Entering the Eastern Conference Finals, nobody would have blinked if you had told them the series would go to Game 7. However, most people would have found it pretty hard to believe that the Boston Celtics would get there by losing their first three games and then ripping off three consecutive wins to even the series up.
Erik Spoelstra is the big bad wolf of the coaching world, capable of making adjustments that rock a team’s offensive and/or defensive system to the core. As such, we’re likely to witness a battle of the ages as two conference rivals duke it out in their second Game 7in as many years.
With that in mind, here are three things to watch as the Celtics try to make it four straight wins over the Miami Heat.
Can Jayson Tatum be ‘that guy’ for the second straight series?
In Game 7 of the second round, Jayson Tatum put the Celtics on his back en route to a historic scoring night. Now, the Celtics need their star player to do it again, this time against Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo rather than James Harden and Joel Embiid. The primary difference is that Miami’s top-2 guys are highly unlikely to run out of steam.
Nevertheless, Tatum toyed with Butler in Game 6, getting whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted it. They say the biggest stars rise to the occasion and for the Celtics, there won’t be many occasions bigger than the one they find themselves in right now.
Fortunately, Tatum is more than just a scorer. Throughout Boston’s three-game resurgence, we’ve seen the 25-year-old provide solid help defense, on-ball defense, playmaking out of traps, and rebounding on both ends of the floor. To beat the Heat, you need versatility and a willingness to fight battles on multiple fronts.
Yet, with Tatum firing on all cylinders and spearheading the charge, the Celtics have more than a puncher's chance of going down in NBA history as a roster that performed a great escape.
Can the Celtics avoid a mental lapse?
The story of this postseason thus far isn’t too far removed from the one we saw unfold during the regular season: Boston has a tendency to switch off for stretches of games. We saw the Celtics lose focus down the stretch of Game 6, as their defense lost half a step, and their offensive execution became labored. Suddenly, Boston found themselves relying on a last-second tip-in to force a Game 7, despite being in control of the game for 42 of the 48 minutes.
There can be no such slip-up on Monday night. The Heat will be waiting for Boston to take their foot off the gas, and as soon as they smell blood in the water, they’ll turn up the intensity and look to pull away. Sure, part of remaining focused will sit on Joe Mazzulla’s shoulders, as he will need to coach a near-perfect game in terms of timeouts, game management, and rotation decisions.
But in truth, the majority of Boston’s issue with focus falls directly on the playing personnel — after all, they’re the ones out on the court. If the Celtics can keep their eyes on the prize and not let the weight of the moment get to them, they should be there or thereabouts once we enter clutch time.
Keep controlling the offensive glass
A significant part of what’s powered the Celtics' resurgence over the past three games has been their dominance on the offensive glass. As such, continuing to win the battle of the offensive boards has to be a legitimate priority.
After all, teams can’t get out in transition if you’re gobbling up all the rebounds from your missed shots, and considering transition defense has been a struggle for the Celtics in recent years, inhaling all the loose balls you can is a solid strategy. However, sometimes rebounding is a gift from the basketball deities, as a friendly or unfriendly bounce can be the difference between a second chance effort or a foot race down the court.
Still, with an elite leaper like Robert Williams, and a positional savant in Al Horford, the Celtics should be expecting to leave a good account of themselves in the rebounding numbers.
I’ll keep this short and sweet. Win the game. Make history. Avenge last year’s NBA Finals loss.