Ranking the 4 potential NBA Finals matchups

After the Boston Celtics’ victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, the NBA conference finals are set. Boston will battle the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference, while the Denver Nuggets will take on the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference.

With their different styles and narratives, the surviving squads produce a quartet of intriguing Finals matchups. Here’s how we rank the four possible Finals series.

4. Nuggets vs. Heat

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The top seed versus the bottom seed: Who could have predicted this Finals matchup with these rankings at the beginning of the season? After defeating the Knicks in the second round, the Miami Heat could be the first team since the 1998-99 Knicks to reach the Finals as an 8-seed. That New York team lost in five games during the lockout season to the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.

On the other side of the matchup are the Denver Nuggets, a franchise that has never made the NBA Finals. The Nikola Jokic-led squad looks stronger than it ever did during its last four playoff runs, complementing the two-time MVP with a cast of quality perimeter defenders and two robust scoring options in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Jokic himself has improved as the lights have gotten brighter, averaging 30.7 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 9.7 assists over 11 playoff games.

Jimmy Butler awaits those Denver defenders. Seemingly like clockwork, the Heat star turned up his scoring during the playoffs. He’s averaging 31.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 1.7 steals while willing Miami to series upsets against the Bucks and Knicks. Since the Heat have already done the apparently impossible twice, winning two more rounds isn’t as far-fetched as it may have sounded at the start of the playoffs. Taking down two No. 1 seeds in a single playoff run would be one of the most unlikely and impressive feats in recent NBA history.

3. Nuggets vs. Celtics

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One of the most prolific franchises of all time meeting an organization that has never made the NBA Finals would provide as stark a contrast as possible. Since the Nuggets joined the league in 1976, the Celtics have played for a championship eight times, not including this potential appearance.

And yet this series would include the best two teams remaining in the playoffs by a fair margin, and it would be the first time in four years that both finalists were top-two seeds in their respective conferences. If the Celtics win, superstar Jayson Tatum would be the first player to pick up a championship in a season where he averaged 30 points since Michael Jordan in 1995-96. A Nuggets win, meanwhile, would give Jokic a title to follow his two MVP seasons.

From a strictly basketball perspective, there’s a strong argument that this is the best possible Finals matchup. Denver has the perimeter size to make things harder for Tatum, while Boston has multiple options to guard the unguardable Jokic. On the other end, the teams rank first and second in offensive rating in the playoffs. This duel would promise terrific, hypercompetitive basketball throughout.

2. Lakers vs. Heat

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A rematch of the 2020 Finals with fans in attendance after the previous iteration was played in the NBA bubble is a fun narrative to accompany what would be the most unlikely championship matchup of all time.

The combined seeding of 15 between the No. 7 Lakers and No. 8 Heat would shatter the previous record of nine set in 1999, the only other time an 8-seed made the Finals. A 7-seed has simply never advanced that far. It would also mark just the second time ever that a top-two team didn’t advance to the final round.

Beyond the miraculous low-seeded matchup, the renewed battle between wings Butler and LeBron James would be a classic. James led the Lakers to a six-game series victory the first go-round thanks to averages of 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 8.5 assists, and he was also named Finals MVP. For his part, Butler averaged 26.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 9.8 assists while adding 2.2 steals per contest.

Although they’re both on the wrong side of 30, each player ranks in the top 10 in total points in this postseason, so this improbable rematch is also one of the highest-quality series that’s still possible.

1. Lakers vs. Celtics

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No rivalry in NBA history comes close to Lakers versus Celtics. Should they face off for the 2023 title, it would mark their 13th meeting in the Finals, more than double the second-most common matchup. The Celtics have a 9-3 advantage so far (and were victorious in the first eight between 1959-84).

The pairing has always been defined by star duels – Elgin Baylor versus Bill Russell, Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird, and Kobe Bryant versus Paul Pierce. This edition would be no different, with all-time leading scorer James squaring off against rising superstar Tatum.

Boston and L.A. produced two classics during the regular season, both of which went to overtime and ended in Celtics wins. The stars produced in both games, with James and Anthony Davis combining for 127 points and Tatum and Jaylen Brown teaming up for 136.

To top it all off, whoever wins this hypothetical tilt would set the new league record for championships with 18. NBA fans should be salivating at the chance of another series between these legendary clubs, which would be the clear candidate for best potential Finals matchup.