Is there a duel in the NBA final?: Two Germans fight for Nowitzki's legacy

Exciting, at times sensational second-round duels lay the foundation for the Conference Finals, which start tonight.

Is there a duel in the NBA final?: Two Germans fight for Nowitzki's legacy

Exciting, at times sensational second-round duels lay the foundation for the Conference Finals, which start tonight. The Dallas Mavericks are flirting with an NBA title for the first time since the days of Dirk Nowitzki, while a German team is slightly favored in the East.

There were unbelievable scenes that played out in the NBA last Sunday, where the young Boston Celtics sent the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks around superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo on summer vacation in the seventh and all-important game. Then Luka Doncic took the stage with his Dallas Mavericks and stole the show. With the best team of the regular season and last year's runners-up, the Phoenix Suns, Doncic and the Mavs dominated in every respect and won overwhelmingly.

Although both of these all-or-nothing games - really the pinnacle of any best-of-seven series - didn't exactly live up to their promises, degenerating into straight-forward affairs long before the end, there was plenty of time to reflect and look ahead the next days and weeks. They are served: the Conference Finals in the East and West, where traditionally the champions of the region are played before they face off in the NBA Finals. In the Western Conference, the Mavericks meet the Golden State Warriors around megastar Steph Curry, while the Celtics meet the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference.

'How good is Luka Doncic' - Soccer world champion and four-time Champions League winner Toni Kroos couldn't help but show his appreciation for what he too witnessed on television. Ex-Madridista Doncic, who began his unique career as a 13-year-old at Real Madrid, played cat and mouse with the best-record side of the season. Doncic hit his first three throws and from then on did what he wanted. By halftime, the 23-year-old had as many points to his credit as the entire Suns team (27).

In the final quarter, Doncic didn't even have to go on the floor anymore, so big was the Mavs cushion, which had meanwhile grown to 46 points - one of the most devastating playoff defeats of all time for Phoenix, a disgrace for the number one in the west, which Doncic never got in got the grip. The All-Star scored 32.6 points per game in the series against the Suns. He and Michael Jordan are now the only players in NBA playoff history with more than 30 points per game on a career average.

The Slovenian started the season slowly, but really turned it up after the turn of the year and not only pulled the completely changed Mavericks fourth to their best season placement and their first playoff series win since 2011, but also straight into the Conference Finals - so they are they are just eight wins away from the championship. It was significant that the legend Dirk Nowitzki, who won the championship with Dallas in 2011, sat in the hall in Phoenix and witnessed the Doncic Gala live. After the final whistle, the former and current franchise players embraced at the center line and exchanged jokes. "I can't get that smile off my face right now," Doncic said afterwards. "I'm just very happy. We always believed in it."

The Mavs, coached by Nowitzki's former teammate Jason Kidd and thriving thanks to Doncic plus rock-solid defense - to which Würzburg big man Maxi Kleber is also a key contributor - now face a whole different caliber in the Western Conference Finals: Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. The best pitcher the sport has ever seen is aiming for his fourth NBA title with comrades Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and head coach Steve Kerr.

There's a good chance of reaching the final for the first time since 2019. Since then, injuries have repeatedly thwarted the Warriors' plans. Again this regular season, Curry, Thompson and Green shared just 11 minutes on the floor before rediscovering some of their old magic in playoff series against Denver and Memphis.

These Warriors are showing their age and are less impressive at the top than they were at their best. For that, they still have two elite shooters in Curry and Thompson, defensive ace Green, and a deeper roster full of roleplayers than ever before. Contrasting styles of play - the Warriors like to play fast and run the ball, while the Mavs put the ball in Doncic's hands and let the clock tick down - promise an open, exciting series. Dallas won three of the four duels in the regular season, but the Warriors were missing protagonists like Green and Thompson. Bookmakers prefer Golden State. However, a confident Doncic stands in their way. "He's Luka. He loves the stage," says Kidd. "The bigger it gets, the better he gets."

Across the coast, regular-season number ones and number two compete: Miami and Boston. They shape the Eastern Conference in this millennium. The Heat are in the Conference Finals for the eighth time in 18 years, and the Celtics for the seventh time in the last 15. These teams last met in the "Disney Bubble" two years ago, when Miami won 4-2. The protagonists are the same, but the signs could not be more different. At that time only going into the playoffs with outsider chances, both clubs have realistic hopes for the title this year.

Boston has been the supposedly best, most consistent team in the league since the turn of the year. A defensive stronghold led by two explosive youngsters and Defense Player of the Year Marcus Smart, peppered with specialists and solid veterans who fill their roles professionally and reliably. Substitute Daniel Theis, for example, who came by trade from the Houston Rockets during the season and relieves the starters in the zone. In attack, there's a lot going on about one of the league's young stars: Jayson Tatum. He finally made the leap this season from promising prospect to true franchise player and leader on both ends.

Flanked by Smart and co-star Jaylen Brown, Tatum and rookie head coach Ime Udoka's team patiently seek the open shot. Grant Williams hit seven three-pointers for a total of 27 points in the crucial seventh game against the Bucks, while the Celtics set an NBA record with 22 three-pointers in game seven. The chances for the grown-up "Celts" are good to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.

In order to get there, after Brooklyn and Milwaukee, they first have to eliminate the Miami Heat. They come into this series rested, full of confidence and with a perfect playoff home record (6-0) where they enjoy home advantage. And with perhaps the best player of this playoff in their own ranks. Like two years ago, winger Jimmy Butler shouldered responsibility at both ends this year - and dominated with an average of 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.1 steals.

Butler and Miami didn't have much to oppose either Atlanta in the opening round or Philadelphia in round two. Head coach Erik Spoelstra shows once again why, as one of the best in his game, he is always able to manipulate events from the sidelines. The injury-related absence of playmaker Kyle Lowry (Achilles tendon, use is still questionable) has not mattered so far - also because Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro effectively support their superstar Butler, while the defense shows mighty teeth.

Given the virtual clones in playing style, toughness and defensive discipline, both teams in this series will depend primarily on nuances in defense and accuracy from distance. Boston has a deeper cast and has a hungry young star in its ranks who wants to make it to the top. Miami has the experience, home field advantage and one of the best playoff performers of all time in Jimmy Butler. A long streak, maybe another game seven, would only be logical. The NBA Conference Finals start today.


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