NBA 2024 Conference Finals Preview: Is This the Boston Celtics’ Title to Lose?

By Scott Kacsmar

The NBA 2024 playoffs are ready for the Conference Finals round. We will have a new champion after the Denver Nuggets blew a 20-point lead in the third quarter, a Game 7 record, to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the new favorites in the Western Conference. But is this the Boston Celtics’ title to lose now that MVP Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets are gone?

Boston did not even have to play over the weekend, yet it seemed to be a favorable outcome for the Celtics as the Pacers and Timberwolves made history on Sunday by becoming the first pair of road teams to win a Game 7 on the same day in NBA history.

Historically, home teams have won 75% of Game 7s in the NBA. But the home team is only 4-8 in Game 7 since 2021. It is like a new league where you can no longer take things (especially leads) for granted.

But Boston has been favored to go the distance this entire NBA season, and the Celtics have rarely been challenged this postseason to this point. But things should get tougher in the Eastern Conference Finals with an Indiana team that has notched a pair of wins over Boston this year, and the Finals would lead them to face either the No. 1 defense in Minnesota or the pair of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving from Dallas.

The 2024 NBA Finals will in fact not be Boston vs. Denver, which was considered one of the chalkiest matchups in years going into the playoffs. The Timberwolves, who had +2400 odds before the first round of the playoffs, would be the biggest underdog champion since at least 1976.

Before we think hypothetically about the Finals, let’s look at what lies ahead this week in the Conference Finals with Game 1 in Boston this Tuesday evening and Game 1 in Minnesota on Wednesday. We preview each matchup and make our best picks for what could be a great Conference Finals round.

Eastern Conference Finals: #1 Boston Celtics vs. #6 Indiana Pacers

  • Series Odds: Celtics (-1250) vs. Pacers (+710)
  • Game 1 Odds: Celtics -9.5 and O/U 221.5 points
  • Season Series: Celtics lead 3-2

The Celtics probably would have preferred a very injured Knicks team that even lost star Jalen Brunson (broken wrist) in Game 7. Instead, they’ll get an Indiana team that beat them twice early this season, including once in the in-season tournament.

Sunday was a record-setting day all around in the NBA as the Pacers set a playoff record by shooting 67.1% (53 of 79) from the field against the Knicks in Game 7. That just edged out the Celtics’ playoff record from 1990 when Boston shot 67.0% against the Knicks in a 157-128 win.

The Pacers and Celtics averaged the most points per game in the NBA this season. Indiana is a huge underdog, but can they shoot well enough and catch enough breaks to provide one of the NBA’s all-time upsets? It was just last year when the No. 8 seeded Miami Heat beat the Celtics in a 7-game series in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Season Series Recap

These teams have met five times this season with Boston holding a 3-2 edge, though the teams have not met since January:

  • 11/1/2023: Celtics won 155-104 in Boston (155 points is Boston’s season-high)
  • 12/4/2023: Pacers won 122-112 in Indiana in an in-season tournament game
  • 1/6/2024: Celtics won 118-101 in Indiana
  • 1/8/2024: Pacers won 133-131 in Indiana (Jayson Tatum was inactive)
  • 1/30/2024: Celtics won 129-124 in Boston

A 2-3 record for Indiana against Boston is respectable. The Celtics rank No. 3 in Defensive Rating, but the Pacers were the only team able to score at least 120 points against Boston three times this year.

Jayson Tatum, Boston’s best player, was able to score at least 30 points in every game he played against Indiana’s No. 24 defense, and the Celtics were 3-1 in the games he played. They only lost by 2 points in the game in Indiana without him.

We should also point out that Tyrese Haliburton was out in the first meeting this season when the Pacers, who were only playing their fourth game of the year, lost by 51 points. In that game, the Pacers shot 5-of-37 (13.5%) from 3-point territory, their worst shooting game from deep all year.

But the Pacers are going to have their hands full with the most efficient offense in the league as well as a Boston team that is much better on defense than the Pacers are:

  • Indiana is 0-23 this season when the opponent outshoots them by at least 5 percentage points, including an 0-3 record against Boston in such games.
  • The only game where the Pacers outshot the Celtics was the one Tatum missed, and even that was by a marginal number (Indiana shot 52.7% to 52.2% by Boston).
  • The Pacers have 10 games this season where they lost the rebound battle by at least 15 boards, and 3-of-10 games were against Boston.
  • The Pacers have 3 games where they shot under 20% from 3-point territory this year, and 2-of-3 games were against Boston.
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Indiana’s Path to Victory

For the Pacers, it is no secret that winning a shootout and/or shooting lights out are their best hopes in this series. But is that sustainable for a best-of-7 series? Probably not, but that’s why the odds are what they are. The truth is the Pacers are just not built to win games with defense.

