2021 NBA Conference Finals: The Passing of Torches

By Saransh Sharma, Nikhil Pradeep, & Anish Dhondi

*NOTE: Western Conference Finals Predictions were made BEFORE Game 1 on Sunday, June 20th

Devin Booker, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Trae Young. Those are the 4 superstars leading our current Conference Finals teams, and one of these young talents is going to get themselves their 1st ring. To see guys like Booker and Young be able to compete for a championship at such an early stage in their careers, and for guys like Paul George and Giannis, also young but with more experience under their belts, to go this far, is astonishing, and something many of us did not expect coming into this season. Put all the narratives about injuries, COVID, etc. aside, and let us appreciate the passing of torches. There is a chance for a new champion to be crowned after years of waiting (only the Bucks have won a championship of these 4 teams), and a glimpse into the future of the NBA.

Saransh’s Predictions

  • Western Conference Finals: #2 Phoenix Suns vs. #4 Los Angeles Clippers

The Phoenix Suns seemed like they were going to have a good season for the first time in Devin Booker’s career after last year’s 8-0 bubble run, and then they acquired Chris Paul to make themselves even more dangerous. While many believed they were too young to be contenders, they were a dark-horse contender. While people can debate all they want about the health of the Lakers and Nuggets, the Suns were not fully healthy either in these Playoffs, much like every other team.

The Clippers came into this season as major contenders and after going down 0-2 in both of their Playoff series so far and losing Kawhi Leonard due to a knee injury, there are concerns, but this team has persevered and they are in the Western Conference Finals for the 1st time in franchise history.

Both teams come into this series without a star player of theirs, but both teams also come in with one of their two star players, as the Suns have Devin Booker, and the Clippers have Paul George. Booker has been nothing short of superb, showing he is among the best-of-the-best as a scorer, and an underrated playmaker. George has bounced back and finally lived up to his ‘Playoff P’ moniker after years of disappointment in the Playoffs. Both teams are very deep and have made several adjustments to their rotations and gameplans to get to this stage, but at the end of the day, while the Suns can manage without CP3, the Clippers cannot manage without Kawhi, whose status is too uncertain right now. The Clippers will keep it close, but their incredible season will come to an end here. Suns in 6.

  • Eastern Conference Finals: #3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks

What is crazier than the deep run in these Playoffs by the Suns has to be that of the Atlanta Hawks. A team that many viewed as an improving yet non-Playoff team has now shocked the world as the 5-seed in the East. They have overcome two of the best teams in the East, and two of the best defenses in the East in the Knicks and 76ers. Trae Young has ascended himself into one of the best playmakers, scorers, and leaders in the NBA, and is surrounded by one of the deepest and most exciting supporting casts in the NBA.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee has been on a mission, getting revenge against Miami in the First Round, and then eliminating the title-favorite Nets in the Conference Semifinals in a thrilling 7-game series (yes, the Nets were injured, but they were still heavy favorites). Giannis Antetokounmpo has also silenced all of his doubters who said he could not be an elite Playoff performer and leader. 

This series comes down to coaching, star power, and depth. Milwaukee has Mike Budenholzer, who despite this deep Playoff run the Bucks are on, is a terrible coach who got bailed out by his star players coming out and performing. Atlanta has Nate McMillan, who despite his struggles in Indiana has proven that those struggles were not on him but more on that roster that he had to work with, as in Atlanta he is proving he can win and adjust. Advantage: Atlanta. 

As for the star power, Atlanta has just Trae Young, and as good as the Hawks’ supporting cast is, you never know from whom or when you will get big production. Milwaukee, however, has Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday, who all can perform at a high level and get big buckets. Advantage: Milwaukee.

Now, the depth. As said previously, you never know from whom or when you will get big production from the supporting cast, but the supporting cast consistently shows up, and it is everyone, from John Collins and Clint Capela in the paint to Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, and Kevin Huerter on the perimeter, not just one guy. That depth is something Milwaukee cannot match. Advantage: Atlanta.

