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#3 Celtics vs #5 Heat: Eastern Conference Finals Preview

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Is the third time the charm for Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals in the last four years?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat will meet in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals. The 3-seed Celtics swept the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round before surviving a seven-game series against the Toronto Raptors. The 5-seed Miami Heat swept the Indiana Pacers and then dominated the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in a five-game series win.

Now Boston and Miami will renew a playoff rivalry from the early 2010s on neutral courts at Walt Disney World. The series schedule is as follows:

· Game 1 – Tuesday 9/15 – 6:30 PM ET - ESPN

· Game 2 – Thursday 9/17 – TBD - ESPN

· Game 3 – Saturday 9/19 – 8:30 PM ET – ESPN

· Game 4 – TBD – ESPN

· Game 5*– TBD – ESPN *if necessary

· Game 6* – TBD – ESPN *if necessary

· Game 7* – TBD – ESPN *if necessary

During the regular season the teams met three times, with Boston winning two of three matchups:

· Boston 112 – Miami 93

· Boston 109 – Miami 101

· Miami 112 – Boston 106

The first game came in early-December. Boston used a huge second quarter and 18 Miami turnovers to win in a blowout. The Celtics were without Gordon Hayward, but Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker combined for 78 points in the victory. Jimmy Butler led the way for the Heat with 37 points.

The second matchup was in late-January. The Celtics got 29 points from Gordon Hayward, 25 points from Jaylen Brown (Boston was without Jayson Tatum) and used stifling defense to hold the Heat to 37% shooting overall and 9-of-37 from behind the arc. Free throws kept Miami in the game, as Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic combined to go 20-of-23 at the charity stripe.

The final contest took place in the bubble. The Heat were without Jimmy Butler, but never trailed in beating the Celtics. Five Miami players were in double-figures in points, led by 62 combined points from Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragic. The Heat hit 15 three-pointers, and took advantage of 16 Celtics turnovers.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, health is going to play a factor in this series for Boston. Brad Stevens said he expects Gordon Hayward will play at some point in the series for the Celtics, but he didn’t know when. Hayward has been improving and was recently seen running, cutting and shooting jumpers. It seems like a return is indeed on the horizon for Boston’s versatile wing.

If Hayward is available, it changes things for Boston. They’ll be at full-strength, for one. More importantly, Hayward is the Celtics best player against zone defense. That’s important as Miami plays more zone than just about anyone. Hayward is good at driving the gaps in the zone to find shots or passes to teammates. And his shooting is a key to help bust the zone, as well.

The Heat come in mostly healthy. Andre Iguodala is dealing with a minor ankle injury, but it shouldn’t impact his availability.

For this late in the playoffs, both teams are about as healthy as can be reasonably expected.

Starting Ballhandlers

Kemba Walker vs Goran Dragic

NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Kemba Walker’s play against the Raptors left a bit of a bad taste in Celtics fans’ mouths. But if you look a little deeper, it was only a couple of games where Walker struggled. Toronto made it a priority to take Walker away by playing a box-and-1 defense.

The good news? The Heat aren’t likely to go to that tactic. Be it lack of personnel or experience with that style of defense, Miami just doesn’t have the defenders to defend Walker that way.

That should mean Walker will back to himself. He was good against Miami in the regular season, as he averaged 19.7 points on 42% shooting from behind the arc. The Heat opened games with Kendrick Nunn guarding Walker twice and Tyler Herro the other time. The Celtics were content to attack those matchups straight up. Boston also liked to get Walker working against Duncan Robinson against switches off small-small pick-and-roll actions.

One place Walker won’t be able to attack as much is by using his pull-up jumper against bigs in drop coverage. While Philadelphia and Toronto (especially with Marc Gasol in the game) used the drop a lot, Miami does very little of it. You have to beat the Heat straight up.

Further good news for Walker individually is that he’ll open games going against Goran Dragic. Dragic isn’t necessarily a bad defender, but he’s neutral at best at this point in his career. Versus playing for his jumper, look for Walker to attack Dragic off the dribble to get into the paint. That’ll open him up to score, get to the free throw line or to find passes. Keep an eye on the late drop-off pass to Boston’s bigs. That’s become an increasingly effective weapon for the Celtics offense.

On the other end of the floor, Dragic is a Celtics killer. He does it by being crafty and getting himself to the exact shots he wants. He’s solid with midrange pull-ups and at getting himself all the way to the basket.

Boston struggled some, especially as the series went along, with containing Toronto’s guards off the dribble. Dragic could give the Celtics fits here as well. He loves getting into the paint to make plays, usually as a scorer. Dragic also excels at the “Nash” where he dribbles from one side of the floor to the other along the baseline, where he can kick to a shooter, find a teammate for a layup or shoot his own short turnaround jumper.