  • This season, Indiana is 1-21 when it does not score more than 110 points in a game.
  • Boston is a respectable 11-13 when it does not top 110 points.
  • Indiana is also 4-23 when shooting under 47% from the field, something it has done in 4-of-5 matchups with the Celtics.
  • Boston is again a respectable 15-16 when it shoots under 47% from the field, a mark it has yet to dip below against these Pacers.

But the thing we know about the Celtics is they are heavily reliant on the 3-point shot. They take 42.5 attempts a game, which is a full 3.0 more than the next-closest team (Dallas), and the Pacers are basically at the league average this season with 35.3 attempts from 3 per game.

Some nights, your shots just aren’t going to fall from deep. It happened to the Celtics in the semifinals against Cleveland in Game 2, a 118-94 loss where the Celtics shot 8-of-35 (22.9%) from 3. In a loss against Miami in the first round, the Celtics were only 12 of 32 (37.5%) from 3.

Boston is 39-1 this season when it shoots at least 40% from 3-point territory this season, and the only loss was against Indiana without Tatum when the Celtics shot 48.6%.

The Celtics are also 30-0 when they make at least 18 3s, so you hate to get into a shootout with this team. But that appears to be what the Pacers will do, and it will be up to their offense to simply make more shots that night.

Any Concerns for Boston?

There might be an argument that Boston should have a sweep or two under its belt through the first two rounds as the Heat and Cavaliers were little match for them, especially with Jimmy Butler’s injury for Miami and Donovan Mitchell’s injury during the series that caused him to miss the last two games.

Even without Mitchell, the Cavaliers did push Boston into the fourth quarter in both of those games. After going 37-4 at home in the regular season, we have seen Boston already lose twice at home in the playoffs.

Also, the Pacers have not been a strong road team this season. They were 21-20 with a -0.7 Net Rating (ranked 15th) in the regular season. That’s the definition of mediocrity. In the playoffs, the Pacers, despite their Game 7 triumph in New York, are 2-5 on the road and have a -6.4 Net Rating.

Just like in the regular season, the Pacers (121.7) and Celtics (118.9) lead all teams in Offensive Rating. But just like in the regular season, the Pacers are near the bottom in Defensive Rating (118.1 ranks 13th out of 16 playoff teams) while Boston (106.1) is No. 3.

We mentioned before that Indiana is No. 24 in Defensive Rating in the regular season. Since 1977, only the 2000-01 Lakers (21st) and 2022-23 Nuggets (15th) ranked lower than 12th in Defensive Rating and still won a championship that year. It’s not like these Pacers have Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant or Nikola Jokic on their side either.

They are also playing the best team in the league, and even if the Celtics are a little overrated statistically by how bad the Eastern Conference was this year, they are still a better team all around than the Pacers.

Injury Watch

This is increasingly important as NBA playoff injuries to star players have had a huge impact in the last decade. We mentioned the Celtics’ good fortune in playing the Heat and Cavaliers without Jimmy Butler and Donovan Mitchell in key games, but the Pacers are in the same boat, if not more extreme.

In the first round, the Pacers beat a Milwaukee team that never got to put Giannis Antetokounmpo on the court, and Damian Lillard was also banged up later in that series. Then in this past round, the Knicks were already shorthanded without Julius Randle going into the playoffs, but then they had injuries to Mitchell Robinson, Jalen Brunson, OG Anunoby, and Josh Hart.

Hopefully, these teams will be the healthiest they can be in this Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics have been playing without Kristaps Porzingis since he injured his calf in the first round. Al Horford has done a good job in starting for him as a reliable veteran. It is not clear if Porzingis will return this postseason, but he is an injury they can survive against Indiana.

As for the Pacers, they lost their fourth-leading scorer in Bennedict Mathurin in March and he is out for the season with shoulder surgery. But they have been able to start the same five players in each playoff game to this point.

Eastern Conference Finals Outlook and Best Bets

Tatum and the Celtics should advance here, but picking a favorite that has -1250 series odds isn’t exactly a 2024 season revelation. The better question is can the Pacers extend this to 6 games or longer?

I think Indiana can push the Celtics to at least Game 6 as it has the shooting prowess and scoring ability to put pressure on Boston, which hasn’t always shown the greatest reaction to adversity in the playoffs in the Tatum era.

Haliburton may not be as hot as he was early in the season when the Pacers were in the in-season tournament final, but he’s had some good playoff moments, and we did just see a record-shooting performance from this squad under his leadership.

Throw in the Celtics having those off games where Derrick White scores 6 points and Tatum isn’t aggressive, and it wouldn’t be a shock if the Pacers were able to do what they did in the regular season and take a couple of games from Boston.

