Here we go again. The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat will meet in the Eastern Conference Finals once again. The two rivals have met in the East finals in three of the past four years. The Heat won in 2020 in the bubble, with Boston coming out on top a year ago.
The series schedule is as follows:
· Game 1 – Wednesday May 17 at Boston – 8:30 PM ET - TNT
· Game 2 – Friday May 19 at Boston – 8:30 PM ET - TNT
· Game 3 – Sunday May 21 at Miami – 8:30 PM ET - TNT
· Game 4 – Tuesday May 23 at Miami – 8:30 PM ET - TNT
· Game 5* – Thursday May 25 at Boston – 8:30 PM ET - TNT - *if necessary
· Game 6* – Saturday May 27 at Miami – 8:30 PM ET - TNT - *if necessary
· Game 7* – Monday May 29 at Boston – 8:30 PM ET - TNT - *if necessary
During the regular season the teams met four times, with both teams winning twice:
· Boston 111 – Miami 104
· Boston 134 – Miami 121
· Miami 120 OT – Boston 116
· Miami 98 – Boston 95
The Celtics won the first matchup on the second night of the season in Miami behind 57 combined points from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Boston took the lead early in the third quarter and was comfortably ahead for most of the rest of the game. Bam Adebayo led the Heat with 19/8/5, but the Miami bench was terrible compared their Boston counterparts.
Boston led comfortably through most of the second games, as Tatum scored 49 points. Brown added 26, while Malcolm Brogdon poured in 21 off the bench. Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Max Strus combined for 68 points, as Miami played without Jimmy Butler.
Only a couple of days later in Boston, the Heat won in overtime. Brown forced OT with a banked-in three-pointer and finished with 37 points, but Butler returned and starred for Miami. He went for 25 points and 15 rebounds. Tatum really struggled, as he scored only 14 points and had five turnovers.
The fourth head-to-head saw Boston blow a double-digit lead and collapse in the fourth quarter of the late-January contest. The Heat outscored the Celtics 23-13 in the fourth quarter to rally for the home win. Bam Adebayo came up with 30 points and 15 rebounds to lead Miami. The Celtics played without Brown, Marcus Smart and Al Horford. Tatum led the way with 31 points, while Derrick White added 23 for the Celtics.
Boston comes in relatively healthy. Several Celtics are dealing with bumps and bruises, but they should all be available to play.
The only real injury to watch is that of Tyler Herro. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Herro remains out with a hand injury. Herro was ruled out for 4-to-6 weeks and that was approximately four-and-a-half weeks ago. It seems unlikely that Herro will play in this series, given he’s apparently not close per Spoelstra. Jimmy Butler is dealing with a sprained ankle, but he’s played through it so far. Victor Oladipo is out with a knee injury.
Marcus Smart vs Gabe Vincent
The regular season series was weird in that Tyler Herro was so heavily involved, but he’s unlikely to play. Veteran guard Kyle Lowry is also now coming off the bench for Miami. Boston was starting Derrick White in the backcourt then, but he gone back to a bench role (assuming Rob Williams remains a starter). So, there may not be quite as much to draw from the regular season as usual. Both teams have really switched from two-guard groups to two-wing lineups.
Marcus Smart shot terribly from deep against Miami. But he did the rest of his thing. The Celtics will ask him to play tough against both Gabe Vincent and Lowry. This is a series where defense needs to be the focus for Smart. Vincent can get going on offense, and he’s not shy about getting his shots up. Smart can’t lose focus against him.
When Boston has the ball, Smart will be a key as a screener, as the Celtics will likely look to get into stuff against Vincent. Also, watch for Smart operating from the nail against Miami’s zone defenses.
When the Heat have the ball, Vincent likes to shoot a lot of pullups. He’ll pull from 30 feet and in. He’s not as crafty as Lowry as a scorer or playmaker, but he’s quicker and more versatile as a scorer. Vincent also does a good job as a secondary attacker off plays set up by Jimmy Butler or Bam Adebayo.
Advantage: Boston. This isn’t an overwhelming advantage or anything, but Smart is a better all-around player than Vincent. He may not match Vincent scoring-wise, but Smart will do more as a playmaker. And defensively, Smart will bring a lot more to the floor than Vincent.
Look for Boston to ask Smart to check everyone from Vincent to Butler to probably Adebayo on some plays. It’s that versatility that gives the Celtics the advantage here.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown vs Jimmy Butler and Max Strus
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown might be the second- and third-best players in this series. They might be the top two, or maybe one and three, pending where you rank Jimmy Butler.
