2024 NBA playoffs roundtable: The biggest questions remaining in the conference finals

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The 2024 NBA Finals matchup might be finalized sooner than we thought as the Dallas Mavericks took a 3-0 lead over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday night and the Boston Celtics look to close out their series against the Indiana Pacers on Monday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series, but the Pacers and Timberwolves will attempt to do so as we head into this week of elimination games.

In the West, Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving have been an unstoppable duo, accounting for 77% of the Mavericks’ total points in this series. Meanwhile, Wolves stars Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns have struggled from distance, going a combined 0-for-10 from 3 during Game 3.

In the East, the Celtics are the clear favorites to make another Finals appearance, posting a net rating of 11.4 through 13 playoff games with an 11-2 record. And now, without their star guard Tyrese Haliburton, the Pacers will have to rally behind Pascal Siakam who’s averaging 24.7 points, 5 assists and 6.7 rebounds in the conference finals.

Our NBA insiders break down the biggest questions heading into these crucial Game 4s, including how Kristaps Porzingis’ return could further shift Boston’s playoff run in its favor and how prepared Doncic and Irving’s Mavs will be in a potential matchup against the Celtics.

MORE: Second-round recap | First round | Offseason questions

1. Which team should the Celtics be most concerned to face in the Finals?

Dave McMenamin: The Mavericks. There’s only so much you can scheme for when Dallas has two of the best on-ball talents in the league. Doncic and Irving can finish plays with either hand, shoot off either foot and use masterful handles to Houdini their way out of just about any defensive trap. Throw in Daniel Gafford, Derrick Jones Jr. and P.J. Washington, who play with the type of joy and gratitude that comes from being kicked around the league a bit, and the Celtics have a real problem on their hands.

Tim Bontemps: Stylistically, I think Minnesota would give Boston more trouble because of the size it can throw at the Celtics. But with the way Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving are playing right now, averaging 37.2 and 27.7 points, respectively, in this series, the Mavericks have to be the answer. They’ve scored at least 30 points in three straight games becoming the first starting backcourt to do so in the past 50 years. This duo paired with Dallas’ defense is one no one should relish playing.

Ohm Youngmisuk: The Mavericks have two dynamic one-on-one scorers in Doncic and Irving. Those two can match or exceed what Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown do, and Dallas has the most clutch of the four stars in Doncic, who leads the league in points per game (33.9). On top of that, Dereck Lively II and Daniel Gafford are two bigs who can protect the rim against the Celtics and get physical with Porzingis when he returns. The Mavs are connected, well-coached and, with Doncic, can win against anyone, anywhere.

Kendra Andrews: The Mavericks. Doncic has been absolutely dominant so far, averaging 28 points and 9.8 assists per game in the playoffs. The duo of Doncic and Irving will present the Celtics with two scoring threats they haven’t seen yet in the playoffs. Dallas also has Gafford and Lively to battle down low with Boston’s bigs. Overall, the Mavericks have playoff experience that the Timberwolves seem to lack and could give the Celtics some trouble.

Chris Herring: Dallas. At times, Edwards has looked a bit winded and impacted by the moment, whereas Irving and Doncic — each playoff-tenured players — have not. Minnesota has an absolute grinder of a defense that led the regular season with a rating of 108.4. But, since the homestretch of the regular season, the Mavs have shown they can make enough plays on that end of the floor to hold their own — their defense is second behind the Celtics in the playoffs.


2. Which role player is making the biggest impact?

McMenamin: It’s hard to pick a player on a team trailing, but the Indiana Pacers’ T.J. McConnell‘s contributions in the Eastern Conference finals have been so major that Jaylen Brown likened the backup point guard to Michael Jordan after he put up 23 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists in a Game 3 without Haliburton. And who knows if Indiana even makes it this far without McConnell’s 20 points and 9 assists in a Game 6 closeout win over the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, or without him averaging 13.5 points on 61.9% shooting and 5.5 assists in the Pacers’ wins in Games 6 and 7 against the New York Knicks in the second round.