Despite the heavy star power advantage, Trae Young proved that even when he has bad shooting nights, he is tough to stop with his playmaking, and with Atlanta having even heavier advantages in coaching and depth, I have them continuing their Cinderella run. Hawks in 7.

Nikhil’s Predictions

  • Western Conference Finals: #2 Phoenix Suns vs. #4 Los Angeles Clippers

The Phoenix Suns have looked dominant over the last few weeks, pretty much dismantling the Denver Nuggets in 4 games, and having their way on offense. The team has risen to pretty much any task expected of them, and even some that most experts around the league didn’t expect either. Devin Booker has solidified himself as a bonafide All-NBA player, and someone that has outgrown his stardom in Phoenix and is now performing brilliantly at the national level. Chris Paul has asserted his veteran savvy from day one within the Suns organization, and it can be easily stated that his contributions at point guard are one of the driving reasons why this team has propelled itself forward so well. Couple this with solid surrounding cast performances from Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder, and Mikal Bridges, and you have an insanely robust team, one that in all honesty, is completely shattering my previous predictions and is very hard to bet against at this point in the season.



On the other side of this matchup, we have the bruised and battered Los Angeles Clippers, who have had to WORK their way to the franchise’s first-ever conference final appearance. Having had to struggle to win in seven games against both the Dallas Mavericks and the Utah Jazz, this team has taken a beating just to be where they are, and there is no question that it will take a toll on them continuing onwards, especially given the potentially season-ending injury to their best player Kawhi Leonard. Immense pressure and hopes now rely on the shoulders of Paul George, who needs to regain the All-Star performances of his Pacers past to continue in these wild playoffs. But what is arguably more important is the play of the surrounding cast, which on paper looks better than that of the Suns. The Clippers need big performances from Reggie Jackson, Rajon Rondo, Pat Beverley, and desperately need the shooting of Marcus Morris and Nic Batum, otherwise, their season will end in the usual disappointment that fans are used to.

Given the momentum the Suns carry into this matchup, it’s hard to bet against them. Both teams carry injuries to their respective star players, however, Chris Paul is expected back soon due to the nature of his outage (Covid protocols). Kawhi Leonard looks to be out for a longer duration, and thus leaves the Clippers much more vulnerable in my eyes. The emergence of a very solid supporting cast around Devin Booker in Phoenix is enough for me to give them the edge in this series, and in all honesty, I don’t see the Clippers being able to overcome the loss of their workhorse to put up a decent fight. Suns in 6.

  • Eastern Conference Finals: #3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks

Now, this is by far the most unexpected matchup anyone could have expected in the Eastern Conference. Sure, the Bucks are good and have the pieces to win, but the Hawks are a complete surprise and one that is by all means welcome. Looking at both teams’ path to the conference finals up until this point, we see that both have defied some sort of odds just to be here, however it must be noted that Atlanta’s upsets carry a lot more weight and meaning given their comparatively lesser expectations and roster. Milwaukee, having just knocked off the presumed favorite Brooklyn Nets, are all in on Giannis Antetokounmpo and seem to have finally put it together and make a deep playoff push. The acquisition of PJ Tucker proved huge in their series against the Nets, and although Kevin Durant still put up otherworldly numbers, the fact that the Bucks won the series still serves as a testament to his quality of play. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton have proved to be a very solid backcourt pairing, and although they underperformed most of Game 7 against Brooklyn, they showed up when it mattered and allowed some pressure to be taken off Giannis. Some argument will be made about the Nets’ injury woes and lack of bench production, but in the end, a win is a win, and it is no easy feat to pull that off against a blazing-hot Kevin Durant.

Compare this to the Atlanta Hawks, and the differences are staggering. The Hawks looked the more dominant side against the New York Knicks, but their series win against the 76ers was more so to the lack of production from Philadelphia rather than the production of Atlanta. The media is one big wrecking ball aimed at Ben Simmons’ career as of late, and for good reason, he is one of the reasons (along with injuries) that the Sixers lost this series. Still, Trae Young is proving to be an up-and-coming superstar in this league, and his ability to make shots and create chances for his teammates is starting to become a genuine problem for offenses to figure out. The rest of the team shows up too, and most notably when Young has off-shooting nights. However, this team is too unproven and to be frank, too small to match up against the Bucks. Young is a liability on defense, but they more or less got away with it due to the horrible play of Simmons during the 76ers series. However, even when not directly matched up against Antetokounmpo defensively, the Bucks offense is so potent to where his defense is bound to cause problems. And when the Hawks are on offense, they will be met by a stagnant defense, one that is arguably better than the 76ers, and most notably something Trae Young can’t dribble out of. I see this matchup ending rather quickly, Bucks in 5.

