Things are getting spicy. The addition of the play-in tournament has added a new level of competitiveness to what used to be a dead zone in the NBA calendar, and the Boston Celtics find themselves embroiled in a dog fight because of it.
In light of the pandemic, the NBA produced a truncated season where games would come fast and furious, with each team entering a health lottery - those that won find themselves in favorable situations, while the losers are now clawing for a playoff berth. It’s no coincidence that three of last year’s semi-finalists are all battling to make the playoffs outright and avoid the additional mileage the play-in would require.
Starting on Sunday, the Celtics and Miami Heat will enter into a two-game mini-series (well, it’s a back-to-back, but it carries the importance of a playoff series), with both teams jostling for seeding dominance.
What a difference a year - or season - makes.
Just eight months ago, these two conference titans were facing off in the conference finals. Both the Celtics and Heat entered the offseason expecting to repeat the feats of the previous season in the coming months, but it hasn’t played out like that. We’re all well aware of what has gone wrong for the Celtics, and it would seem Miami’s issues fall within similar categories.
Let’s look at where these games could be won or lost:
On the glass
According to Cleaning The Glass, Miami is one of the league’s worst offensive rebounding teams (29th), securing just 8.1 offensive boards per game. Here’s where things get interesting - the Celtics are 20th league-wide for defensive rebounding, two places above the Heat.
It stands to reason that whichever team controls the boards in these contests will create an advantage. Statistically speaking, Bam Adebayo will enter these games as the best rebounder, averaging 9.1 total boards per night. But, in reality, Tristan Thompson projects to be the board man in this series.
Adebayo’s role stems far further than operating as a rebounding specialist. The Heat will position him at the elbows or on the perimeter, using the fourth-year big as an offensive metronome. Thompson doesn’t have so much on his plate. All the Celtics ask of Thompson is high-intensity defense, board dominance, and intelligent screening.
Another encouraging sign for the Celtics is the internal development of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Robert Williams as rebounders. The years of rebounding by committee have ensured multiple Celtics can secure between six to ten boards per night.
Yet, Miami’s rebounding ability falls off a cliff once you get past Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. The addition of Dwayne Dedmon has relieved some of the bench unit’s rebounding struggles, but that is yet to translate in the league-wide rankings.
The Celtics should have a slight edge in this aspect of the upcoming games but will need to ensure they’re locked in on both ends of the floor because if there’s one thing you can count on when playing Miami, it’s that they’re coming to play every night.
One of the Celtics’ most significant flaws this season has been their transition defense. Too often, Boston has found themselves shellshocked by a succession of body blows, leading to winded and disjointed performances for long stretches of a game. Against the Heat, transition basketball shouldn’t be high on their list of worries.
The Miami Heat currently rank 29th league-wide for pace. Only the New York Knicks are operating more methodically. Lead by aging veterans Goran Dragic and Jimmy Butler, the Heat prefer to set up in the half-court before unleashing Eric Spolstrea’s creativity with off-ball actions and relentless cutting.
The Celtics aren’t the half-court defensive team they used to be, struggling to contain guys who cut middle while they’re still incapable of consistently shutting down dribble-drive penetration. But, mitigating the threat of steady transition warfare should allow the Celtics to set up in a more robust half-court setting, switching off-ball to try and limit Miami’s shooters who love to lift off the corners.
Miami is also a team that’s struggled to match groups that run the break. The Heat prefers to set up their transition defense on the perimeter rather than protecting the rim, allowing quicker guards and wings to manipulate this coverage. All season, the Celtics have looked at their devastating best when playing at pace. Unleashing Tatum, Brown, Walker, Pritchard, and Robert Williams at breakneck speeds removes the over complications that come with breaking down a set defense.
Unfortunately, the Celtics have scarcely adopted a high-paced offense this year, with themselves ranking 20th in the league for pace. Instead, they prefer to run a heavy isolation-based system that sees the ball stick too often. If Boston wants to stand a chance at jumping out to an early and sustainable lead in each of these games, adjusting their game plan to unleash their abundance of athleticism wouldn’t be a bad call.
