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NBA predictions: Expert picks for Heat-Celtics and Warriors-Mavericks in conference finals

After a pair of Game 7s on Sunday, the NBA’s conference final matchups are set. In the West, it’ll be the No. 3 Warriors against the No. 4 Dallas Mavericks. In the East, it’s the No. 1 Miami Heat vs. the No. 2 Boston Celtics.

Boston-Miami begins on Tuesday. Golden State-Dallas starts on Wednesday.

We’ve said all season that this was going to be a wild postseason, and it certainly has been. The title hasn’t been this up for grabs in quite a while. It genuinely feels like any one of these four teams could end up in the Finals, but of course, we all have our opinions on who actually will make it.

With that in mind, below are our staff picks for both matchups, complete with the number of games we see each series going and an explanation of our picks. This is going to be fun. 

Eastern Conference finals: Heat vs. Celtics

Reiter’s pick: Celtics in 6. Miami is a very good basketball team. But the Celtics are great — and maybe the game’s best since late January. They have the NBA’s second-best defense, its defensive player of the year, a superstar in Jayson Tatum, remarkable depth, a supreme amount of momentum and seemingly an answer to every question thrown their way this season. Under .500 at the end of January? No problem. First-round series versus the supposedly formidable Brooklyn Nets? Swept ’em. A 3-2 series deficit against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks? As Ime Udoka called it: Just that much sweeter when the inevitable comeback unfolded in dominating fashion. And now, a very talented Miami Heat team with its own excellent defense, with Jimmy Butler, with the experience of Erik Spoelstra leading the way? No problem, again. This Celtics team, as with all the other challenges it has faced, is simply too good.

Quinn’s pick: Celtics in 6. I cannot get the image of Miami scoring 79 points in Game 3 of their series against the 76ers out of my head. This is a team that struggled to score for lengthy stretches against Philadelphia’s pitiful defense…  and we’re supposed to trust them to score against Boston? The Celtics have been historically dominant on defense since essentially January. They just toppled the two best players in the world. If Kyle Lowry was healthy, this series gets a whole lot more interesting. As it stands, I’d expect Miami to use its massive rest advantage to take Game 1 at home, but for this series to otherwise lean toward a Boston team that seems poised to get revenge on the Heat for their 2020 Eastern Conference finals defeat.

Ward-Henninger’s pick: Celtics in 6. If we thought the Boston-Milwaukee series was a bloodbath, what is this one going to look like? With two elite defenses, conventional logic would dictate that the team with more offensive firepower will prevail, and that’s the Celtics — thanks to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and role players who have proven they can step up when it matters. That being said, it’s impossible to ignore what Jimmy Butler has done this postseason, and Tyler Herro could be due for a breakout. At the end of the day I just think the Heat will have trouble scoring all series, so it’s Boston to the NBA Finals.

Maloney’s pick: Celtics in 6. The Heat are extremely tough and a great defensive team in their own right, but we just saw how the Celtics shut down a Bucks team lacking shot creators. Miami faces a similar problem, especially with Kyle Lowry still battling a hamstring injury, and doesn’t have anyone as good as Giannis Antetokounmpo. This will be a serious scrap, but in the end the Celtics will have too much talent on both sides of the ball. 

Wimbish’s pick: Celtics in 7. While the West could see some high-scoring affairs, I expect this series to be the opposite, as both teams employ stifling defense that can wear their opponent down. But I have more trust in Boston’s ability to put points on the board more than the Heat, whose offense stalled for long periods of time against the Sixers in the last series. The unknown variable of Kyle Lowry’s hamstring injury also raises questions for the Heat, who don’t have a ton of shot creators to contend with Boston.    

Botkin’s pick: Celtics in 6. These two teams mirror one another in a lot of ways. Superior switching defense. Two-way bigs that can hold their own on the perimeter. Superstars in Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler. Depth. Discipline. Drive-and-kick ethos. Once again, Miami is a lot better than they’re given credit for, at least in mainstream conversation, but the Celtics will ultimately be too much on both ends.

Herbert’s pick: Celtics in 6. Can Heat score against this incredible defense? As awesome and adaptable as they’ve been this season, I worry about these individual matchups and I suspect that they just don’t have enough firepower. They’ll try to muck things up, but, especially given that Miami does not have a healthy Kyle Lowry, I have to stick with Boston, the team I picked to win it all coming into the playoffs.

Kaskey-Blomain’s pick: Celtics in 6. This series promises to be a tough, defensive battle, as both teams hang their hat on playing hard-nosed, lockdown defense. With that said though, the Celtics have more firepower on offense, and the best player in the entire series in Jayson Tatum. After slowing the duo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the first round, and eliminating the reigning champs and arguably the best player in the world right now in Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second round, the Celtics shouldn’t have an issue slowing down Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Co. 