Anish’s Predictions

  • Western Conference Finals: #2 Phoenix Suns vs. #4 Los Angeles Clippers

This series between the Suns and Clippers is an interesting one because there are some things to consider. Suns Guard Chris Paul is currently out on health and safety protocols, while Clippers Forward Kawhi Leonard is out with a knee injury. Both of these players are considered by many as the best players on their respective teams. Their health is crucial for whether or not their team can advance to the NBA Finals. Due to these main guys being out, I believe this series will come down to Booker vs. George on whoever performs better. I give the edge to Booker as he has been nothing short of spectacular in these playoffs. However, credit is due to Playoff P as he reclaimed his confidence in the playoffs following last year’s shutdown and has been putting up good numbers. Now, when it comes to the teams as a whole (not considering the All-Stars), the Suns have a better system in which their players work very well together. DeAndre Ayton has been a great big man in the playoffs so far, and the rest of their roster with Crowder and Bridges gives the Suns great support. 

The Clippers do have a good roster, but they are far less consistent. The emergence of the sophomore Terrance Mann who dropped 39 points in the Clippers’ Game 6 against Utah was a huge factor for them making it to the WCF. The Clippers have guys like Mann and Reggie Jackson who can get hot quickly but without these bursts of scoring the team can fall behind as the rest of the roster is too inconsistent scoring-wise. Terrance Mann and Reggie Jackson will not put up big numbers every night, so the Clippers are going to have to spread their scoring out better like the Suns. Assuming that CP3 and Kawhi will both come back for Game 3, my prediction is Suns in 6.

  • Eastern Conference Finals: #3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks

Now, this matchup is intriguing as both teams we see here dramatically upset their opponents. The Bucks drew the Nets out to Game 7 in an OT thrilling game where Kevin Durant’s big scoring night was not enough to defeat them. The Hawks also took the Sixers to Game 7, in which Trae Young did not even have a very efficient night, but Kevin Huerter dropped 27 points, and the Sixers fell to pieces as all fingers pointed to Ben Simmons unwillingness to be aggressive in crunch time. Now both these teams come off a Game 7 pulling off an upset, so momentum-wise, no one has the advantage. One crucial thing about this series that makes my decision is Jrue Holiday’s defense. 

So far, Trae Young has been putting up 30 and 10 in these playoffs like it is nothing. First defeating the Wizards, no good perimeter defenders, then they defeated the Sixers, they ran through multiple rotations trying to guard him, including Ben Simmons, but it failed. Now all eyes go on Jrue Holiday to guard Trae Young. Jrue Holiday is an elite defender, and in the last possession of Game 7 against the Nets, he forced an airball by Kevin Durant, a much taller player. With Trae Young’s usage so high, being able to even slow him down a little will disrupt Atlanta’s offense and change the outcome of the game. I am not saying Trae Young will be clamped but I believe he will get his share of points and assists as usual, but the Milwaukee defense will throw him off. Giannis’ drives will be limited by Capela’s inside presence, so Middleton and Holiday offensively will have to be the X-Factors. This Bucks team has multiple good scorers, while this Hawks team is led by one bonafide scorer in Trae Young and a good roster as a whole around him. The Hawks dominate in the depth category so it comes down to the All-Stars in Giannis, Middleton, and Holiday to score when it matters. Trae Young’s pick and roll game will be hard to stop and he will get his points which is why I have this series going to 7. Had Jrue Holiday not been on this team, I would have Atlanta winning. However, with him guarding Trae Young, my prediction stands at another very close series in Bucks in 7.

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