We’re back here again. Another Game 7. After defeating the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round, confidence is high that the Boston Celtics can replicate their success against the Miami Heat at FTX Arena.
In Game 6, we saw what Miami is capable of when their backs are up against the wall, as Jimmy Butler channeled his inner LeBron James to lead his team to victory. Now, both teams face a do-or-die battle to progress to The NBA Finals and be crowned Eastern Conference champions, so what do the Celtics need to do to ensure they’re the ones who progress to The Finals and face the Golden State Warriors? Here are three keys to Sunday’s game:
Take care of the rock
It seems so simple, right? Stop turning the ball over! But in reality, the Heat are an aggressive team on the defensive end: they jump passing lanes, trap early and often, and consistently alter their pick-up points to break any offensive rhythm. Sill, Miami’s half-court offense is appalling at times, and Boston’s key focus should be on limiting their transition opportunities and forcing them to figure things out against a set defense.
Kyle Lowry isn’t the offensive initiator he once was, and Tyler Herro (if he plays) will be nowhere near full strength. That leaves Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler as the Heat’s only playmaking threats, and let’s be honest, against the Celtics' defense, that shouldn’t be enough to consistently cause an issue.
However, the Celtics are averaging 14.8 turnovers per game, and against a Heat team that thrives in the open court, that’s unacceptable and more importantly, unsustainable. Making the right read, and finding open passing lanes will be integral for the Celtics' chances of success on Sunday night, and it starts with ensuring the ball is in the right hands on each possession, which means limiting Jaylen Brown’s duties as a ball-handler, and giving Jayson Tatum multiple options when the Heat throw double-teams at him on the perimeter.
Limit Miami’s corner actions
Ok, so the Celtics have limited their turnovers and the Heat is forced to create some half-court offense. At this point, Boston needs to focus on limiting Bam Adebayo and the Heat’s corner actions. Due to their lack of perimeter creation, Erik Spoelstra likes his team to run corner actions such as pick-and-roll or pin-downs to get a slasher barreling towards the rim off a curl.
One of the more common actions the Heat ran in Game 6 was an empty corner grenade DHO, where Adebayo would have the ball around the mid-post and cut laterally towards the perimeter for a hand-off, giving the receiving player oceans of space to attack the lane or get into their shooting motion around the wing.
By ensuring there’s no shooter in the strong side corner, Miami can eradicate the issue of dealing with a corner defender, allowing Adebyao to orchestrate their offense from the elbows, wing, or mid-post. Obviously, unless you’re playing zone, you can’t ask a defender to guard empty space, so being consistent in rotating over and removing open lanes will be integral.
Of course, Adebayo isn’t the only player the Heat rely on to initiate hand-off actions in the slot, with the hope of generating space to attack from the wings or corners. In the above play, we can see P.J. Tucker initiate a DHO sequence in which Victor Oladipo makes use of a re-screen to attack the drop, with no defender pinching in, and nobody contesting in the rearview.
Ime Udoka has proven he’s capable of making the necessary adjustments throughout a series and finding a way to nullify any advantages Boston’s opponents have begun to exploit. And on Sunday, Udoka will need to dig deep into his bag to remove Miami’s primary form of half-court offense.
Matching Jimmy Butler’s Intensity
You can’t expect to defeat an Eastern Conference finalist when your two best players barely take a shot in the second half of a game. It’s just illogical and irresponsible to believe that’s a possibility. With Miami’s backs against the wall, they put the ball in Jimmy Butler’s hands every chance they got and relied on his sheer force of will to lead them to a Game 7. It worked.
Now, Boston needs to match that type of intensity. They need Jayson Tatum to treat tonight like a legacy game - it is. And they need Jaylen Brown to be the best version of his play finishing self he can be because for both of these two young stars, being the best player on the losing team isn’t enough.
Expecting Tatum, Brown, or any other member of the rotation to go for 50 is always going to be a tall ask - the Celtics play a team-orientated brand of basketball and it’s gotten them this far. But, Udoka has to ensure his team doesn’t come out flat again, and that they’re matching or exceeding the inevitable intensity Butler and Adebayo are going to bring.
Game 7. A trip to the NBA Finals on the line. This is where legacies are made, or where the decisions are forced upon a front office. Tatum and Brown have been here before, and fell at the last hurdle each time. Now, they’re the faces of the franchise, and both reside in the upper echelons of the league’s talent pool.
If the Celtics can limit Miami’s ability to run the break, take away their corner actions on offense, and match Jimmy Butler’s internal fire, they have every chance of making it to the big dance.