Bontemps: What Lively is doing is nothing short of incredible — averaging 7.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game this postseason. He’s a rookie who has become an invaluable member of Dallas’ run through the West playoffs, all while dealing with the death of his mother in April. He exited Game 3 because of a neck sprain after contributing 6 points and 3 rebounds. If the Mavericks close this series with the Wolves, they’ll need Lively for the Finals, especially if they face a healthy Porzingis back for the Celtics.

Youngmisuk: Derrick White continues to be one of the most underrated players and best role players in the league. He flies under the radar but does all the things that impact winning, averaging 17.9 points per game this postseason, just behind Tatum and Brown. The point guard can score big if needed, like when he had 38 points in Game 4 against Miami in the first round. He’s an all-around player who is one of the league’s best defenders, distributes the ball (4.6 assists per game) and rebounds (4.1 per game).

Andrews: Jrue Holiday has come up big for the Celtics on two occasions this series — in Game 1 against the Pacers when he had one of his best offensive nights with 28 points and Jaylen Brown credited him for the win, and then in Game 3 when he got the winning steal with 3.1 seconds left. His presence has been instrumental for the Celtics and will continue to be on both ends of the floor.

Herring: I hate to repeat, but it’s Lively. The Mavs have been a plus-106 with him on the floor in the past eight playoff games. It makes no sense that he’s leaving this sort of imprint on a deep playoff run as a first-year player, but he has everything to do with Dallas being two wins away from the Finals.

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Kyrie praises Mavs role players as key to playoff success

Kyrie Irving raves about the “team environment” in Dallas after the Mavericks defeat the Timberwolves to take a 3-0 series lead in the Western Conference finals.


3. Are Luka and Kyrie prepared to take on Tatum, Brown and the Celtics in the Finals?

McMenamin: Let’s go back a little bit to properly frame this matchup. Yes, the bracket says it’s the East’s No. 1 team (and the No. 1 overall seed) in Boston vs. the West’s No. 5 team in Dallas, but over the final quarter of the regular season, both teams went 16-4. In the playoffs, the Mavs eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder without home-court advantage and are on track to defeat the Timberwolves. Meanwhile, the Celtics have started each playoff series at home — all of which have been competitive despite their opponents being decimated by injuries. The Mavericks have made a stronger case as the more impressive team in the past three months.

Bontemps: Who would argue they’re not? This has been a dominant stretch from Dallas, ripping off five wins in a row against a pair of elite opponents, to move the Mavs within one win of their first Finals appearance in 13 years. Now, Dallas has to take care of business Tuesday night and give itself as much rest as possible before a likely date with Boston in the Finals.

Youngmisuk: As long as Doncic makes it out of the West finals relatively healthy, the Mavs’ duo will be prepared to face the Celtics and can absolutely win it all. Doncic has been banged up the entire postseason and takes a pounding each game. But no matter what he shoots in the first three quarters, he turns it on in the fourth and can hit any shot, as the Wolves can attest to as Doncic hit the Game 2 winner. Irving will have an emotional return to Boston and be public enemy No. 1, but he seems to be in a much better space than when he played with the Celtics and Nets — and that could spell trouble for Boston.

Andrews: With how Doncic and Irving have been playing lately, why not? The Celtics have been known to take their foot off the gas at times, as we saw briefly against the Heat and Cavaliers. There have been moments in this series when the Pacers could have taken control, and where they’ve come up short, I’m confident the Mavericks would execute. If Dallas can close out its conference finals series in four games, it should be able to at least be competitive in the Finals.

Herring: There’s not much else the Mavericks could show to prove they’re ready for a Finals matchup with Boston. Doncic and Irving are consistently defending better than ever, and they’re setting up their bigs to play extremely well, averaging 9.3 and 5.4 assists, respectively, in the postseason. There are good role players up and down the roster, and you can’t guarantee anything in the championship round, but I couldn’t be more impressed by how Dallas is composing itself at this stage in the game.

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Windhorst: Timberwolves don’t have an answer for Luka and Kyrie

Brian Windhorst breaks down how the Mavericks have taken a 3-0 series lead over the Timberwolves behind their stars Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.