One wrinkle to keep an eye on: Brad Stevens may put Marcus Smart on Dragic to open games. This would put Walker on either Jae Crowder or Duncan Robinson, with the latter being more likely. Neither Crowder nor Robinson is an inside scoring threat, so Walker’s lack of size doesn’t hinder him there. And Smart is the Celtics best bet to control Dragic off the bounce.

Advantage: Boston. It’s closer than it might seem, but Kemba Walker should be able to get going easier against Miami than he did versus Toronto. If he draws Goran Dragic, Walker can break him down and create scoring opportunities. Tyler Herro or Kendrick Nunn might be slightly more effective at defending Walker, but that either takes Dragic off the floor or forces him to defend someone else. Either outcome there is a win for Boston.

Dragic just need to give as good as he gets and keep the production close. He’s going to frustrate Celtics fans by living at the line in at least a couple of games in this series, you just hope to keep that to a minimum.

Starting Wings

Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart vs Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Duncan Robinson

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Three Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

This is two young stars and a role player against a star and two role players. Jayson Tatum has taken his All-Star game to another level in the postseason. He’s averaged 25.3 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists thus far in the playoffs. And he’s shooting 45/42/77 from the field, while drawing 7.2 free throws attempts per game. How Miami defends Tatum is going to be interesting. Conventional wisdom assumes they’d start with Jimmy Butler guarding Tatum, but that’s probably something Spoelstra will save for late in games. Expect old friend Jae Crowder to open games guarding Tatum, and that may be an advantage for Boston.

Crowder is more of a 3&D power forward at this point his career than he is a wing-stopper. He’s good against bigger players because of his strength. His quickness isn’t what it was when he was in Boston. That’s where Tatum can get going. As the Toronto series went on, Tatum increasingly attacked the rim to get himself scoring opportunities. Look for him to do the same against Crowder.

That means Butler probably guards Jaylen Brown. That’s more of an even matchup, but Butler isn’t quite as good at defending quick, off-the-dribble players as he is stronger, physical players. Brown will have to be aggressive about getting Butler on the move. If he settles for jumpers, as he regularly did versus the Raptors, Brown is playing into Miami’s hands.

Duncan Robinson is the player Miami needs to “hide” the most in their starting group. That logically leaves him guarding Marcus Smart. The Celtics will counteract that in a couple of ways. Much like Butler and Crowder, Robinson isn’t great at defending on the move. Look for Boston to put Smart in situations where he can get downhill against Robinson.

The other thing Boston will look to do with regularity is to get Robinson, and also Dragic, switched onto Tatum, Brown or Walker. Think back to the series against Philadelphia in 2018. The Celtics relentless hunted mismatches against JJ Redick. If they got them straight-up, they attacked straight up. If not, Boston worked to get the switch they wanted. The Celtics are going to have to make Robinson and Dragic defend in this series.

When the ball goes to the other end of the floor, Boston has a similar advantage. Brown will open games by guarding Butler, but Smart will get chances on him too. Smart will probably start games on Robinson, as he’s the Celtics best bet for navigating the maze of screens Miami sets for their best shooter. Smart is also good at blowing up dribble hand-off actions, and no teams runs those sets better than Miami. That leaves Tatum on Crowder, where he’ll float and provide help defense in the paint.

The challenge Miami presents is that Robinson is an elite shooter, while Crowder has been very good in the playoffs. Robinson is good enough, that his gravity can bend the floor in his direction. That means Boston has to be good at defending Butler and Dragic off the dribble, because they can’t help off Robinson. If they have to help too much there, that opens up shooters or Bam Adebayo at the rim.

One last thing to watch for: Look for the Celtics to do their best to make Jimmy Butler a three-point shooter. Butler shot horribly from behind the arc this season and has taken very few threes in the playoffs. If he’s taking threes, that’s a win for Boston.

Advantage: Boston. The Celtics have more offense and defense at all three spots than Miami does. Butler is going to be a pain, as he’ll draw a bunch of fouls and frustrate Brown and Smart at times. The key is for the Celtics to stick with Robinson and Crowder and not to let them beat them from the outside. On offense, Tatum, Brown and Smart all need to stay aggressive about getting into the paint. If they do that Boston should keep the scoring flowing.

Starting Big

Daniel Theis vs Bam Adebayo

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

This is where Miami has to win a matchup decidedly to win the series. Daniel Theis is a battler, but Bam Adebayo is at a different level. Adebayo is coming off a series where he successfully defended Giannis Antetokounmpo (or at least as much as anyone can successfully defend the MVP) and was a big part of the Heat’s offense.

