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Setting the Pick – Conference Finals preview

Anthony Edwards Minnesota Timberwolves Anthony Edwards - The Canadian Press

For the seventh straight season, the NBA will have a new champion.

Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets have been ousted from the postseason, leaving one of the remaining four superstars (Jayson Tatum, Tyrese Haliburton, Anthony Edwards and Luka Doncic) to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in their career.

While so much has been made about parity during these NBA playoffs, it remains to be seen if any team can stand in the way of Boston.

They opened the season as the betting favourites on FanDuel at +370 and have never relinquished pole position at any point this year.

Let’s breakdown how they match up against Indiana in addition to the ambiguity of the Western Conference Finals.

Here are some predictions, key battles, and bets to consider.

[1] Boston Celtics vs. [6] Indiana Pacers

Series Prediction: Celtics in 6

Favourite Series Prop: Jayson Tatum to win ECF MVP (-250)

At the time of writing, Boston is -1100 on FanDuel to make the NBA Finals. That’s a lot of chalk to lay this deep into the postseason.

Assuming you like Boston to win, why not bet on the team’s best player to win the Larry Bird Trophy at 4.5 times the payout?

When reviewing the previous Finals MVP winners, one name should stand out on the list – Andre Iguodala.

Over the past 15 years, every Finals MVP was won by the best player on the winning team. He’s the lone exception.

That principle should carry over into the Eastern Conference Finals during a season where Tatum’s leadership has flown under the radar.

While the Celtics offence deserves praise for how egalitarian it is, Tatum is undeniably their most impactful player.

His stats have taken a step backwards this season, but it isn’t due to a drop in skill. It’s due to the sacrifices he’s made for the betterment of the team.

During their current playoff run, he’s reminding fans why he’s still the alpha of this team - he leads the Celtics in points, rebounds, assists, and minutes.

His shooting efficiency has been below-average by his standards, but that’s got room for improvement against Indiana – the NBA’s seventh-worst defence this year.

The Pacers make a point to chase shooters off the three-point line and that might have an impact on Boston’s other starters given their propensity for shots beyond the arc.

This is where Tatum comes in – he’s Boston’s best shot creator and is shooting a career-best 72 per cent at the rim.

Indiana was last in the league this year at 58.4 points allowed in the paint per game.

On paper, Boston clearly has the talent advantage and I’m confident no analyst out there would publicly guarantee the Pacers to win this series.

That said, one wrinkle that could make this series competitive is three-point variance.

Boston lives and dies by the three-ball.

What happens against an opposing defence that does everything in their power to prevent those shots?

Additionally, Indiana has been the best shooting team during the playoffs this year at 38.1 per cent.

If Tyrese Haliburton is more aggressive hunting his own shot and has it going, they could steal multiple games.

Haliburton is currently +110 in to lead the series in three-pointers made.

That’s another bet I’d consider ahead of Game 1.

[3] Minnesota Timberwolves vs. [5] Dallas Mavericks

Series Prediction: Timberwolves in 7

Favourite Series Prop: Minnesota Timberwolves to win series -168

Want to know why I feel obligated to stick with a chalky bet here?

I don’t feel qualified to give a definitive take on how this series will play out.

All we have to work with is the film from both teams’ playoff runs thus far.

The four regular-season matchups can be thrown out the window as they all happened prior to the trade deadline (before Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington were added).

Luka Doncic missed two of those games while Kyrie Irving missed three.

After the first two rounds this postseason, both teams deserve credit for performing above expectations.

For Minnesota, most people did not envision Anthony Edwards making the offensive leap he has.

He’s shooting over 50 per cent from the field after never having any stretch like that in the playoffs or past seasons.

His 28.9 points per game this postseason is 3.0 more than his regular season average.

For Dallas, their defence deserves a lot of love.

On paper it doesn’t look like much as they rank sixth in defensive rating during the playoffs.

But when you have back-to-back series against the third and fourth-best offences in the NBA this year, that defensive efficiency deserves more praise.

The X-factor of this series will be Doncic’s slumping offence versus Minnesota’s suffocating defence.

By all accounts, this has been the Slovenian’s worst playoff run to date.

He’s averaging the fewest points per game (27.3 ppg) and has the lowest efficiency from the field (42.3 per cent) and from deep (30.1 per cent) in four postseasons.

As the league’s leading scorer, it’s not like he was cold coming into the playoffs either.

He averaged 33.2 ppg after the All-Star break and shot 47.6 per cent from the field and 39.6 from deep.

I think credit has to be given to the L.A. Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Terance Mann was Doncic’s primary defender in Round 1 and held him to 15-of-39 shooting and 0-of-12 from deep.

Luguentz Dort was on Doncic all series and kept him to 29-of-61 shooting and 7-of-21 from three.

As the Conference Finals begin, it’s fair to ask if Jaden McDaniels will poise even more of a challenge than the previous two defenders.

In both the quarters and semis, Minnesota demonstrated how disruptive their perimeter defenders can be by neutralizing both Jamal Murray and Devin Booker.

Winning this battle will decide the series.

Ultimately, I think Doncic will run into even more trouble against McDaniels and this league-best defence.

Minny was first in defensive rating this year while OKC was fourth and Los Angeles was 16th.

This series might result in a lot of unders, and I foresee opportunity betting against Doncic, who already has his points prop lowered to 28.5 on FanDuel ahead of Game 1.