had an elite defense throughout the season and have rediscovered that in the bubble. LeBron James is a killer in the postseason, and Anthony Davis has proven to be a matchup problem for the Clippers, which led to the two teams splitting their four meetings. However, the Lakers offense remains too inconsistent to rank them above Boston as a title contender.
Miami has arguably outperformed expectations more than any team in the postseason. The Heat have trampled the Milwaukee Bucks in their second-round series, winning the first three games against the No. 1 overall seed before falling late in Game 4. Even though they went 0-2 against the Clippers during the regular season, this iteration of the Heat looks more formidable than the pre-bubble version. They have a confident leader in Jimmy Butler who lives at the foul line, multiple offensive facilitators (Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic have been great in the bubble), and a title-winning head coach who changed the starting lineup during the seeding games to prep for the playoffs. This team may be new to the postseason stage, but Miami is peaking at the right time.
The Rockets rarely look like the same team from game to game, whether that’s due to the variance of their high-volume 3-point-shooting offense or simply an inability to perform at a high level on a regular basis. But they have James Harden — who can dominate games by himself — and they’ve defended tremendously well in the bubble. Houston went 2-2 against the Clippers this season (and the games got chippy) and doesn’t back down from any challenge. The Rockets just haven’t been quite good enough in the bubble to inspire real fear.
The defending champions edge out Milwaukee for the final spot, mostly because the Bucks are on their last legs. The Raptors were great up until they faced Boston, and then it became clear that this is a team that feasts on mistakes, and championship teams simply make fewer errors. When a game becomes a battle of execution of one team’s best against another, Toronto doesn’t quite have the talent to match up. The Raptors are fun to watch and fight hard (they provided the moment of the postseason thus far in Game 3 against the Celtics); it’s too bad for them that the reigning Finals MVP now plays for the Clippers.
How would you rank the remaining teams in the field? Which team would give the Clippers the most trouble? Let us know.
More news for Tuesday:
- Patrick Beverley was fined $25,000 for verbally abusing a referee at the end of Game 2, when he picked up two quick technical fouls and was ejected.
- Brian Windhorst tried to figure out the Clippers’ procrastination problem.
- Bill Plaschke spoke with L.A. sports fans about how they feel watching their teams succeed without being able to cheer them on in person.
- Matt Moore analyzed why some head coaches are reluctant to make adjustments in the postseason.
- Rob Mahoney went deep on a leaguewide trend that is currently befuddling the Clippers: the playmaking big.
- It is draft season, and Jonathan Wasserman identified some key characteristics of a draft bust.
- Chris Mannix spoke with coaches, including Doc Rivers, about the challenge system.