Theis was tough against Toronto and played some of the best defense of his NBA career. As always, a key with Theis is foul trouble. If he can stay on the court, his sense of where and when to cut on offense, and his rim protection and rebounding, are huge for Boston.

Look for Adebayo to play way off Theis to provide help on drivers and cutters. Miami will also switch regularly, as they trust Adebayo to guard 1-5, and they aren’t worried about Theis going to work in the post. For Theis to have a real impact on offense, it would be nice to see him re-discover his three-point shot. He’s just 4-for-22 from behind the arc in the postseason thus far. Finding his jumper would help pull Adebayo away from the paint.

On defense, Theis will have his hands full. Adebayo is better than any big man outside of Nikola Jokic at attacking off the dribble. He loves to get in the paint to muscle his way to scores or to drop in finesse buckets off spins and fakes. Adebayo is also a gifted passer, who Miami runs a ton of offense through. Theis can’t bite on fakes from him, and also has to be cautious on reaching in on Goran Dragic or Jimmy Butler when they drive the ball.

Advantage: Miami. Bam Adebayo is an All-NBA level center. His defensive versatility will be on full display in this series. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Erik Spoelstra go to Adebayo for stretches of the game as the primary defender on Jayson Tatum. Daniel Theis simply has to be solid and not get destroyed in this matchup. Foul trouble will go a long way towards determining Theis’ effectiveness.

Reserves

Gordon Hayward, Brad Wanamaker, Robert Williams III, Grant Williams, Semi Ojeleye and Enes Kanter vs Tyler Herro, Andre Iguodala, Kelly Olynyk, Kendrick Nunn, Derrick Jones Jr. and Meyers Leonard

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

We’re putting Gordon Hayward in with the reserves, because we don’t when he’ll play and if he’ll start. A lot of very smart basketball people believe Brad Stevens won’t want to disrupt his starting group and will use Hayward off the bench. There is maybe something to that from a production standpoint as well. If Hayward doesn’t return, or starts, the reserve advantage tilts decidedly towards Miami.

If Hayward is able to play, he’ll be a major weapon against the Heat. Hayward averaged 22 points on 55.6% shooting, to go along with eight rebounds per game against Miami this season. He also got to the free throw line 16 times in the two games. Hayward’s combination of size and skill is a tough matchup for the Heat.

The guess here is he comes off the bench. It’ll be a little easier to control his minutes, plus it will give a major boost to a group that struggled against Toronto and also had issues vs Philadelphia.

Brad Wanamaker will play some, because he always does. All the Celtics need from Wanamaker is that he isn’t greatly outplayed by Tyler Herro. If Wanamaker can give Boston 12-15 solid minutes, that’s a win.

Up front, look for Grant Williams to be the key reserve big man. His ability to switch on defense, while also holding his own against Bam Adebayo will be key. Grant Williams is also useful as a big who can close out to Kelly Olynyk when Miami goes to the pick-and-pop game with him. He’s probably going to play the most of any Boston backup big.

Robert Williams will play some as well, because he’s earned that right with how good he’s been in the playoffs. Much like against the Raptors, Time Lord might be better off getting early calls off the bench. That way he can play his minutes against Bam Adebayo rather than against Olynyk. He struggles with stretch bigs, so Stevens might be best off to bring him in early for Daniel Theis in each half and let him go against Adebayo some.

Also, don’t discount Enes Kanter getting unearthed at some point up front. While Adebayo is quicker than Kanter, he’s not going beat him off the dribble all that often. If the Celtics hit scoring droughts, Kanter can give them scoring, especially on the offensive glass.

On the wing, Semi Ojeleye will see some time, because there are bound to be games where either Brown, Tatum or Smart are in foul trouble. Ojeleye just needs to hold his own defensively and shoot when he’s open. No more, no less.

On the Heat side of things, this is where they can make up some ground in games. Herro has functioned basically as Miami’s backup point guard behind Goran Dragic. He’s improved his ballhandling and passing enough, that he’s a threat coming off screens now. Herro can score in bunches, so the Celtics have to be aware and attached whenever he’s in the game.

Andre Iguodala is playing the exact same savvy vet role for Miami as he did for the Golden State Warriors. He’s doing some playmaking on offense, but mostly focused on being a shutdown defender. Iguodala may actually be the Heat’s best defensive option against Kemba Walker. Don’t be surprised if he gets the call there, especially late in games.

