Celtics-Pacers, Wolves-Mavs: Biggest questions, predictions for NBA conference finals

We're down to the final four in the NBA playoffs: Celtics-Pacers in the East and Timberwolves-Mavericks in the West. Who will prevail in the conference finals with a trip to the Finals on the line?

Our NBA experts break down the biggest questions in each matchup and make their picks. (Also, check out our East finals and West finals previews.)

Vincent Goodwill: Boston’s psyche. This series will go as long as the Celtics want it to. They’re the biggest favorite in a conference final since Golden State in 2017. Yes, that Warriors team. Porziņģis’ health is a huge question mark, along with Boston’s depth. But the Celtics' approach is what will concern everyone — do they recognize and appreciate the opportunity in front of them? And Jayson Tatum has to be better offensively.

Dan Devine: Can Indiana slow down Boston’s offense enough to win shootouts? I believe the Pacers will put up points: They scored nearly 122 points per 100 possessions against the Bucks in Round 1, and nearly 130 points per 100 against the Knicks in Round 2. But they’re facing a Celtics team that was the NBA’s No. 1 offense during the regular season, was similarly scorching against Miami and Cleveland, and also boasts the stingiest defense of any team still in the tournament. Indiana’s defense, on the other hand, is the most suspect unit in this series. It’ll need to stiffen up for the Pacers to have a prayer.

Jake Fischer: Kristaps Porziņģis’ health. Boston will face a full-strength Pacers team riding plenty of momentum from Game 7 at MSG. Indiana boasts a true frontline with Myles Turner and Pascal Siakam that the Celtics could definitely use a certain 7-foot-3 center to combat.

Dan Titus: Will an aggressive Tyrese Haliburton show up at TD Garden? There's a stark difference in Haliburton's home and road splits this postseason. The Pacers have dominated at home in the 2024 playoffs (6-0), but Haliburton is a -30 plus/minus on the road. He's averaging just 16.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists on the road compared to 21.5 points, 6 rebounds and 8.5 assists at home, with six more field-goal attempts per game. Indy needs you, Hali!

Ben Rohrbach: Indiana’s defense. Haliburton has nowhere to hide on that end, and Boston will relentlessly target him in the pick-and-roll. Hold up well enough, and he will give Pascal Siakam and Aaron Nesmith a puncher’s chance against Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Don’t, and the Pacers’ entire defensive system collapses under the weight of Boston’s talent.

Read our Celtics-Pacers series breakdown.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA - MAY 15: Dereck Lively II #2 of the Dallas Mavericks celebrates with Luka Doncic #77 against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the fourth quarter in Game Five of the Western Conference Second Round Playoffs at Paycom Center on May 15, 2024 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joshua Gateley/Getty Images)
The Mavs took down the No. 1 seed in the West. Can they pull off another upset? (Photo by Joshua Gateley/Getty Images)

Devine: Can Minnesota’s defense hold up against Dallas’ two-headed monster? Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving can devastate drop coverage, hunt and exploit mismatches with the best of them, and turn even an excellent defensive possession to ash with pure uncut shotmaking. The Wolves just outlasted a defending-champion Nuggets team that had one of those guys; can they repeat the trick against a Mavericks side with two of them?

Rohrbach: Dallas’ shooting. Without Maxi Kleber to play a five-out brand of ball opposite Rudy Gobert, how does Jason Kidd space the Timberwolves? Can PJ Washington hold up as a small-ball five? Can Derrick Jones Jr., Josh Green and Dante Exum be reliable safety valves for Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving? It’s the only way to avoid getting swallowed up by Minnesota’s defense.

Titus: Can the Timberwolves limit second-chance points? The Gobert-Towns-Reid frontcourt will have its hands full as the Mavericks have been pacing with the Knicks in terms of offensive rebounding and turning loose balls into buckets. The Wolves are doing a good job holding the line, though, allowing opponents just 9.6 second-chance points per game in the postseason.

Fischer: Who guards P.J. Washington, and how effective will he be? Washington was such an important part of Dallas’ effort against OKC, scoring 27 and 29, and then coming alive in the fourth quarter of Game 6. At first blush, this would seem like the matchup for Karl-Anthony Towns — always a question mark —although Minnesota will likely change up its looks throughout the series.

Goodwill: Can Dallas’ big men grow up overnight? Suffice to say, the Timberwolves went through the boss of all bosses in Nikola Jokić, and Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II held up well against OKC. But if Karl-Anthony Towns unlocked maturity and Rudy Gobert exorcised a demon against Jokić, is there some newfound confidence? Of course, there’s “Who guards Ant?” and “Who does Ant guard?” but the old saying, “No rebounds, no rings,” could hold true — look at the rebound disparity in Game 7 in Denver, especially in that second half.

Read our Wolves-Mavs series breakdown.

Rohrbach: Celtics in 5. Both teams can score the heck out of the ball, but only one plays defense. The Celtics have too many defensive options to slow Haliburton, and the Pacers don’t have enough to stop everyone they need to.

Fischer: Celtics in 6. Indiana made my Knicks in 5 prediction look quite foolish, although I maintain it was looking mighty fine until OG Anunoby’s hamstring came up lame. The Celtics are rested. They’ve been here before. This series is where their experience can really shine.

Goodwill: Celtics in 6. They’ll mess around for a game, like they always do. And the Pacers will shoot the lights out in another game, like Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. Porziņģis being out extends this slightly longer, but the Celtics can’t afford to mess around too much.

Devine: Celtics in 5. No matter how healthy Kristaps Porziņģis winds up being, I don’t think the Pacers will be able to generate enough stops to put more than a brief speed bump in Boston’s path to the Finals.

Titus: Celtics in 6. The Pacers can steal a couple of games, especially with the uncertainty around Kristaps Porziņģis' return date. Whether it's the inevitable Boston letdown game or a couple of outlier shooting performances from Indy, the Celtics are playing on a different tier than everyone else in the East. Barring any unforeseen injuries, they're on track for the NBA Finals.

Fischer: Wolves in 6. Dallas is clicking on all cylinders, but the Wolves have an optimal lineup to combat the Mavericks defensively. Jaden McDaniels will try to shadow Luka Dončić. Anthony Edwards will try and smother Kyrie Irving. And the Timberwolves' size, compared to OKC’s thin frontcourt, can seem much larger to Dallas than they appear on Wednesday night.

Goodwill: Wolves in 7. It won’t be easy, coming down off the high of beating the champs on the road takes something out of you, and this team was built to beat Denver, not necessarily Dallas. Luka and Kyrie are scary and will put this series in peril, but with both teams sensing an opportunity, it’ll make for a compelling two weeks. As we’ve seen, anything can happen in a Game 7.

Devine: Wolves in 7. I might feel stupid in two weeks, but I felt stupid after picking against Minnesota in the first two rounds, too. The NBA playoffs: The most exhilarating method yet constructed to make you feel like an idiot.

Rohrbach: Wolves in 6. The Mavericks might have the best player in the series, although Anthony Edwards will have something to say about that, but Minnesota might boast boast six of the best nine options in the best-of-seven set. The Wolves’ depth and truly elite defense should be enough to get it done sooner rather than later.

Titus: Mavericks in 7. I want to pick the Wolves, but something tells me this is where the Luka/Kyrie tandem takes over. Minnesota won the regular season series 3-1, but that was before Dallas traded for Washington and Gafford. The Mavs are a different beast now, so I’m fading the Minnesota hype train.