Western Conference finals: Warriors vs. Mavericks

Reiter’s pick: Warriors in 5. The heroics of Luka Doncic in leading the Dallas Mavericks past the Phoenix Suns can’t be overstated. But the Golden State Warriors will prove to be an entirely different challenger — one, unlike Phoenix, that doesn’t buckle in the face of a stout D and stunning superstar. The Warriors past experience — with winning titles, and with losing them — will help push them past Luka & Co. The Warriors have the NBA’s best defense. They have the best shooter in NBA history. They have more depth than in the Durant years, headlined but not limited to the emergence of Jordan Poole. They have Klay and Dray again. And they’re not going to squander another shot at another title the way Phoenix just did. 

Quinn’s pick: Warriors in 7. I think we’re overrating the Mavericks right now very slightly based on a few factors unlikely to sustain. Phoenix’s offense is so reliant on two creators to generate offense that one seemingly being injured completely neutralized them. Golden State’s more egalitarian system isn’t going to be so vulnerable. The Warriors can punish Dallas athletically in ways that the Suns just couldn’t. Several Mavericks are shooting far above their head in the playoffs, and if Maxi Kleber continues to make 48 percent of his 3’s? More power to him, start planning the parade. I just think Golden State’s comfort switching on defense is going to force Dallas to seek alternatives offensively, as incredible as Luka Doncic is, I think it’s worth noting that this same core has beaten LeBron James in the Finals three times. They’re no strangers to this sort of matchup. Doncic will get to the Finals some day, but this is still Golden State’s time.

Ward-Henninger’s pick: Warriors in 7. The Warriors have shown plenty of flaws this postseason, but they possess the adaptability and championship mettle to make it back to the Finals for the first time since 2019. There is no answer for Luka Doncic, but between Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green they can at least try to make his life difficult. The Warriors also have the personnel to match the Mavs when they go five-out, which has been one of their biggest weapons. It’ll be close, but I trust Draymond, Steph and Klay more than Luka’s cohorts. Give me Golden State. 

Maloney’s pick: Warriors in 7. This should be a fascinating matchup, as both teams love to go small and live and die by the 3-pointer. It’s hard to pick against Luka Doncic and the Mavs after the way they just dismantled the Suns in Game 7, but I’ll lean slightly toward the Warriors thanks to their collective talent, championship experience and home-court advantage. 

Wimbish’s pick: Mavericks in 7. If you don’t believe that these two teams are almost mirrors of each other, here are some stats to think about. The Warriors and Mavericks both have a 110.5 defensive rating in the playoffs, and Dallas’ 114.5 offensive rating is just 0.2 better than Golden State. These are two squads that match up incredibly well against each other as both can go to small-ball lineups to force their opponents into submission, and rely heavily on 3s to fall. While the Warriors are the favorites to win this series — and win the title — based off of their championship history, Golden State hasn’t looked like that world-beating, fearful team we saw back in 2016. They’re prone to playing sloppy basketball, and Stephen Curry hasn’t been hitting those insane 3s we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from him. Meanwhile, the Mavericks enter this series playing their best basketball, and it’s hard to bet against Luka Doncic right now who looks like the best remaining player in the playoffs.

Botkin’s pick: Warriors in 7. Golden State caught a break with Phoenix losing. Luka Doncic is a certified madman, but Mikal Bridges not hounding Stephen Curry all over the court is a big deal, as is the fact that Dallas plays smaller, which should allow Golden State to counter with their most potent lineups without quite as much concern. Add in the fact that the Warriors will now have home-court advantage, and that makes the difference in Game 7 in a series that should be a blast to watch. 

Herbert’s pick: Mavericks in 7. In the preseason I picked the Warriors to win the title, and at the end of the regular season I picked them to make the Finals. Why pick their conference finals opponent now? Because I have more questions about Golden State going into this series than I do about Dallas. Injuries to Gary Payton II, Otto Porter and Andre Iguodala have messed with the Warriors’ rotation, and some of the lineups they threw out there against Memphis won’t be viable against the Mavs. This feels like a toss-up to me, but I’ll take the team seems to be improving with just about every game. 

Kaskey-Blomain’s pick: Warriors in 7. The Warriors have the experience advantage in this series, and that could ultimately prove to be the difference-maker, as the two teams are evenly matched on paper. The biggest concern facing Golden State is how they’ll slow Luka Doncic, who has been downright dominant this postseason. The Warriors don’t have an individual defender that they can feel great about matching up with Doncic, especially with Gary Payton II still sidelined, so it will have to be a scheme thing. Additionally, going small has been an advantage for Dallas in these playoffs, but it won’t be against Golden State, which also has an extremely effective small-ball lineup.