Line up both rosters and the Celtics and Heat look eerily similar:
- Perimeter wing scorers: Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro vs. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown
- Bowling ball point guards: Kyle Lowry (and Gabe Vincent) vs. Marcus Smart
- 3-&-D power forwards: P.J. Tucker vs. Grant Williams
- Utility 6th man: Victor Oladipo vs. Derrick White
- Designated shooters: Max Strus and Duncan Robinson vs. Payton Pritchard
However, where Boston might have a slight edge is in the front court. There’s no doubt that Bam Adebayo is the best big man in the series. All biases aside, Adebayo is a force on both sides of the ball. The 24-year-old isn’t one of those unicorns of the modern NBA, but he does pretty much everything else. What he doesn’t do in shooting, he makes up for as a ball handler and playmaker. He won’t overpower opponents on the block like Joel Embiid or be a rim protector like Rudy Gobert. Adebayo’s presence is more ever-present and lurking. He’s the type of player that, if you forget he’s there, he’ll make you pay.
On offense, Adebayo is a fully formed version of Robert Williams, a dangerous lob threat in the pick-and-roll and a big who loves to pass from the nail. He’s got more of a mid-range game and an assortment of floaters and hook shots than Time Lord, but it’s one we’ll rarely see outside of the paint. The Miami center averaged 19.1 points per game in the regular season on thirteen field goal attempts a night, but that scoring production has been down in the playoffs. Through eleven games so far, he’s only taking nine shots per game and averaging about 15 points. But don’t get it twisted — he’ll be a problem and a key focus for the Celtics.
Ultimately, Adebayo is the spoke of the whirling wheel that is the Heat’s offense. He’s often the initiator at the top of the key, orchestrating Miami’s myriad of dribble hand-offs, throw-and-go’s, and back cuts. At 6’9” with a 7’1” wingspan, he’ll find shooters and cutters against Boston’s switching defense and if they leave him alone for just a split second, he’s rolling to the rim to crash the offensive boards or worse, throw down an alley-oop.
In their final regular season meeting at TD Garden, we saw Adebayo at his best with a near triple double (17 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists) in an good approximation of what he’ll look like starting tonight in the conference finals. He was rarely the primary option on offense, only the metronome that made sure everything was moving at Miami’s pace. He’s not just a solid screen setter, but an excellent passer on a Heat team stocked with shooters.
After a grueling seven-game series against the Bucks, defending Adebayo won’t be the pounding, banging crash test that covering Giannis Antetokounmpo was; “Bam” couldn’t be a less apt description of his style of play. On the other hand, it’s a more cerebral, engaging task to play in that gray area where you’re not just focusing on limiting one player. Against Miami, that could mean switching up onto shooters, tagging and helping on the roll, and rotating out to the perimeter. Keeping Adebayo in check means keeping everybody else in check.
Ironically, on the defensive side of the ball, that’s how Boston could neutralize Adebayo’s impact. Remember Bam’s block on Tatum in Game 1 of the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals? Those quick twitch reflexes make him a very effective switcher on D. However, where as Adebayo is a reluctant shooter on the perimeter, the Celtics bullpen of centers (minus Robert Williams) are more than willing to stretch the floor and shoot from range.
If they can lift Adebayo out of the paint with a stretch big, that’ll open up the floor just as it did against the Bucks. The Celtics have a number of actions that come out of their Point Flash sets where Horford and two guards and/or wings use Big Al as a decision maker, not unlike Bam and the Heat. It could be a dribble hand off to Horford with a screen for the screener or an off-ball pin down. It’s all meant to engage the opposing big and keep him above the break. Plays like that limited Brook Lopez’s rim protection and Antetokounmpo’s rover opportunities, giving Tatum and Brown driving lanes.
And as NBA.com’s John Schumann notes, like with the Bucks’ defense and the Celtics shooting 55 threes in Game 7, three-point shooting will be front and center in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat gave up the second most threes percentage-wise in the regular season and Boston could oblige Miami like they did with Milwaukee.
We’d be remiss to not mention Grant Williams here, too. Mini Al — or “Grant Curry” — made history on Sunday afternoon taking and making more three-pointers in a Game 7 than any other player in league history. He’s also got some history with Adebayo back in their North Carolina high school days. Check out this snippet from former CelticsBlogger and The Athletic’s Jared Weiss:
Their first matchup came over Thanksgiving break, a primetime, standing-room-only tip at the 2015 Charlotte Hoops Challenge tournament. High Point was ranked 12th in the nation at that point, while Adebayo, who was then still known as Edrice instead of Bam, was the sixth-ranked recruit in the country and committed to Kentucky.
Yet the relatively unheralded Williams helped Providence Day get out to a 20-5 lead for a wire-to-wire win as he battled Adebayo and pulled off the upset. In typical fashion, Williams only had 13 points and took the brunt of the abuse under the rim, but he enabled his teammates to thrive.
“Grant was incredible,” Providence Day coach Brian Field said. “They went head-to-head and I’m sure he got dunked on a couple times, but he didn’t let it bother him and just kept going right back at Bam. That was a great win for our team and we were like, man, we got a chance to win this thing.”
Check it out. It’s a great read for us Grant stans.
Boston obviously has more bodies to throw at Adebayo, too. Robert Williams is coming off of a bone bruise, but is a full-go heading into the ECF. He’ll occupy Adebayo’s attention as a vertical threat. Daniel Theis went 6-for-6 in that March meeting and is another versatile big that he’ll have to contest with. The hope for the Celtics is while they may not have the best five-man on the court, they’ll throw enough different looks with their bullpen of bigs that will keep Adebayo busy.
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