Derrick Jones Jr. will also play off the pine. He’s kind of Miami’s match to Robert Williams, in that he brings energy off the bench. Erik Spoelstra will go to him when the Heat need a “pick me up” or a little extra defense.

Former Celtic Kelly Olynyk will have a major role in this series as well. He functions as Adebayo’s backup, while also playing some minutes next to the All-Star when Miami goes big. Think of Olynyk as similar to Serge Ibaka, who gave Boston fits last round. He’ll live around the arc, but can hurt you inside on occasion too.

Finally, Kendrick Nunn has been in and out of the rotation. He’s no longer starting, and Herro has taken on the backup role behind Dragic. When Nunn plays, he’s a threat to score, but his defense isn’t anything to write home about. Meyers Leonard is similar to Kanter in that he hasn’t played much, but could be called upon. He’s a threat to shoot it from the outside, but that’s about it.

Advantage: Miami. Tyler Herro is better than anyone off Boston’s bench, if Gordon Hayward is out. If Hayward can play, things start to get a lot more even. Where the Heat still have the advantage is that Erik Spoelstra knows exactly what to expect from Andre Iguodala, Derrick Jones Jr. and Kelly Olynyk.

The Celtics reserves are largely still wild cards. Grant Williams or Robert Williams may play well, or they may look over-matched. Brad Wanamaker is either good or invisible. If Hayward plays off the bench, or pushes Marcus Smart back to the bench, Brad Stevens will be a lot more comfortable with what he has. Otherwise, Miami has a decided advantage here.

Coaching

Brad Stevens vs Erik Spoelstra

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

While other coaches have jumped to the forefront for awards and the like, Brad Stevens and Erik Spoelstra quietly turn in solid season after solid season. Stevens gets more out of less than just about any coach in the NBA. He regularly turns average players into good ones. Spoelstra gets his guys in the best shape of their lives and to play with maximum effort at all times.

The coaching matchup is close, but for different reasons. Stevens has built a system that works on both ends. The offense is equal opportunity, while the defense relies heavily on switching and every defender having their head on a swivel. Both are important in this series. Miami is going to switch a lot on defense themselves. Boston has to be willing to attack the best matchup, or to hunt it. On defense, the Heat love to back cut and to spring shooters open at odd angles. The Celtics can’t afford to ball-watch, or they’ll lose players who can hurt them on offense.

For Miami, Spoelstra will throw some different looks at Boston. They’ll play the Celtics straight up a lot, but the also Heat play more zone than anyone. Given how Boston struggled against the zone vs Toronto, expect to see a lot of it in this series as well. On offense, Miami is content to play games at a snail’s pace. They will patiently run their sets and wait for the defense to break. Look for a series of dribble hand-offs on offense, with a bunch of off-ball stuff happening along the baseline.

Advantage: Miami. This is close. Really close. Really, really close. The difference is that Erik Spoelstra knows exactly who his team is and puts them in the exact positions they need to be in to succeed. If he needs to bench a player, he will do it without worry. And then he’ll call on that player the next game for a great result. It’s just a matter having been there and done that.

If Brad Stevens has the Celtics ready for the Heat’s zone defenses, that’s step one. Step two is cutting down his rotation to only the necessary players. No more wasting 8-12 minutes per game on guys who aren’t having an impact. He eventually cut the rotation against Toronto, but it happened way too late in the series and way too late in games. Stevens has to have his team ready, and that may mean playing only six or seven guys significant minutes.

Prediction

Celtics in 5. This may be a bold prediction, as the series could easily go six or seven games. The thinking is that Gordon Hayward looked good from the glimpses we saw of him, and all reports are that he’s close to being back. If he can play at or near the start of the series, Boston just has too much offense for Miami.

The differences between these teams are somewhat subtle, but they are there. The Celtics should be able to create a lot of offense off the dribble against a good, but not great Heat defense. Having just gone through the wringer against the Raptors helps the Celtics here. They won’t see another defense that physical or tough again in these playoffs.

On the other end of the floor, Boston will embrace Miami wanting to turn the game into a grind. As long as the Celtics are disciplined and don’t get caught ball-watching, they can make it hard on the Heat to score.

One last thing to watch: Although the Heat are deeper, Brad Stevens can counteract this by playing less players. If Boston can make it hard for Miami to stick with Duncan Robinson or Goran Dragic by attacking them, the Heat will have to go to Andre Iguodala or Derrick Jones Jr. At that point, Miami becomeseasier to guard.

If Stevens excises the extraneous players from the rotation, the Heat simply won’t be able to match the Celtics combination of offense and defense. Combine a shorter rotation with Hayward’s return, and that should make it a shorter than expected series.