Who Miami chooses to put on Tatum will go a lot toward determining how this series goes. If it’s Butler, Boston will probably play through Brown by letting him attack Max Strus. If Butler checks Brown, then Tatum could draw Gabe Vincent. Teams like to put guards on Tatum in hopes of disrupting his off-the-dribble rhythm. That’d put Strus on Marcus Smart, which is something Miami can more easily live with. The Heat will also utilize Caleb Martin quite a bit in this series, just because of his size against Tatum and Brown.
No matter what, Boston has advantage here. Butler is great, and Playoff Jimmy is even greater, but he’s only one guy. The Celtics will have an attack-point to go at here. The key is Tatum has to deliver. He doesn’t have to be as great as he was over the last five quarters against Philadelphia, but he needs to be much better than he was for large chunks of that series.
Brown should also be in a spot to get his numbers too. Look for him to get out and running. Miami was a middle-of-the-pack team in transition defense in the regular season, and that’s carried over to the playoffs. Brown is the Celtics best transition weapon, so he should be looking to score against non-set Heat defenses as often as possible.
When Miami has the ball, Brown will probably be tasked with checking Butler. This is two-fold. One, Brown is better on-ball than he is off-ball. He tends to ball-watch when he’s away from the play, and that’s death against a guy like Strus. Two, Brown locked in on James Harden quite well last series. His combination of size and quickness should be enough to make Butler work.
This will also allow Tatum the advantage of defending Strus and not being as directly involved in as many plays. That should keep Tatum from picking up fouls in the halfcourt.
Advantage: Boston. This is really, really close. But it’s ultimately that Tatum and Brown are enough better than Butler alone that offsets it. That’s no disrespect meant to Strus, but he’s not on the same level as those three.
All of that said, the Celtics can’t lose focus here. Butler makes you pay for making even little mistakes. Both Tatum and Brown have to get a body into him on the boards too, because Butler will steal offensive rebounds and second chances when he can.
Guarding Strus isn’t complicated, but that doesn’t make it easy either. No matter who picks him up, they can’t drift. Strus needs very little space to get his shot off. Boston needs to lock in here.
One adjustment to watch, if necessary: Caleb Martin for Kevin Love. If Miami is struggling too much with whoever Butler isn’t guarding out of Tatum or Brown, Martin is probably who Erik Spoelstra goes to.
The main key here is to make Butler have to work really, really hard. Nothing can be easy for him. He’ll get his but make him work and try to wear him down by the end of the game.
Al Horford and Robert Williams vs Bam Adebayo and Kevin Love
We’re assuming that Joe Mazzulla will stick with the double-big lineup with Rob Williams starting over Derrick White. Most coaches don’t want to go away from something that worked, and boy did it ever work last round.
Horford isn’t going to have quite the chore as last round with Joel Embiid, but guarding Adebayo is no easy task either. Adebayo is often the fulcrum of the Miami offense, with everything working around his top-of-the-key distribution skills. Horford will need to stay pressed up, even if Adebayo isn’t the shooting threat that Embiid was.
The good news for Boston is that Adebayo does most of his direct scoring work from the nail. He’s very good at popping to that spot out of screen actions. Why is that good for the Celtics? They just played a whole series with Embiid working from the same spot. They should be prepared for it by now.
When Boston has the ball, they’ll space Horford out, which will cause Kevin Love to defend at the arc. That makes him an immediate target in pick-and-roll sequences. Look for Boston to aggressively target Love on switches, or to get pullup shots if Love is back in drop defense.
Miami may switch things up to put Adebayo in the on-ball actions, with Love covering Williams, who will likely stick near the basket. But Love can’t offer anything towards deterring Williams as a vertical spacer. Boston just needs to get in spots to give Williams passes he can work with. Note: Throw it up high to him, not down near his knees!
We already covered how Adebayo plays, but it’s important that Boston is locked in on the DHO game. Just when Adebayo has pitched it to a ballhandler or shooter on a DHO a million times in a row, he’ll fake the handoff and get downhill for a shot at the rim. The other wrinkle is running fake DHOs to set up cutters or shooters on off-balls screens. The Celtics have to stay in constant communication against that part of the Heat game.
As for Love, he’s been good on the boards for the Heat. The Knicks and Bucks weren’t able to attack him enough 1-on-1 to get him off the floor. But Love has been a poor shooter since joining Miami. He’s been touch better in the playoffs than the regular season, but he’s no longer the guy you can’t ever leave open. Look for Williams to float off Love, similar to how he did with P.J. Tucker last round.
Advantage: Boston. This is again pretty close. Bam Adebayo is really, really good. And he’s given Boston fits this season. Erik Spoelstra would be the primary reason for a Miami win, but Jimmy Butler and Adebayo would likely be a very close second and third.