4. Will Kristaps Porzingis be prepared to make an impact in the Finals?

McMenamin: Before Porzingis exited the Miami series early because of a calf strain, he showed just how impactful he can be in the three full games he played. In two wins, he averaged 18 points while shooting 53.8% on 3-pointers, and in the Celtics’ one loss he scored 6 points on 1-for-9 shooting (0-for-4 from 3). The Celtics have advanced with Al Horford taking charge in Porzingis’ absence scoring 22 points, 15 rebounds and 3 blocks in Game 5 of the conference semifinals against Cleveland and 23 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks in Game 3 against Indiana. Porzingis won’t have to do everything for the Celtics right away, but both the Mavs’ and Wolves’ bigs present a challenge, so being able to provide size down low could be the difference in the Finals.

Bontemps: There are two goals for Boston heading into Game 4 against the Pacers: close out this series and, if Porzingis is able to go, get his legs underneath him. With a full 10 days between Game 4 and the start of the Finals, there’s a lot of time for him to get right, but that process begins with a potential cameo off the bench behind Al Horford on Monday night.

Youngmisuk: Even if Porzingis is ready to go, I’d err on the side of being extra cautious and let him rest before the Finals with this current series looking like a potential sweep. Porzingis will have an impact in the Finals no matter when he makes his return. Facing either Dallas’ bigs of Lively and Gafford or Minnesota’s Towns, Rudy Gobert and Naz Reid, Boston will need all the size it can get and the ability to stretch the floor to pull those bigs out of the paint.

Andrews: It’ll probably take a moment for Porzingis to find his rhythm again, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t make an impact in the Finals. Porzingis has been an important piece to the Celtics’ success all season — averaging 20.1 points and 7.8 rebounds. Having him available will allow Boston to evenly distribute minutes to its bigs, and if the Celtics close out the conference finals in four games, it’ll give Porzingis plenty of time to ramp back up in practice before the Finals begin.

Herring: Even if it takes him a bit of time to get acclimated, yes; Porzingis can impact the Finals. His ability to protect the rim — and the other areas of the court, as we’ve watched Indiana carve up the Celtics from the paint and midrange — is incredibly meaningful. And that’s without factoring in what Porzingis can do as an efficient post-up option. Boston would much rather have him than not have him, even if it takes a game or two to shake some rust.


5. Which team has the most to lose?

McMenamin: Boston. If the Celtics capped a sixth Eastern Conference finals appearance in the past eight years by stalling out with another NBA Finals loss like in 2022 (or, doing the unthinkable by losing four straight to Indiana and not even making it to the Finals), their entire process will be called into question. Patience barely exists in pro sports, and there would be pressure to make major adjustments right away to get over the hump. None of the other three teams to reach this stage this spring would face the same consequences.

Bontemps: Everyone has something to lose being this close to an NBA title, but the easy answer here is Boston. The Celtics have been in the conference finals in six of the past eight years and have had a ton of heartbreaking postseason exits. They acquired Porzingis and Holiday this past offseason to lift them over the hump. And they are the heavy favorites among the four remaining teams to win the title. This is their best chance to win it all by a long shot.

Youngmisuk: When a franchise wins 64 games coming off a 57-win season and a Finals appearance the season before that, it expects to get to the NBA Finals again and win it all. Nothing less. The Celtics, though, have moments when they don’t look like that regular-season juggernaut. If Boston doesn’t win it all after its dominant regular season and falling short in previous years, it will be a massive disappointment — especially with the defending champion Denver Nuggets and MVP Nikola Jokic already bounced from the postseason.

Andrews: The group consensus is the obvious answer: the Celtics. They have been to the conference finals the most out of this group and have been operating in “win now” mode for several years. When you look at the other three teams left, all of them still have room to grow — especially the young Timberwolves and Pacers. Dallas is in only its second year with this group and has some time before winning a title becomes urgent. If the Celtics are eliminated, they will have some serious soul-searching to do.

Herring: Boston, without question. With Haliburton ruled out, the Celtics are now in a third consecutive series in which they’ve faced an opponent that’s down one of its two best players. Boston might never get this clear of a title shot again. We’ve reached a point at which we take the Celtics getting to the conference finals for granted, but health is never a given, as these playoffs have shown. They have to make this run count.



Source : ESPN