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Celtics potential 1st-round matchups: Miami Heat

Eric Spoelstra is a Coach of the Year candidate because Dion Waiters (now injured) has somehow become an effective scorer. They are deep. Their defense is stingy. Hassan Whiteside is a double-double-every-night threat (but we already knew that). What you need to know about the Heat before they prepare to possibly play a series for the fourth time since 2010.

NBA: Miami Heat at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

April showers lead to May flowers. And Heat-Celtics.

It is not spring without talking about the possibility of Miami and Boston facing each other in the NBA Playoffs. The fire of Rajon Rondo’s hatred for the Heat, Dwyane Wade getting on Boston fan’s nerves, the LeBron James factor and all those fun attributes from the past are gone. The only two players left on either side from their 2012 Eastern Conference Finals matchup are the ghost of Udonis Haslem and Avery Bradley, who didn’t play one game in that series.

A year after the regular-season finale that played like the meme of the dog in the burning house, the Cs coming back from down big to blow Miami out with the whole TD Garden screaming in excitement until everyone found out an insane four-team tie sent them to Atlanta. Things aren’t as tight, but storylines remain.

Miami looked more like lottery contenders than possible playoff opponents when the year began, but they’ve been on a tear since. They’re winners of 24 of their last 32 games behind an extraordinary burst of young, scrappy talent.

In many ways they remind me of the 2014-15 Celts that I fell in love with. In the wake of losing a franchise legend (Wade for Miami and Paul Pierce for Boston), they’ve rallied around good coaching and a former lottery pick that became a career castaway having a rejuvenation. That’s Evan Turner for Boston, or in Miami’s case Dion Waiters. They’re deep, excellent defensively, have a franchise big man and a fierce rotation of slashing guards.

They have yet to beat the Celts since March 25, 2015 though. Boston is 4-0 over them by a combined 25 points. Taking the most recent win into account, let’s take a look at what both sides could bring to the table in the postseason. Granted, Waiters is likely to be back in the picture after missing Miami’s 108-112 loss. It is important to consider that Miami is 1-3 since his ankle injury. That could hinder their chances at getting a preferred playoff seeding.

1. The Rebounding Battle Will be Lost

Boston has swallowed rebounding losses all year long. They’ve been better lately—44 boards per game over their last ten games, which is above their season average of 41.9 for the season. If their progress remains, they are a middle-of-the-pack rebounding team rather than a lousy one. Miami is average, though their personnel is bigger and adept at getting easy points on put-backs, which they did routinely on Sunday. The Heat have won all four rebounding battles head-to-head, but only by 19 in all games combined. Miami will probably continue this trend in a series, but its impact has shown to be minimal.

2. Penetration and transition will turn up the Heat

Goran Dragic is still a sensational player despite the Isaiah Thomas deal now overshadowing his exodus from Phoenix. His best days with the Suns are behind him, but his ability to get to the rim and distribute, or finish at the rim, provides a wealth of offense. The Heat also have a turnover-differential and blocking advantage over Boston. Between sound rebounding, steals and blocks Miami can get the offense moving. It pushed them to a sizable lead Sunday.

Dragic can be a rush, but what stuck out over the weekend was Miami’s ability to get in the way of Boston’s half-court, high-low ball movement. The Celtics have gone from a transition offense to a high-level passing offense in the half court over the course of one year. Here, Amir Johnson set the offense up above the arc to pull Hassan Whiteside out and leave room for Smart to post up and score or move the ball again. James Johnson read it, got in the way, and a few passes in transition later Miami is up 10.

The same thing happens here, with Al Horford replacing Amir Johnson with the ball-handling outside of the three-point line. It was probably more on Smart mishandling this pass, but the result was the same. Tyler Johnson is a born Celtics killer, by the way—he was 9 for 14 with 24 points Sunday and is a career 33 of 64 from the field against Boston. Awesome finish by Horford on that play.

This play concerns me more. The one way to stop Thomas is to force the ball out of his hands by cutting off his dribbling space. The Heat met him around this Amir Johnson screen on the other side immediately. When you’re running from a lion and there’s one behind the door you open to get away, it’s all over. I.T. lost control, and once again Miami gets two easy points lobbing the ball across the court on a turnover.

Only two teams score fewer points per game in the playoff picture right now than Miami (102), and they both play in the West (Utah/Memphis). These teams survive on defense, but they thrive on turnovers because it’s easy offense. The Heat will try to lure Boston into them, and it’s something to watch out for with how reliant the Celts are at moving the ball rapidly.

