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5 things to watch for in the NBA’s conference finals, including Anthony Edwards’ fast-rising excellence

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This year’s NBA conference finals represent a changing of the guard.

One of Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton, Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards is in line to win his first championship after leading his team to the NBA’s final four.

Each of those 26-or-under All-Stars brings a different style to the NBA’s third round, which for the first time since 2010 doesn’t feature LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The NBA-best Celtics cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs, setting up their Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the high-scoring Pacers, who used their enviable depth to advance past the injury-plagued Bucks and Knicks.

Led by the electric Edwards, the Timberwolves pulled off a second-round upset of Nikola Jokic and the defending-champion Nuggets in seven games. They’ll face Doncic and his new-look Mavericks, who return to the Western Conference Finals after disposing of top-seeded Oklahoma City in six.

Here are five storylines to watch for during the conference finals.

EASTERN CONFERENCE CLASH

The ECF could very well become a shootout between the NBA’s two highest scoring teams.

The Pacers averaged an NBA-best 123.3 points per game and made a league-high 50.7% of their shots during the regular season behind a run-and-gun offense designed to beat defenses down the court.

The Celtics, who averaged 120.6 points, boast the NBA’s deepest collection of 3-point shooters, making 140 more shots behind the arc than any other team.

Although the Pacers’ bottom-four defense was much-maligned during the regular season, Indiana limited opponents to an NBA-low 29.3 attempts from 3-point range per game. Opponents made a middle-of-the-pack 36.5% of those 3-point shots against the Pacers.

The Knicks — namely, Donte DiVincenzo — had better success from deep against the Pacers in the second round, shooting 37.8% for the series. Jalen Brunson, who was primarily guarded by Aaron Nesmith, made only 31.6% of his 3-point attempts.

Whether Boston is able to shoot the three efficiently, or if it has to adjust, will be a factor in the conference finals.

The Celtics, meanwhile, boast savvy defenders in Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Jrue Holiday who should help combat the Pacers’ high-powered attack. Boston held opponents to 109.2 points per game in the regular season and 96.7 points per game through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Jayson Tatum, pictured in Game 5 against Cleveland, advanced to his fifth Eastern Conference Finals in seven NBA seasons. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

PORZINGIS’ PROGRESS

Boston didn’t have much trouble advancing past the Heat in the first round or the Cavaliers in the second without Kristaps Porzingis, who has been out since Game 4 of the Miami series with a right calf strain.

Porzingis is expected to remain out through at least Game 2 of the conference finals, according to ESPN, but aims to return at some point in the series.

Acquired in the offseason, the 7-2 Porzingis is a bit of a luxury for Boston, which made the ECF the previous two years, too, behind Tatum and Brown. Still, getting back the sharp-shooting, shot-blocking big man could help put Boston over the top during the postseason’s home stretch.

During the regular season, Porzingis ranked third on the Celtics with 20.1 points per game, second with 7.2 rebounds and first with 1.9 blocks. He started each of his 57 appearances.

His absence this postseason pushed 37-year-old center Al Horford into the Celtics’ starting lineup.

STARS SHOWING UP

The Celtics are back in the Eastern Conference Finals for the sixth time in eight years. Brown has been there for all six, while Tatum’s been around for the last five.

Boston is yet to win a championship during that stretch, coming closest in 2022, when it lost in the NBA Finals to the dynastic Warriors in six games.

The Celtics, whose 64 wins in the regular season rank fourth in the franchise’s storied history, are deservedly heavy favorites over sixth-seeded Indiana, which won 47 games this year.

But Boston’s stars are not immune to a letdown. Tatum twice scored only 14 points in last year’s third-round loss to the underdog Miami Heat, including in the decisive Game 7. Brown shot 8-of-23 in Game 7.

Tatum shot 3-of-17 for 12 points in Game 1 of the 2022 Finals and 6-of-18 for 13 points in the series-ending Game 6 loss.

Even with its variety of weapons, Boston likely needs its stars to be at their best in order to win an 18th championship.

Indiana’s Haliburton, meanwhile, is off to an uneven start in his first postseason. A two-time All-Star, Haliburton averaged 16.0 points per game — 4.1 below his season average — in the first round against Milwaukee.

And while he led the Pacers with 21.3 points per game against the Knicks, the 24-year-old Haliburton managed only six points on six shot attempts in Game 1 and 13 points on nine attempts in Game 5. Indiana lost both games.

After both, Haliburton acknowledged he needed to be more aggressive.

ANTHONY EDWARDS

The 22-year-old Edwards has turned into must-see TV this postseason.

Edwards’ extreme competitiveness, athleticism and fearlessness have earned comparisons to a young Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. While that’s lofty praise, there is much to love about Edwards’ killer instinct.

He enters Wednesday’s Game 1 averaging 28.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game this postseason. He’s shooting 50.4% from the field and 39.8% from behind the arc. His refreshing enthusiasm — whether after making big baskets or during postgame interviews — only adds to the intrigue.

Minnesota’s early-round matchups against Phoenix and Denver often featured late start times, robbing East Coast viewers of multiple opportunities to watch Edwards’ excellence. That becomes less of a problem now that the playoff field has narrowed.

Superstars are born in the playoffs. Edwards’ star is certainly on the rise right now.

MAVERICKS MISMATCH

Beyond Edwards, the Mavericks face the challenge of navigating the towering Timberwolves, whose starting lineup includes a pair of 7-footers in Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, as well as 6-9 forward Jaden McDaniels.

Adding to the challenge is that Dallas is set to begin the series without 6-10 Maxi Kleber, who injured his shoulder in the first round.

The Mavs found success against Gobert, then of the Jazz, during the 2022 first round by deploying Kleber, a capable shooter, at center. With Gobert needing to defend the paint against drives by then-Mavericks guards Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie, Kleber repeatedly got good looks from deep, making eight 3-pointers in one game and six in another.

The Mavs advanced to the conference finals that year for the first time with the do-it-all Doncic.

DALLAS, TEXAS - MAY 18: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks looks on during the first half of Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round Playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder at American Airlines Center on May 18, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)
Luka Doncic, pictured during Game 6 against the Thunder, is back in the Western  Conference Finals for the second time. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)

This year, Dallas transformed its defense at the trade deadline by adding versatile wing PJ Washington and center Daniel Gafford, with the latter move allowing 7-1 rookie Dereck Lively to come off the bench.

With Gafford and Lively set to battle Gobert — who just won Defensive Player of the Year for the fourth time — and Towns, shot-making becomes key for Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

Doncic has dealt with a right knee sprain and left ankle soreness but still averaged 24.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 8.7 assists against the Thunder, recording a triple-double in each of the last three games of that series. He scored 31 points on 54.5% shooting in Game 5 and 29 points on 60% in Game 6, marking his two best shooting performances of the postseason.

Irving, meanwhile, averaged 15.7 points on 14.0 shot attempts per game against OKC. Three times, he finished with 12 points or fewer. The Mavs probably need more offense out of Irving, a 41.1% 3-point shooter in the regular season, considering the Wolves’ interior presence.

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