But while we still think the Celtics will win and advance to the NBA Finals again, our favorite bet here is Pacers +2.5 games for series spread.

NBA Pick: Series Spread – Pacers +2.5 (+132) at FanDuel


Western Conference Finals: #3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. #5 Dallas Mavericks

  • Series Odds: Timberwolves (-180) vs. Mavericks (+146)
  • Game 1 Odds: Timberwolves -4 and O/U 206.5 points
  • Season Series: Timberwolves lead 3-1

The Dallas Mavericks are back in the Western Conference Finals for the second time since 2022 after upsetting the top-seeded Thunder with a thrilling comeback in Game 6. But no comeback this postseason had a bigger shock factor to it than the Timberwolves coming back from 20 down in Game 7 in Denver to knock off the defending champions on Sunday night.

The Timberwolves have home court and are favored in this series. We’ll get to see Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving against the No. 1 defensive team in the league, but can they get more secondary scoring and better defensive play than the Nuggets got from players not named Nikola Jokic or Jamal Murray? That could decide this series.

Season Series Recap

It may come as a surprise to some to see Minnesota here, but it’s not like this team didn’t have the top defense, the Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert, and were in the running for the top seed all year in the Western Conference. The Timberwolves finished with 56 wins, and this series is beginning in Minnesota because of a 3-1 record head-to-head against Dallas this season.

But like with Celtics-Pacers, these teams have not met since January:

  • 12/14/2023: Timberwolves won 119-101 in Dallas (Kyrie Irving was inactive)
  • 12/28/2023: Timberwolves won 118-110 in Minnesota (Luka Doncic and Irving were inactive)
  • 1/7/2024: Mavericks won 115-108 in Dallas
  • 1/31/2024: Timberwolves won 121-87 in Minnesota (Doncic and Irving were inactive)

The first thing we have to mention is that Doncic and Kyrie were both out for half of these matchups, and that is obviously a huge deal for Dallas. The Mavericks split the games they played with Doncic (34) and Irving (35) combining for 69 points in Dallas’ only win of the season against Minnesota. That was the only game this season against Minnesota where Luka had Kyrie with him.

Anthony Edwards scored 36 in that game for Minnesota, so the stars showed up to score that day. But Edwards has been Jekyll and Hyde against the Mavericks this season. He’s had a pair of games where he dropped just 9 points each time, and the other games saw him score 36 and 44 points. But as we saw in Game 7 in Denver when he shot 6-of-24 from the field, Edwards can be streaky as a 22-year-old star.

It is hard to draw much from these regular-season matchups, not only because of the injury statuses for Irving and Doncic but because it was before Dallas acquired P.J. Washington in February.

In the playoffs, Washington has been a solid contributor for Dallas. He scored 29 points in a Game 2 win against the Thunder in the semifinals, and he backed it up with 27 points in Game 3. That’s the kind of support Doncic has been looking for from his teammates this time of year.

Is This the Year for Luka and the Mavs?

The Mavericks have one of the best players in the NBA in Luka Doncic, but as we just saw with Nikola Jokic and Denver, one superstar usually isn’t enough this time of the year.

When the Mavericks lost to the Warriors in the 2022 Western Conference Finals, Doncic’s supporting cast missed an abundance of open shots in that series. Doncic has to pull his weight too of course, but he is on a historic pace for 30-point triple-doubles in NBA postseason history, and he usually plays well in these series.

This is his first postseason with Irving as his No. 2, and we mentioned how well Washington has played with 14.3 points per game this postseason and he is shooting 40.7% from 3-point territory.

Those secondary shooters need to come through for Doncic, who is only shooting 30.1% from 3 this postseason and has been a little gimpy at times.

The Timberwolves are No. 1 in Defensive Rating and showed it in the Denver series with some great performances, including a 3-1 record in Denver where the Nuggets struggled to reach 100 points on this defense.

If you want to talk about a magic number for Dallas in this series, think of 112 points:

  • Minnesota is 7-23 (.233) when allowing at least 112 points this season.
  • Minnesota is 57-6 (.905) when allowing fewer than 112 points this season.

In the playoffs, Dallas has only reached 112 points in 4-of-12 games, but that should be a goal for the offense to get the Timberwolves into a higher-scoring game that they’re not usually able to win.

Dallas has four games this season when it made fewer than 8 3-point shots, and half of those games were against Minnesota. Again, Irving did not play in those games, but it’s not like he has been red hot. Irving did not score more than 22 points in any game against Oklahoma City, and he even finished a pair of games with 9 points, tied for his lowest playoff game ever (min. 15 minutes played).

But like Doncic, Irving shredded this Minnesota defense for 35 points in his only game against them this season. We’ll see if he can get to that level, but like with Denver in Game 7, there needs to be other scorers to support the top two stars in Dallas. That means players like Washington, Derrick Jones Jr., and Dereck Lively better step up.

