Who is the biggest x-factor heading into the Celtics-Heat conference finals?
Jeff Pratt: Al Horford was extremely impressive defending Giannis Antetokounmpo in Boston’s series vs. Milwaukee, and he’ll be just as crucial for the Celtics in their ECF matchup with Miami. Bam Adebayo isn’t the unstoppable force that Giannis is, but he’s a strong, versatile big who can hurt you in so many ways. With Rob Williams still clearly not 100%, Horford is Boston’s best bet at containing Bam.
On the offensive side of the ball, Al’s ability to stretch the floor gives him obvious upside as well. Boston will need the 35-year-old to be at his best in this series, which makes him my X-factor.
Andrew Doxy: If the Celtics had Al Horford in 2020, I think we’d have a bunch of people on Twitter calling the Celtics Bubble Fraud champions. Bam Adebayo was a beast in the paint, and while Daniel Theis had a great playoff run that year, he’s just not the type of player that can match Adebayo’s size and speed. In the last two years, there wasn’t a moment when the Celtics missed Al Horford more than that series. Now, they have Al Horford, who’s once again found the fountain of youth. They don’t necessarily need him to score 30 again (though it would be welcome), but just solid defense and rebounding will be enough to mitigate some of Adebayo’s presence. As long as Tyler Herro doesn’t go off for near 40, that should make the difference between a win and a loss for this series.
Adam Spinella: Miami’s offense is built around their best scorer (Jimmy Butler) and facilitator (Bam Adebayo), two guys who are non-shooters. Sagging off one and protecting the paint (similar to what Milwaukee did off Derrick White in Game 7) is a viable strategy.
To me, the guy best-equipped for the job would be Robert Williams, the back-line quarterback of the defense who can cover for mistakes made when pressuring elsewhere. A healthy Timelord is the x-factor not just for what he gives the Celtics in terms of production, but his value in this series guarding Bam.
Jack Simone: I would be remiss not to choose the guy who just took 18 threes in a playoff game. Grant Williams had a rollercoaster of a series against the Milwaukee Bucks, but it was like the Superman ride at Six Flags: the highs were ridiculously high, but the lows were pretty darn low. If Williams is making 40% of his threes and playing great defense, Boston will be in a great spot. If he’s complaining to the refs, not getting back on D, and giving up open threes, not so much. Williams needs to continue to ride the high of his Game 7 performance while simultaneously keeping his game under control.
Trevor Hass: Victor Oladipo is the biggest X-factor in this series. He’s averaged 11.4 points per game in the playoffs so far and is starting to look somewhat like his old self in spurts. Though he’ll likely never get all the way back to that point, he seems confident, healthy and in command. If he can consistently contribute and have a big game or two along the way, that would go a long way for the Heat against a Celtics team that often requires its opponent to rely on individual greatness to have a chance. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro will get theirs, but if Oladipo gets in a rhythm, that would bolster Miami’s chances significantly.
Will Bjarnar: Is it unfair to say health? Of course, that’s applicable in any series. And at this point in the playoffs, if you’re healthy, you’ve been eliminated or never made it past Game 82. But plenty of key figures in this upcoming series are dealing with nagging ailments. Kyle Lowry has a hamstring injury that has caused him to miss six playoff games so far, and told reporters after aggravating it in Game 4, “ I’d put it this way, you don’t want to play with it.”
For the Celtics, Robert Williams’ bone bruise has caused him to miss extended time, including Games 4, 5, and 6 of the Milwaukee series. Of course, that may not have been the series for him, and Boston was able to counter his absence with elevated play from Al Horford and Grant Williams. But Robert Williams would the ideal choice to defend Bam Adebayo in the paint and on the perimeter, just as Kyle Lowry would be the ideal traffic cop for Miami’s offense, despite Jimmy Butler’s abilities and the invaluable contributions of Gabe Vincent and Victor Oladipo.
So, maybe it’s Lowry. Or maybe it’s Williams. Heck, I didn’t even mention that Marcus Smart was seen sporting a walking boot as he left TD Garden yesterday (He’s fine, I’d bet anything that it’s precautionary.) But even precautionary efforts can be cause for concern. Like in any series, health plays a factor. It just so happens that, in this one, it’s to two humongous pieces of each team’s winning formula.