3. Versatility

One of the many factors that has led Boston to being one of the best teams in basketball is their versatility and deep bench. They can always play the matchup game, and Brad Stevens stresses that often. They will be looking in the mirror against Miami.

James Johnson, T. Johnson, Josh Richardson and more all can play multiple positions and match up with position-less ball. Wing players can be put on the Celtics’ shooting bigs defensively, and the Heat employed this strategy in the last game to varying effect. Luke Babbitt, a traditional small forward, drew Horford on the perimeter often. On this play, Horford used his good ball control to get by the tight defense to the rim.

J. Johnson is the biggest concern. He has slimmed down from previous seasons, shown a greater ability to play on the wing and can now battle with players at the three and four positions. At 6’9”, 250 pounds he can bang and blow by opposing bigs like he does to Jonas Jerebko on this play.

J. Johnson scorched Kelly Olynyk on a similar play as well. He’s a dangerous player on both ends of the floor. The multi-positional players the Heat have up and down their roster may be the biggest concern to the Celts, who rely on the pick-and-roll as well as switches extensively on offense.

These concerns, however, are simply relative to what the Celtics have been able to throw at them while winning every game.

1. Isaiah Thomas is almost impossible to stop

Sunday was yet another game the Celts probably don’t win without Thomas’s clutch scoring. He had a string of seven straight points in the final two minutes that propelled them into a lead and ultimately the win. This play in particular blew my mind.

As Horford pops out on a dribble handoff to Thomas, three Heat players go after Thomas including Whiteside. The swarm, or blitz, that everybody says will be an easy playoff solution to stopping I.T. sounds good in theory. It’s hard to pass out of a blitz at his size. But there’s one factor that makes all the Thomas doubts irrelevant—somehow, someway he can finish through three defenders.

2. There’s only one Marcus Smart

Smart is in what might be the worst month of his professional career. His usually poor shooting has dipped to 30% since March began, with no breath of life from three-point land. The win over Phoenix was his worst net performance in quite some time, Devin Booker shot 5-of-9 in his 70 point game against Smart, who shot 1-of-13.

Despite all that Smart still played in crunch time against the Heat and helped win the game.

How many guards get this rebound and are able to make the ensuing pass out of a double-team for two massive points late?

Smart can do anything on the court. Sometimes he even scores. At that point he becomes that single biggest matchup problem for the Heat when it comes to them attacking Boston’s much-improved defense.

My biggest concern for the Heat extends to their scoring droughts. Once they built a 10-point lead on Boston through 2.5 quarters they went on a nearly 4-minute stretch with 0 points to end the fourth. The offensive discrepancy between these two teams is much wider than on defense, thanks in large part to Smart’s larger-than-life effect on the overall game.

3. Horford can do so many more things than Whiteside

Whiteside is an enviable big to have. Elite defenses are built around those kind of defensive fives, see Rudy Gobert and Marc Gasol. In the loss Sunday Whiteside had 19 points and 15 rebounds—nothing to sneeze at.

Outside monster rebounding and block numbers, his overall impact on the game is limited compared to that of Horford’s. That played a factor in Sunday’s result.

Many possessions, the Celts can pull Whiteside away from the rim because leaving Amir Johnson (38%), Olynyk (36%) and Horford (36%) open from three isn’t an option. He has to run out to defend those players on high screen action, and it leaves the lane open for anything the Cs want to do around the rim.

Horford, meanwhile, can do this.

Boston’s system alone helps diminish the chances Whiteside takes over and controls a game. With Horford’s driving, shooting, passing, rebounding and quick feet defensively he can have a far more diverse impact on the game than Miami’s best big. The only player with a comparable ability on the Heat is Josh McRoberts, who is probably done for the season with a foot injury.

That’s what I pulled from the game on Sunday. To get a season-long indication of what to expect from the Heat, I consulted Nekias Duncan, a great basketball writer who’s almost as active on Twitter as I am. Give him a follow for consistent Heat insight.

Bobby Manning: I have to know, how in the world has Waiters become an impact player in Miami? Never thought I would see the day.

Nekias Duncan: I have three theories about this.

There's a small chance that Erik Spoelstra bought a bunch of VC, 2K style, and spent it all on game boosts for Dion.

Maybe Spo’ graduated from Hogwarts and cast a special spell on Dion, making him a competent player on both ends.

The boring, realistic answer is that Waiters has finally found a place where he's comfortable, boosted by a coach that enables him to do what he does. Instead of being pigeonholed as a spot-up shooter alongside LeBron James in Cleveland, or the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook duo in Oklahoma City, the Heat have needed him to create offense for himself and others. The freedom and trust he's been given has empowered him -- well, before the ankle injury, anyway.

