The Celtics and the Heat meet in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2012 when LeBron James vs Paul Pierce was the key matchup. Only Udonis Haslem remains from from that series. The Heat had a fairly easy path to the ECF with a sweep over the depleted Indiana Pacers and a 5-1 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks with an injured Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Celtics swept the 76ers in the first round but went to 7 games against the very tough reigning champion Toronto Raptors.
These two teams met 3 times in the regular season. The Celtics won the first game 112-93 on December 4 without Gordon Hayward or Marcus Smart. The Heat were without Goran Dragic. They also won the second game 109-101 on 1/28 without Jayson Tatum while the Heat were without Kendrick Nunn. The Celtics lost the 3rd meeting 112-106 on August 8th in the Bubble without Jimmy Butler while the Celtics were pretty much healthy.
The Heat were active at the trade deadline and added Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala and Solomon Hill. That made a big difference for their team as it added much needed toughness and two additional defenders. The Celtics two wins came before their addition and they were both instrumental in the Heat’s bubble win over the Celtics.
Two former Celtics are key contributors for the Heat and both have had big games against the Celtics with their new teams. Jae Crowder signed a team favorable contract because he wanted to stay with the Celtics and then Danny Ainge traded him on the day his mother died from cancer. He has played very hard against the Celtics in past meetings. Kelly Olynyk’s rights were declined when they signed Gordon Hayward and he signed with Miami. He has also had big games against the Celtics in the past.
There is another layer of intrigue in this series. Danny Ainge, the Celtics GM, and Pat Riley, the Heat’s GM, have hated each other dating back to the 80’s when Riley coached the Lakers and Danny Ainge played for the Celtics. They clashed after Pat Riley signed Ray Allen away from the Celtics and basically called Danny a big whiner and Danny criticized Riley for his Armani suits and hair goop. Danny has since signed Gordon Hayward, who was also a Heat target. It could get testy between the two GM’s before this series is over.
The biggest question mark for the Celtics at this point is if and when Gordon Hayward will play. He has been declared out for Game 1 but has been working out and is expected to play at some time in this series. Also, there are questions as to whether he still plans to leave for the birth of his son, which could be at any time. He could be very important to the Celtics in this series as he is one of the best Celtics against the zone that we can expect to see quite a bit of from the Heat. The Heat used zone defense at times in their August win and held the Celtics to 18 points on 28 possessions against the zone defense in that game.
Javonte Green is still out with the knee injury. Vincent Poirier is back after having left the bubble for the birth of his child. Jaylen Brown injured his groin in Game 7 vs the Raptors but played through it to finish the game. He is not listed on the injury list but it’s possible that he could still be suffering some effects from the fall. For the Heat, Gabe Vincent (shoulder) is questionable and Chris Silva (pelvis) is out.
Probable Celtics Starters
Robert Williams III
Javonte Green (knee) out
Gordon Hayward (ankle) out
Jaylen Brown (groin) probable
Probable Heat Starters
Derrick Jones, Jr
Gabe Vincent (shoulder) questionable
Chris Silva (pelvis) out
Kemba Walker vs Goran Dragic
Kemba struggled against the box and 1 defense that the Raptors used but I don’t see that being a strategy for the Heat. The Celtics will need his leadership and his offense in this series if they are to win it. Dragic is averaging 21.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists. He is shooting 45.8% from the field and 38.1% from beyond the arc. He put up 23 points in the Celtics January win and 20 in the August loss. The Celtics need to keep him from having another big game in this one.
Jaylen Brown vs Jimmy Butler
Although I expect others to share the job of guarding Butler, Jaylen will certainly be one of the choices as will Marcus Smart. Butler is averaging 21.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.2 assists. He is shooting 47.7% from the field and 50% from beyond the arc. The January game was the only one where both Butler and Smart played. Marcus guarded Butler for 4 minutes and 34 seconds and held him to 2 points on 1-3 shooting over that span.
The real matchup will be Butler vs Tatum matching the Heat star vs the Celtics star. They have similar career numbers. In the playoffs this season, Tatum is averaging 25.3 points while Butler is averaging 21.8 points. Tatum is shooting 44.7% from the field and 41.9 from beyond the arc while Butler is shooting 44.2% from the field and 50% on 3’s. Which star will step up and lead his team to a win?
Daniel Theis vs Bam Adebayo
Both of these centers have played well in the first 2 rounds of the playoffs. Adebayo is a strong and mobile center and Theis will have his hands full trying to stay with him. Adebayo is averaging 16.2 points, 11.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game in the playoffs. He is shooting 54.1% from the field but has not hit a 3 so far in the playoffs. He had 21 points and 12 rebounds in the Heat’s bubble win and the Celtics center by committee will need to keep him from having another big game here.