The difference comes in with Rob Williams back in the Celtics opening lineup. He provides that extra dose of interior defense and offense that Boston had been missing. When Adebayo or Butler drive, Williams will be here to help deter them. And he’s a lob threat that Boston doesn’t have when he’s not playing.
Also, whoever shoots it better out of Al Horford and Kevin Love will probably go a long way towards helping their team win. Horford has had some struggles in the playoffs, but he was an elite shooter in the regular season. Love hasn’t been that guy for a while now.
Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White, Grant Williams, Sam Hauser vs Kyle Lowry, Caleb Martin, Cody Zeller, Duncan Robinson
Boston’s depth is better than Miami’s is. That’s true even if Joe Mazzulla seemed to lose a little faith in some of his backups against Philadelphia, that was out of must-win desperation and trusting his top-seven guys only.
Malcolm Brogdon is going to have a chance to make a major impact on this series. Miami doesn’t have a great answer for his driving game. And if the Heat are in zone or drop coverages, Brogdon’s pullup shooting becomes a major weapon.
If the Celtics look to push pace, Derrick White will play a major role. He’s Boston’s best player at getting the ball and going. He and Jaylen Brown do a good job when they are on the floor together of getting out in transition.
Don’t write off Grant Williams yet. He fell out of the rotation, despite not being bad against Philadelphia. Mazzulla just chose to run with Al Horford and Rob Williams as his bigs for the final couple of games. In years past, Grant has done a nice job of making Bam Adebayo uncomfortable, because he’ll play right up into Adebayo’s body.
It also feels like Sam Hauser could re-emerge in this series. There are places for him, because he can handle defending against the Miami shooters, or even against Kevin Love in small lineups. And with Miami likely to play a lot of zone, Hauser could be deployed as the designated zone buster.
On the Heat side, Kyle Lowry is still Kyle Lowry. He’s slowed down considerably, but he’s got all the tricks on both ends of the floor. And Lowry still makes big shots with the best of them. He’ll have his moments throughout the series.
However, Caleb Martin is probably the most important Heat reserve. He’ll be called on often to defend Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown often. He’s also shot it well this season, and in the playoffs. He’s going to have to play a lot, and play well, for Miami to win this series.
Cody Zeller’s career comeback has been one of the most unexpected stories of the season. He just needs to be solid for about 8-to-10 minutes a night behind Adebayo. So far, so good.
Duncan Robinson is back in the Heat rotation, due to injuries to Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo. He’s doing what he’s always done, which is shooting a lot of three-pointers and making them at a good clip. Boston has to remain aware of where he is and stay hugged up. On defense, Robinson can be attacked for points, which limits when he plays and who he plays against.
Advantage: Boston. Malcolm Brogdon is the best player of this group. Derrick White is probably the second-best player. Boston’s collection of backup bigs is better than Miami’s.
The big thing here will be winning the non-Butler and non-Adebayo minutes by as much as possible. If the Heat bench can keep things even during their minutes, never mind winning those minutes, that’s a win for them.
Joe Mazzulla vs Erik Spoelstra
This is where things get a little sideways for the Celtics. Joe Mazzulla is learning and he’s learning rapidly on the fly. He made several adjustments against both the Hawks and 76ers that helped the Celtics get those wins.
But now he’s facing his biggest challenge yet.
Erik Spoelstra is the best coach in the NBA. He’s had a few extra days to plan for the Celtics. He’s going to have some weird defense or new offensive wrinkles ready. How quickly Boston’s players and Mazzulla can decipher those, adjust to them and counter them, will be a key part of this series.
Advantage: Miami. There isn’t a world where we’d pick Joe Mazzulla as an advantage over Erik Spoelstra. No offense to Mazzulla, who is FAR better than he gets credit for, but Spoelstra is just that good.
If the Heat win this series, it’ll be because Spoelstra pushed all the right buttons and made all the right calls. He may not have the horses over the Celtics, but he knows how and when spur his horses forward. That matters a lot in the playoffs.
Celtics in seven games.
It was tempting to pick Celtics in five games, or maybe six games. The talent gap between the two rosters is that wide.
But the Celtics don’t do anything easy. They always make things harder on themselves than they should be.
Take that super fun quirk and add Erik Spoelstra, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and the Heat of it all, and you’ve got the recipe for a long series.
Now, if Boston somehow learned their lessons and they don’t no-show for a game or fall apart late in a game or two, and they could roll. But that doesn’t seem all that likely.
That means Celtics in six games feels like the right pick, but we’re going to give the Heat an extra game out of the tremendous respect they’ve earned over the years. But Boston is heading back to the NBA Finals gain, even if they’re going to have to really work to get there.