Youth movement: NBA's 20-something stars set to battle in conference finals

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Youth movement: NBA's 20-something stars set to battle in conference finals

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will be looking to spearhead the Celtics' challenge
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will be looking to spearhead the Celtics' challengeAFP
The NBA conference finals starting Tuesday will showcase a new generation of stars as the Boston Celtics take on Indiana in the East and Dallas clash with Minnesota in the West for a place in the NBA Finals.

Boston's 26-year-old Jayson Tatum and 27-year-old Jaylen Brown are already experienced hands after the Celtics reached the conference finals in each of the past two seasons.

They made it to the championship series in 2022 but fell to the Golden State Warriors then were stunned by eighth-seeded Miami in the conference finals last year.

In the Pacers, they'll face a high-octane offense led by 24-year-old Tyrese Haliburton while in the West 25-year-old Luka Doncic will lead the Mavericks against 22-year-old Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Kyrie Irving, traded to the Mavericks in February 2023, has seen close-up what Doncic and the rest of the league's rising stars bring to the table.

"They have no fear," Irving said after the Mavericks polished off a six-game victory over the top-seeded Oklahoma City in the conference semi-finals.

"They want to kill our records. They want to kill us every time they get on the court," said Irving, an eight-time All-Star who won a title with Cleveland in 2016.

"That was the first thing I noticed about Luka, that he just had no fear going against the best in the world. He always walks around like he's the best player in the world. I think that's the confidence of a champion. That's where it starts."

LeBron James is still a force at 39 but his Lakers were swept by Denver in the first round of the play-offs.

The Timberwolves swept Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns out of the first round when the Pacers took care of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Stephen Curry's Golden State Warriors didn't make it out of the play-in and three-time Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic and the defending champion Nuggets were subdued in seven games in the West semis by Minnesota.

Edwards, averaging 28.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists in the play-offs, showed his maturity in Game 7, when he shook off a poor shooting night to dig in on the defensive end and help author one of the greatest Game 7 comeback wins in NBA history.

"I'm not one-dimensional," declared Edwards, whose stellar season has seen him tabbed for the US Olympic team.

But Irving thinks Doncic has the edge in maturity. The Slovenian star is in the play-offs for the fourth time, his longest prior run a trip to the conference finals in 2022.

Irving says Doncic is set to shine with a new supporting cast around him - not least himself.

'A lot of battles together'

The Mavs, seeking to add to the lone NBA title they won in 2011, host the Timberwolves in Game 1 on Wednesday.

The Celtics, who share the record for most NBA titles at 17, host the Pacers in Game 1 on Tuesday, with Brown and Tatum aiming to become the latest to lead Boston to the crown.

"We've just been in a lot of battles together," Tatum said of his partnership with Brown. "Seven years as teammates. He's been in the conference finals six times, this is my fifth time.

"(We're) really getting to a stage where we understand what we can do individually. We know how gifted we are offensively, but each night just kind of presents different challenges ... both of us are capable on the basketball court to do literally everything."

The Pacers' Haliburton is in unfamiliar territory, but he can rely on the experience of Pascal Siakam, an NBA champion with Toronto who was acquired from the Raptors in January.

After surprising in the regular season - and earning national attention with their run to the final of the new in-season tournament - the Pacers are out to prove they can flout conventional wisdom and use their up-tempo offence to carry them all the way.

"Well, we're the uninvited guest," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said of sixth-seeded Indiana's arrival in the conference finals. "So here we are, OK."

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