Bobby: Well — Dion was there for some of the team's horrid start (first 16 games). They were looking like #NetsPick competition rather than playoff adversaries through 20. What changed from their lottery-poised 2016 to the 23-5 stretch that propelled them into the race? It sort of reminds me of the Isaiah boost the 2014-15 Celts got before rushing to the 7 seed.

Nekias: Funny enough, he actually missed a big chunk of Miami's awful start -- 20 games to be exact.

Honestly, Miami got healthy and started knocking down their threes. I remember posting a stat thread on Twitter during Miami's eventual 13-game winning streak. There wasn't much change from the amount of shots they were getting at the rim, from three overall, and from the corners. The biggest change was their ability to knock down shots.

That's why I scoff when people use Miami's poor start to knock Spoelstra's Coach of the Year campaign; he had been putting his players, the ones that were available, in position to succeed all year. Miami had been defending at a top-ten level before their hot streak started, and they were generating plenty of looks from the Morey Zones. Once the team got healthy, things just clicked.

Bobby: At this point what would you say is Miami’s greatest strength and greatest weakness?

Nekias: Miami's defense is what will always keep them alive. They've done a wonderful job all year of running players off the three-point line; they rank first in three-point attempts allowed per game (22.6), and that number is even lower (19.2) since the All-Star break. It's hard to mount runs against the Heat when they make you beat them from inside the arc.

Their biggest weakness is probably their lack of an elite shot creator in the half-court. As great as Goran Dragic has been this year, he's never been a "go get me an iso bucket" guy, and that kind of thing matters in the postseason. Waiters has been a godsend for Dragic and the Heat because he can get into the paint just about whenever he wants, and Miami has worn teams down in the half-court with constant drive-and-kick sequences. Without Waiters, Miami's offense has died as soon as the initial pick-and-roll with Dragic gets snuffed out.

Bobby: Defense is key. But Celtics have mastered the spread offense which bolds well against a defense that relies on an interior playmaker like Whiteside. How do you see the heat countering the shooting of Horford, Olynyk, Johnson etc.

Nekias: I don't think Miami will adjust their game plan as much. Whiteside is a fierce rim protector, but he becomes a bit of a liability once he comes up to the free throw line or further. If the Celtics start Amir Johnson alongside Horford, I'd expect Spo to place Luke Babbitt on Horford like he's done with stretchier bigs like Karl-Anthony Towns. That'll allow Whiteside to camp out in the paint.

I would imagine Miami will live with forcing Horford to become more of a scorer so they can attempt to limit threes from Thomas and the other perimeter threats. If there's a change, I think it'll come from the bench. We may see more James Johnson or even Okaro White at the 5 to tend to Olynyk.

Bobby: How about Isaiah Thomas. He's been largely unstoppable this year. What do you anticipate the Heat will throw at him?

Nekias: If last year's playoffs are any indication, I'd expect Miami to keep things straight. Placing Rodney McGruder or, when they're in the game, either of the Johnson Brothers are sexy options. Ultimately, I expect Dragic to get the assignment with Whiteside patrolling the paint behind him.

Bobby: Coming off the most recent loss, what do you think the Heat need to improve upon (outside health) in their approach to push Boston round one?

Nekias: That's tough, because health really seems to be Miami's biggest issue right now. They really miss Waiters as a secondary creator, and now we're finding out that Dragic has been playing through a foot injury, which would explain some of his recent subpar play.

The only thing I can think of right now would be better containment in pick-and-roll from Whiteside. That doesn't even feel fair; he's playing with a bum ankle and a stitched up hand, and he played very well vs. Boston. But Miami switched up their PnR coverage, with Hassan playing a little higher so takeaway those pull-up threes that Thomas drained in the last meeting. Thomas effectively burned Miami, getting to the rim at will in the second half. It's hard to ask for more of Whiteside, but that's really the only solution.

Bobby: Waiters, Whiteside and Dragic stick out from the outside on that team but who is a quietly significant factor in the team's success that should be looked out for (say in the way Marcus Smart is) when playoff time comes around?

Nekias: I think the answer has to be James Johnson. He's been Miami's ultimate X-factor, a guy that's initiated the offense, served as an iso threat at the end of the shot clock, and someone who's legitimately defended all five positions at times this year. Even in tonight's game, he spent time on Thomas off of switches, and also spent time guarding Horford in the post. His versatility will be key to Miami pulling the upset.

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