How Underrated Is Minnesota’s Supporting Cast?

The Timberwolves are favored in a series for only the first time this postseason. That says a lot about how offensive star power is favored in the NBA.

The Suns were supposed to beat this top-ranked defense with the star trio of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal. Instead, Beal flopped, and the Suns’ duo was hung out to dry in a first-round sweep that resulted in head coach Frank Vogel getting fired.

Then the defending champion Nuggets were up next, but they had the champs and the MVP on the ropes early after taking a 2-0 lead in Denver. They had the Nuggets down so badly in Game 2 that Jamal Murray was throwing ice packs on the court.

That series may have ended a lot sooner if the Nuggets didn’t get a full three days to recover before Game 3. But in the end, the Timberwolves held the Nuggets to 45.2% shooting from the field in the series. Murray only averaged 18.4 points and shot 40.3% from the field. Michael Porter Jr. averaged 10.7 points and shot 37.1% from the field. No one in Denver besides Jokic and Murray scored more than 7 points in Game 7.

So, you can say Minnesota will be ready for a team with Doncic and Irving in the Western Conference Finals. They have been beating 2-man teams all season long with their core trio that includes two No. 1 overall picks in Karl-Anthony Towns (2015) and Anthony Edwards (2020), and they have a 4-time Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert, who won’t have to deal with a big man anywhere near Jokic’s level this round.

But beyond that core, they have a veteran point guard in Mike Conley, who has 88 playoff games of experience under his belt. Naz Reid was also the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award winner this season, and he’s had some big playoff moments already for this team.

We talked about Washington stepping up for Dallas, but let’s talk about Jaden McDaniels as an unsung hero for Minnesota’s Game 7 comeback in Denver. In his fourth season, the 23-year-old forward had 21 points in Game 6 and 23 points in Game 7.

Minnesota is 16-4 when McDaniels scores at least 14 points this season. He could be another player to offset the third-best player the Mavericks throw at this top-ranked defense.

Throw in the confidence Edwards leads with, and this Minnesota team is not one you’d want to face right now.

Injury Watch

Fortunately, these teams have been fairly healthy for the playoffs with only one game truly missed to injury by either team’s starters. Gobert also missed a game for the birth of his first child, but his teammates had his back in a big win in Denver anyway.


Western Conference Finals Outlook and Best Bets

In the Doncic era, Dallas has played 7 playoff series, and the only one that didn’t go to at least Game 6 was the 2022 Western Conference Finals against the Warriors (Dallas lost 4-1). That would be a bummer to repeat itself, but I think he has a better team around him now, and the Mavericks should push this to at least six games.

But like with Boston-Indiana, the Mavericks rely heavily on 3-point shooting, which can come with high variance, especially when your sharpshooters are not All-Star players. But unlike Boston, the Mavericks do not have an elite defense. They rank No. 18 in Defensive Rating, which would be the second-worst ranking for a champion since 1977.

Also, the Mavericks are just 13th in the Simple Rating System (SRS) at Basketball Reference. Only the 1994-95 Houston Rockets (11th) ranked lower than No. 8 in SRS among champions since 1977. Minnesota is ranked No. 3 in SRS.

With Edwards and the top defense leading the way, I like Minnesota to win this series in Game 6 and for Edwards to win the Western Conference Finals MVP award.

NBA Pick: Dallas vs. Minnesota Correct Score – Timberwolves 4-2 (+500) at FanDuel

NBA Pick: 2024 Western Conference Finals MVP – Anthony Edwards (-150) at FanDuel

Best NBA Futures Bet

Finally, we wanted to give our thoughts on the best bet to win the NBA Finals going into the Conference Finals round. These are the current odds from FanDuel:

  • Boston Celtics (-160)
  • Minnesota Timberwolves (+280)
  • Dallas Mavericks (+500)
  • Indiana Pacers (+2600)

I don’t think the Mavericks or Pacers have the defensive chops to get past this series, let alone do it in the Finals as well.

While some might say the Timberwolves lack the offensive consistency to get this done, they are a team that’s No. 1 in Defensive Rating and No. 16 in Offensive Rating. We just saw a Golden State team in 2022, the same one that knocked out Dallas in this round, win it all by beating the Mavericks and Celtics with a team that ranked No. 1 in Defensive Rating and No. 17 in Offensive Rating, so there is already recent precedent for this.

It should be the Celtics’ year to finally win one with Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but there are still valid reasons to not trust that team to close, and you hopefully already got them at a better price than -160 earlier this season.

The value right now is Minnesota. That’s our top pick as we head into a crucial Conference Finals round.

NBA Pick: 2024 NBA Finals Championship Winner – Minnesota Timberwolves (+280) at FanDuel

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