At long last, the Eastern Conference Final is set.
In defeating the Toronto Raptors in seven games, the Boston Celtics have advanced for an opportunity to take on the Miami Heat. It'll be the fourth time the two franchises have faced each other in the playoffs, although a lot has changed since their last meeting in 2012.
Ahead of Game 1, we decided to rank the 12-best players in the series.
Up to the task were three members of our NBA.com Staff: Gilbert McGregor, Kyle Irving and myself. Similar to how we do our other rankings, we each submitted a list of who we believe are the 12 best players in the series. We then took the average to come up with the following ranking.
With that in mind, onto the list!
12. Jae Crowder, Miami Heat
Highest rank: 10
Lowest rank: 12
Crowder is coming off of a big series against the Bucks. Not only was he Miami's primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo, he shot 43.1 percent from 3-point range. His defence and 3-point shooting will be key in this series as well.
11. Daniel Theis, Boston Celtics
Highest rank: 11
Lowest rank: 11
Theis outplayed Marc Gasol and held his own against Serge Ibaka in the previous round. His numbers don't pop like other players in this series, but his willingness to do all the little things ties everything together for the Celtics on both ends of the court.
10. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
Highest rank: 9
Lowest rank: 12
Entering the Conference Finals, Herro is averaging 14.7 points per game on 41.3 percent shooting from the field and 40.0 percent from 3-point range in his first postseason. He's playing legitimate minutes as well. According to NBA.com, Herro has logged 19 clutch minutes through nine games, the fourth-most on the Heat.
As our Benyam Kidane wrote, he's proven to be more than ready for the moment.
👶🐐 @raf_tyler was built for these moments. pic.twitter.com/BtxClnovZQ- Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) September 6, 2020
9. Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat
Highest rank: 9
Lowest rank: 10
When it comes to shooting, few do it better.
Robinson attempted 8.3 3-point attempts per game during the regular season and knocked them down at a 44.6 percent clip. According to Stathead, the only other player to post those numbers in NBA history is Stephen Curry. (He did it twice).
Robinson isn't just a spot-up threat, either. He's one of the league's best scorers off of screens and handoffs, making him someone you can't lose sight of.
8. Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics
Highest rank: 7
Lowest rank: 8
We still don't know when Hayward will return from the ankle injury he suffered at the start of the playoffs, but Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said following the team's Game 7 win over the Raptors that he should be available at some point in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Assuming he does return, Hayward gives the Celtics another playmaker and shooter, as well as a multi-positional defender.
7. Goran Dragic, Miami Heat
Highest rank: 7
Lowest rank: 8
If this were based solely on what happened in the regular season, Dragic may have been a spot or two lower, but he's been back to his All-Star ways in the playoffs, boosting his averages to 21.1 points, 4.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game. The Heat are a different team when he's firing on all cylinders.
6. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Highest rank: 6
Lowest rank: 6
If anyone was wondering why Smart made the All-Defensive First Team this season...
W-I-N-N-I-N-G- Boston Celtics (@celtics) September 12, 2020
Smart also came up big offensively for the Celtics against the Raptors. After shooting 13.3 percent from the perimeter in the first round, he knocked down 39.3 percent of his 3-point attempts in the second round.
Smart's best performance came in Game 2 when he sparked a fourth quarter comeback by making not one, not two, not three, not four, but five straight 3s.
MAKE THAT 5 pic.twitter.com/7OdfqTefrH- Boston Celtics (@celtics) September 1, 2020
5. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
Highest rank: 5
Lowest rank: 5
The fact that the Raptors started back-to-back games in a box-and-one to contain Walker should tell you how important he is to Boston's success.
According to NBA.com, the Celtics are scoring at a rate of 111.2 points per 100 possessions with Walker on the court this postseason compared to 98.1 with him on the bench. The only player on the team with a better differential is Enes Kanter, who has played limited minutes off the bench.
4. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Highest rank: 4
Lowest rank: 4
Brown struggled with his shot in Boston's second-round series with the Raptors, but his defence never wavered. He played a leading role in Pascal Siakam's struggles, holding the one-time All-Star to 43 points on 19-for-43 shooting from the field and 2-for-12 from 3-point range on the possessions they were matched up with each other, per NBA.com.
The Celtics will need Brown to be at his best defensively against the Heat, a team that is loaded with perimeter threats.
3. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Highest rank: 3
Lowest rank: 3
If you were to build the perfect centre for today's NBA in a lab, they would look a lot like Adebayo.
Defensively, Adebayo has the strength, speed and athleticism to guard all five positions. His versatility was recognized with a spot on this season's All-Defensive Second Team.
Offensively, he's proven to be one of the best passers at the centre position, as well as one of the league's most feared rollers and cutters, someone who can do things like this...
Dragic gets downhill and finds Bam on ABC! pic.twitter.com/p6PiVhZm51- NBA (@NBA) September 6, 2020
...as well as this:
BAM SLAM💥 pic.twitter.com/8D8xobM0cV- NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) September 5, 2020
Adebayo ran circles around the Bucks in the previous round, posting averages of 17.2 points, 12.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. The Celtics will have their hands full trying to slow him down.
2. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Highest rank: 2
Lowest rank: 2
If there's one thing we've learned about Butler over the last couple of seasons, it's that he's more of a 16-game player than an 82-game player. That's not to discredit what he has done in the regular season - he was the key to the Heat returning to the playoffs this season - but he's at his best when the lights are at their brightest.
The Bucks learned that the hard way.
In addition to averaging 23.4 points per game in Miami's second-round series with Milwaukee, Butler led the league in fourth-quarter scoring.
PLAYOFF JIMMY arrived when needed most... the 4th quarter- Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) September 5, 2020
17 points (9-11 FT), 2 assists and 1 steal
🔥🎥 #HEATHighlights pic.twitter.com/7MBFL4xe9x
1. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Highest rank: 1
Lowest rank: 1
A scary sign for the rest of the NBA? Tatum averaged 5.3 assists per game against the Raptors in the second round, up from 2.5 in the first round and 3.0 in the regular season.
We all know that Tatum can score with the best of them - he averaged 23.4 points per game this season, the 17th-best rate in the league - but he's starting to leverage that ability to set his teammates up for easy baskets.
The growth in Tatum's game this season has shown in many areas. Here is an example of his playmaking. A year ago he would have forced this shot and not seen the pass to Theis. pic.twitter.com/X5LdmVHy69- Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) September 9, 2020
If Tatum can continue to do that, there might be no stopping him.
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