Neither pace nor rebounding is a singular point of emphasis; they both go hand-in-hand. If a team runs in transition, then you likely want to avoid crashing the offensive boards to get back and limit the offensives advantage. But, because the Heat are insufficient in both rebounding and pace of play, the Celtics should be looking to double-dip.
Suppose Boston can dominate the offensive boards while utilizing their second-chance opportunities and own their defensive glass and leak out at speed. In that case, the Heat will be facing a team that’s exploiting their primary weaknesses - something Spolestra takes great pride in doing to others.
The Heat, like Boston, has some serious offensive firepower. However, beyond Adebayo, Butler, and Dragic, their offensive pieces are rather one-dimensional. It’s those attacking specialists that Boston will need to contain, and by doing so, the Celtics will force Miami to beat them from two-point range.
The Heat runs a bunch of drive-and-kick actions, with off-ball pin-downs freeing up their sharpshooters around the wing. Despite his slight regression in his three-point conversion, Duncan Robinson is arguably the best movement shooter in the league. Miami likes to get Robinson lifting out of the corner and curling off stagger screens to generate space - similar to what Boston now runs for both Kemba Walker and Aaron Nesmith.
Tyler Herro and Trevor Ariza are other players the Heat like to free up on the perimeter for differing reasons. Miami acquired Ariza to offer additional spacing due to his shooting gravity, while Herro is a problem when he gets downhill due to his crafty footwork skills.
If the Celtics can contain these specialists - among some of the other rotation players on the Heat’s roster, then Miami will be forced to rely on their “primary three” guys to get the job done - and that’s where things get problematic for them.
Both Butler and Adebayo have shot less than 26% from three this season, preferring to get their work done in the mid-post and at the rim, while Dragic is league average at best from deep. The Celtics will have their work cut out containing the Heats shooters, but should they figure it out, Miami will have a mountain to climb on both occasions.
When the Heat recently faced the Dallas Mavericks, they shot into the lead off the back of fast-paced basketball that allowed their shooters to find uncontested opportunities. That first quarter was unsustainable for the Heat, as Dallas adjusted to limit Miami’s scorers, and the Heat didn’t win a single quarter for the rest of the game. The Celtics would do well to watch the game tape of that contest and look to mimic Dallas’ success.
However, if the Celtics are going to dare Miami to beat them from two, they will need to shore up their 65.6% leakage around the rim. No point limiting every three-point opportunity if your handing the rim over wrapped in a nice little bow.
Attack the corners
The Heat are one of the worst teams in the league in defending the corner three, ranking 21st league-wide. The Celtics are flirting with the top-10 in corner three conversion rates, hitting 40.1% of their attempts.
Brian Scalabrine could have a field day from the announcer’s chair if Boston controls the boards, pushes the pace, and looks for the corner three in transition - that’s like his perfect day on offense. The funny thing is, that’s arguably Boston’s best chance at dousing the Heat in both games.
We may see some heavy Grant Williams minutes in these games due to his ability to hit those corner shots consistently. At the same time, his defensive upside could fit perfectly into containing the playmaking threat of Adebayo.
After Friday’s loss to Chicago, the Celtics now sit 7th in the East, one game behind the Heat with only five games remaining. Teams that finish in the 7th, 8th,9th or 10th seed will enter into the NBA’s play-in tournament, meaning Boston will forfeit the week’s rest that comes with avoiding said tournament, and worse, could ultimately fail to make the playoffs should they fail to dominate their opponents.
Right now, every loss is another nail in the Celtic’s coffin, while every win improves their chances of getting some much-needed rest before the post-season begins. The playoffs might be a few weeks away, but for the Celtics, every game feels like an elimination contest, and there’s no way they should want the Heat to deliver the deciding blows for the second season running.