Adam Taylor: The pain of 2020 is still fresh in my mind. I just see images of stagnant offense haunting my dreams. That’s why I think Derrick White could be a potential x-factor in this series - not from a scoring aspect of course, but by being a penetrator off the bench that always looks to pressure a defense and get them in rotation before taking what they give him.
I also think it’s fair to say that White was an unsung hero against the Bucks, especially in the latter games, as he found some rhythm from the perimeter and provided an additional playmaker when the offense began to get a little choppy. Of course, his defensive upside goes a long way too.
I see this series being another ‘defense first’ affair, and that will be right in White’s wheelhouse. He won’t light up the box score or anything like that, but with him coming off the bench, stagnant offense shouldn’t be something we have to worry about.
Neil Iyer: I could go in a number of directions, but my x-factor is Jimmy Butler’s scoring. Since joining the Heat, Butler’s preferred to be a facilitator rather than a scorer. We all know that during a playoff series, teams know everything their opponent is running, and offense often devolves into iso ball. The Miami offense, predicated on constant motion and sharp cutting, doesn’t have too many guys who can create their own shot. Tyler Herro is probably best at that, but his scoring dropped from 20 in the regular season to 13 in the playoffs, despite playing a horrible defensive team in Atlanta and an average one with Philly. If Butler attacks the basket and looks for his jumper, it’ll open things up for Miami’s offense. He’s lethal from mid-range and effective at drawing fouls, but for whatever reason, he’s reluctant to stay offensively aggressive. The only way for the Heat to win this series if Butler can go bucket-for-bucket with Tatum.
Michael Pearce: Tyler Herro. I know Celtics fans still have nightmares from 2020 regarding Herro, and he’s better now. Bam and Jimmy aren’t great shooters, so the performance of Miami’s 3-point snipers will dictate this series. If they can hit shots efficiently, Boston could be in trouble. The Celtics’ interior defense is trustworthy, and the best way for Miami to win will be playing inside-out and trying to beat the Celtics from deep. If Herro is limited, the Celtics defense will be dictating these games, which is the recipe for a finals berth against a stout defense on the other side.
Jesse Cinquini: I’m going with the wily veteran, Al Horford. Bam Adebayo ran roughshod over Boston’s big men during the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals when the Celtics were without Horford. This time around, Boston is well-equipped to slow down the star big with a much-improved Grant and Robert Williams, though as the starting center, it will ultimately be up to Horford to stymie him when it matters most. Horford’s blend of length, strength, agility, and smarts on the defensive end present a challenge unlike anything Adebayo has faced this postseason. Because of this, I don’t think Adebayo makes quite the same impact on this series as he did two years ago. (edited)
Keith Smith: To no one’s surprise, Adam Taylor and I are on the same page. Derrick White is the Celtics x-factor. This series, more than any other, will show why Boston traded for him. Miami plays small a lot, with four guards/wings around one big. For Boston to match that, they’ll need White to play. He’s also probably the Celtics best defender on Tyler Herro, who gets things done more with skill and athleticism than force and strength. Look for White to regularly be asked to try to hold the Sixth Man of the Year in check.
Mike Dynon: Any number of players on either side might be the X-factor, but head coach Ime Udoka could make the most impact. Miami has Erik Spoelstra, who was named a top-15 coach all-time for the NBA’s 75th anniversary. For the Celtics to win this series, Udoka will have to match or exceed Spoelstra’s leadership and intellect.
Udoka is capable of it. Pretty much every good thing the Celtics have done this season can be attributed to his coaching, including: the shift from iso-heavy offense to ball movement, the embrace of team defense concepts, the mid-season turnaround, the push for the 2nd seed, and the fearless approach to the playoffs. Perhaps the key to all that is how Udoka has influenced the players to believe in themselves and each other.
“His level of poise, his level of confidence never changed,” said Jaylen Brown after Sunday’s Game 7. “Even when we were down 2-1 or when we were down 3-2, you could tell, the look in his eyes, that we were gonna win this series. We just needed to handle our business, and sometimes you can get in those moments and go away from everything, or start to make over-adjustments. And he didn’t … we maintained our poise, kept our confidence and found a way to win the series.”
Jeff Clark: I’m going to go with a bit of a curveball and say Payton Pritchard. The Miami Heat hit you with a number of different looks, including some frustrating zone packages. In those situations the Celtics need to penetrate and kick to open shooters. So Grant Williams needs to keep doing what he was doing in game 7 against the Bucks. Beyond that, however, the Celtics just might need an extra boost of outside shooting, which Payton can provide.