Keys to the Game
Defense- Defense is always important to winning but it becomes even more important in the playoffs. The Heat are shooting 46% from the field and 38% from beyond the arc in the playoffs, which is 3rd best in the playoffs. On the other hand, the Celtics are allowing their opponents to shoot just 40.5% from the field and 30.5% on threes. The Celtics need to continue playing lock down defense, especially on the perimeter to counter the hot shooting Heat.
Rebound- The Celtics are averaging 45.7 rebounds while the Heat are averaging 44.9 rebounds per game. Rebounding takes effort and the Celtics will need extra effort in this one to win the rebounding battle. The Heat win the majority of their games where they out-rebound their opponents and they are a slightly better offensive rebounding team averaging 8.4 per game to 8.1 for the Celtics. The Celtics must crash the boards if they want to win this game.
Play Hard 48 Minutes- The Celtics have had some hot starts in these playoffs and some starts that weren’t so hot. They have the highest scoring 2nd quarter average but allowed the Raptors to win every 3rd quarter in that series. The Celtics must start off strong because it will be hard to come back against the hot shooting Heat. They also have to play hard from start to finish and try to avoid the 3rd quarter slumps that they had against the Raptors. They can’t let up, even if they get a lead because the Heat can put up points in a hurry, especially if the Celtics slack off on the defense end.
Bench Play - The Heat have a very good bench. Former Celtic Kelly Olynyk is averaging 6.9 points and 5.4 rebounds and shooting 36.4% from beyond the arc. They also have Tyler Herro who is averaging 14.7 points and shooting 40.3% on 3s and wily veteran Andre Iguodala can still hit the big shots when they are needed and is 2nd to Jayson Tatum with a defensive rating of 98.5. Spoelstra has gone 9 and 10 deep in their first two rounds which allows their starters to be fresher at the end. The Heat’s bench averaged 32.4 points through the first two rounds in 96.8 average minutes while the Celtics bench averaged 26.2 points on 73.9 average minutes. It goes without saying that Gordon Hayward’s return will help in this area, giving the Celtics another key player off the bench, whether it is Hayward or Smart.
Coaching - Once again we have a series with two of the top coaches in the league are matched up. It will be another chess match with each coach making adjustments and the other trying to counter those adjustments with some of his own. Brad clearly won the matchup with the reigning Coach of the Year in their last series and now needs to up his game to meet the challenges against Spoelstra in this round.
Rust vs Rest - In the second round, the Celtics benefited from having the tougher first round match up. They came out ready from the first game and got off to a 2-0 lead before the Raptors woke up. The Heat had a fairly easy path to the Eastern Conference Finals with a sweep over a depleted Pacers team in the first round and a 4-1 win over the Bucks with an injured Antetokounmpo and they have been resting and relaxing by the pool for a week while the Celtics battled out a sweep of a tough 76ers team and then a tough dog fight in their 7 game series against the very tough Raptors. In league history, teams that won a Game 7 and went on to face a more rested team are 32-45 in Game 1 of the next series. Will the Heat come out rusty because of the rest or will the Celtics come out fatigued because of the tough series they just finished?
Officiating - Officiating is always an x-factor in every game. Every crew officiates differently. Some call it tight, others let them play. While there isn’t really a home court advantage in the bubble, some refs may simulate one with their calls. Some just make bad, head scratching calls as we have seen in several of the games in the first 2 rounds. The Celtics need to adjust to the way the refs call the game and not let bad calls take away their focus.
Marc Davis is the lead referee in this game and in an LA Times survey in 2016, players and coaches voted him one of the worst referees in the league so he may very well be an X-factor. Celtics fans may remember him as the ref that Rajon Rondo threw the ball at to get ejected. Here are a couple of quotes from the article about Davis:
“He’s cool as they come, but he’s so arrogant,” one player said. “He instigates things sometimes. Marc will go back at a player. He forgets that he’s talking to another man. Don’t challenge a man’s manhood. Now you are going too far.”“Marc Davis is hands down the worst,” a player said. “He acts likes he’s your friend, but he’ll just screw you. He’ll screw you and he’ll get the biggest attitude about it.”
Kane Fitzgerald is quick to call technicals and so the Celtics need to be careful about challenging calls. He is the only ref to ever eject LeBron James. But as with most refs all three can be good in some games and bad in others.