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The Celtics have a dilemma on their hands

Boston must decide whether to close out to shooters or stick to the analytics.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

After a Game 1 loss in which Miami shot 16-of-31 from three, the Celtics find themselves in a quagmire. As a result, Joe Mazzulla has a monumental decision on his hands.

Does he react to the hot shooting of the Heat by ramping up defensive pressure and crowding shooters off the three-point line? Or, does he assume that water will find its level and Miami will return to earth?

What makes this predicament so difficult is the inconsistent and therefore unpredictable nature of the Heat’s shooting this year. During the regular season, Erik Spoelstra’s crew shot 34.4% from three-point range, making them the fourth worst shooting team in the Association.

In the playoffs, however, they’re shooting the fourth best at 37.8%. What’s even more remarkable is that every Heat player – yes, every single player – is shooting better from three in these playoffs than they did during the 82-game regular season.

Even during the playoffs, the Heat’s shooting has been confusing. They shot 45% in Round 1 against Milwaukee and then reverted back to 31% against New York in the conference semifinals. On Wednesday, they hit 52%.

There are mountains of data – at least compared to the small hills of stats we have from these playoffs – suggesting that many of the Heat’s “shooters” are not actually great shooters. Kyle Lowry shot 34.5% from three in the regular season but is shooting 38.3% in these playoffs. Caleb Martin went from 35.6% to 39.2% once the playoffs came around. Vincent from 33.4% to 35.4%, Love from 29.7% to 35.5%, Jimmy from 35% to 37.5%, and I could keep going. Oh, and Butler, Vincent, and Martin also drastically increased their attempts, which usually results in a dip in accuracy —but not for them.

There were moments in game 1 where Boston simply lost guys for wide open threes, which you can’t do even against the worst three-point shooting teams in the league. Celtics fans have become accustomed to these sorts of defensive stretches where the players lose focus and as Joe Mazzulla mentioned, “gameplan discipline.” Strus got a wide open look from the corner when Malcolm Brogdon opted to guard Cody Zeller instead. Love hit a couple wide open transition threes, and even Duncan Robinson got an open look that he somehow missed. The Celtics will have to clean up those defensive mishaps, which I anticipate they’ll do with the increased pressure that they’ll be facing in Game 2.

Most of the threes that Miami hit, though, were shots that Mazzulla and the C’s were seemingly okay with giving up. For example, Boston aggressively helped off of Caleb Martin, essentially giving him the PJ Tucker treatment. He made them pay, hitting three out of seven, including this key one in the fourth.

Jimmy is getting ready to take a contested fadeaway on Brogdon. Malcolm is in a perfect position, but I still don’t necessarily fault Smart for helping. Not only can Jimmy knock that shot down with ease, but Martin isn’t thought of as a good three-point shooter.

Then there’s shots like this one from Gabe Vincent. Tatum gets a hand up – the requisite contest that a 35.4% three-point shooter should command – but Vincent splashes it. Maybe we just need to act like it’s Desmond Bane coming off that screen. I don’t know.

Kyle Lowry is the archetype of this three-point shooting predicament. He shot 34.5% in the regular season but 38.3% in the playoffs; despite his mediocre regular season percentage, he has to be guarded like Steph Curry in the playoffs, apparently.

What is Rob Williams meant to do, for example, on this transition pull-up three. This is analytically a bad shot, but I guess not for Playoff Lowry?

Joe Mazzulla has an interesting decision on his hands. Will he react to Wednesday’s drubbing by being over aggressive on three-point shooters who don’t necessarily warrant that level of aggressiveness based on their shooting data? Or will he continue to give Caleb Martin the PJ Tucker treatment? Whatever decision(s) Mazzulla and his staff make will have pros and cons, as almost all basketball decisions do. Be more aggressive on Martin, for example, and you open yourself up to a wider paint for Jimmy Butler and others to attack. This adjustment, or lack thereof, of how to defend Miami’s “others” will be the most impactful early series adjustment on the Celtics’ end – let’s just hope he picks right and the basketball gods are on Boston’s side.

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