Not long ago, Miami Heat-Boston Celtics in the playoffs were a rite of spring.
LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
Times change. Players move on, even retire. But Heat-Celtics is again a thing. For the second time in three seasons, Miami and Boston will play in the Eastern Conference finals. It’s just different faces and circumstances this time with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart leading the Celtics, and Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry leading the Heat.
Meanwhile, the Western Conference finals between the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors are a classic case of old vs. new, the seasoned veterans against the young up-and-comers.
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After a two-year absence, Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have the Golden State Warriors back in the conference finals where they were a mainstay not long ago. The star core is looking to add a fourth championship to the trophy case next to the 2015, 2017 and 2018 titles.
To do it, the Warriors have to get through one of the next faces of the league making his first extended playoff run. Luka Doncic has been sensational in leading the Mavericks to a pair of series wins after first-round exits the previous two years.
We take a look at both series, and USA TODAY NBA staffers Matt Eppers, Cydney Henderson, Larry Starks and Jeff Zillgitt predict the winner.
A look at the Heat
How they got here: Beat Atlanta 4-1 in the first round and Philadelphia 4-2 in the conference semifinals.
Numbers to watch: Butler is averaging more points (28.7), rebounds (7.6), steals (2.1) and is shooting better from the field (52.5%) and 3-point range (36.4%) than he did during the regular season.
Why they will win: The Heat are known for their mental toughness, and Butler and Lowry lead the way. But there is more to the Heat than that. They are talented, versatile and have depth. Of the remaining playoff teams, Miami has the top-rated defense, second-rated offense and No. 1 net rating, outscoring opponents by 9.8 points per 100 possessions. Spoelstra has been in these situations several times, now coaching in his fifth conference finals, and is adept at game-planning and making changes on the fly.
A look at the Celtics
How they got here: Beat Brooklyn 4-0 in the first round and Milwaukee 4-3 in the conference semifinals.
Numbers to watch: The Celtics made 15.7 3-pointers per game against the Bucks and made 39 in the final two games of the series, including a Game 7-record 22 3s. They outscored Milwaukee 117-33 on 3s in Games 6 and 7.
Why they will win: Since Jan. 1, they Celtics have been the best team in the East. They have the defensive player of the year (Marcus Smart) and the best 1-2 scoring punch (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown) in this matchup. They have proven they can score in multiple ways, and they have found a way to make offense difficult for two of the best players in the league (Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo). Celtics coach Ime Udoka has done a fantastic job in his first season and is trying to join Steve Kerr, Ty Lue and David Blatt as recent first-year head coaches to reach the Finals.
(All games begin at 8:30 p.m. ET; * – if necessary)
Game 1: Today, Celtics at Heat (ESPN)
Game 2: Thursday, Celtics at Heat (ESPN)
Game 3: Saturday, Heat at Celtics (ABC)
Game 4: May 23, Heat at Celtics (ABC)
Game 5: May 25, Celtics at Heat (ESPN)*
Game 6: May 27, Heat at Celtics (ESPN)*
Game 7: May 29, Celtics at Heat (ESPN)*
Eppers: Celtics in 7
Henderson: Celtics in 6
Starks: Heat in 6
Zillgitt: Celtics in 6
A look at the Warriors
How they got here: Beat Denver 4-1 in the first round and Memphis 4-2 in the conference semifinals.
Numbers to watch: Golden State committed 18.2 turnovers per game in the second round against Memphis, a potential concern against a Dallas team that has taken care of the ball during the playoffs (10.3 turnovers per game).
Why they will win: The Warriors' playoff experience was key in the second round and should be again in this series. Doncic is difficult to contain. It will be a collective effort, but the Warriors have size on the perimeter to match up defensively and make him at least work for his points. Green is still one of the best and smartest defenders in the NBA. He and Kevon Looney have also helped Golden State control the offensive glass during the playoffs. While Curry vs. Doncic will get most of the attention, Thompson and Jordan Poole can give the Warriors consistent added scoring punch.
A look at the Mavericks
How they got here: Beat Utah 4-2 in the first round and Phoenix 4-3 in the conference semifinals.
Numbers to watch: Doncic is second all-time behind Michael Jordan in playoff scoring at 32.7 points per game. He's scored at least 24 points in each of the 10 games he's played this postseason and 30 or more six times.
Why they will win: The Mavericks go as Doncic goes, and there's no reason to believe he'll slow down against the Warriors. Doncic is arguably the best player is the series, and Dallas has done a great job surrounding him with dangerous outside shooters with the size to stretch defenses. Jalen Brunson adds another potent element to their drive-and-dish game and is a crafty finisher inside. None of the Mavericks' main rotation players had been past the first round prior to this year, but they've shown resilience despite that inexperience and won two closeout games on the road.
(All games begin at 9 p.m. ET, unless noted, and will air on TNT; * – if necessary)
Game 1: Wednesday, Mavericks at Warriors
Game 2: Friday, Mavericks at Warriors
Game 3: May 22, Warriors at Mavericks
Game 4: May 24, Warriors at Mavericks
Game 5: May 26, Mavericks at Warriors*
Game 6: May 28, Warriors at Mavericks*
Game 7: May 30, Mavericks at Warriors (8 p.m. ET)*
Eppers: Mavericks in 7
Henderson: Warriors in 7
Starks: Warriors in 6
Zillgitt: Warriors in 7
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA playoffs: Heat-Celtics, Warriors-Mavs picks; who reaches Finals?