The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat will meet in the Eastern Conference Finals. This is the second time in the last three years these teams have played with an NBA Finals berth on the line. The Heat beat the Celtics in the bubble before ultimately falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2020 NBA Finals. The series schedule is as follows:
· Game 1 – Tuesday 5/17 at Miami – 8:30 PM ET – ESPN
· Game 2 – Thursday 5/19 at Miami – 8:30 PM ET – ESPN
· Game 3 – Saturday 5/21 at Boston – 8:30 PM ET – ABC
· Game 4 – Monday 5/23 at Boston – 8:30 PM ET – ABC
· Game 5* – Wednesday 5/25 at Miami – 8:30 PM ET – ESPN *if necessary
· Game 6* – Friday 5/27 at Boston – 8:30 PM ET – ESPN *if necessary
· Game 7* – Sunday 5/29 at Miami – 8:30 PM ET – ESPN *if necessary
During the regular season the Celtics won the series 2-1:
· Boston 95 – Miami 78
· Boston 122 – Miami 92
· Miami 106 – Boston 98
The first matchup is probably the closest to what we’ll see in this series. Both teams were mostly healthy. The Celtics went on the road and held the Heat to under 35% from the field. Boston’s shooting was also ugly, but they did more than enough to get the victory.
Miami was missing Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry in the second game, which was played in Boston. The Celtics were healthy and dominated the shorthanded Heat. Max Strus scored 27 points, but was repeatedly targeted by Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, as the Celtics stars combined for 49 points in the blowout win.
In the final game, which was played in Boston in late-March, Miami locked down on defense to get the victory. The Celtics scored just 15 points in the fourth quarter as the Heat overcame a second-half deficit to get the win. Butler and Lowry combined for 47 points. Tatum and Brown combined for 52 points, but besides Daniel Theis, no other Celtic had a good offensive showing.
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Neither Boston nor Miami will start this series at full strength. Marcus Smart is dealing with a mid-foot sprain in his right foot. That injury was suffered during Game 7 against the Milwaukee Bucks. Reports are that the Celtics are hopeful Smart will be able to play in Game 1. If he’s limited, that will mean a bigger role for both Derrick White and Payton Pritchard.
On the Heat side, Kyle Lowry continues to be limited by a strained left hamstring. He missed the last two games of Miami’s first-round victory over the Atlanta Hawks. He then missed four-of-six second-round games against the Philadelphia 76ers. When he did play, Lowry looked severely limited in two losses to the Sixers.
On the good news front, it appears Robert Williams will be fully available for Boston. Ime Udoka said he’s feeling much better and will be able to play without any restrictions.
Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown vs Kyle Lowry and Max Strus
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(We’re going to approach this as if Marcus Smart and Kyle Lowry will both play, either in Game 1 or at some point in the series. We’ll cover their backups when we get to the bench portion of the preview.)
At this point in their respective careers, Marcus Smart and Kyle Lowry mirror each other quite a bit. Both run the offense, shoot when open, and focus just as much on the other end of the floor. They’ll match up quite a bit and if their lengthy history is any indicator, you can expect some epic flopping between two of the NBA’s preeminent flop artists.
But here’s the thing: both are really good at actual basketball too!
Smart has upped his production in the playoffs. He’s doing a little bit of everything, while still providing those signature Smart plays too. His defense against both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday showed why Smart earned Defensive Player of the Year.
Lowry still has his patented pullup jumper. He’s still good at selectively pushing the ball in transition too. And he’ll get into the teeth of the defense to draw the occasional foul too. If healthy, he’ll be a handful for Smart, but also Boston’s backup guards as well.
It’s when things flip to the other matchup that things tilt towards the Celtics. Jaylen Brown is a proven All-Star and playoff performer. He’s ostensibly Boston’s second option on offense, but he carries the scoring load enough that he’s really more of a 1A than a true Number 2. On defense, Brown was tasked with guarding everyone that Smart also guards and he held his own, minus some tough moments against Antetokounmpo.
Max Strus’ name should be familiar to Celtics fans, as they had him to the start of his NBA journey. He ultimately got waived so Boston could keep Tacko Fall, then Strus tore his ACL while with the Chicago Bulls. He’s bounced back to become a key part of Miami’s rotation.
Most of Strus’ value comes with shooting the ball. He’s mainly a three-point shooter, but if Strus catches you flat-footed, he’ll drive the ball on you. As a defender, Strus is competitive, but if he gets isolated on the wrong player, Miami has to send help for him.
Advantage: Boston. Marcus Smart and Kyle Lowry are about equal at this point. The production will come in different ways, but the impact will be about the same. Where the Celtics have the advantage is with Brown over Strus. As long as Boston can keep connected to the sharpshooter, they can limit his impact. Miami will have a far harder time of doing the same to Brown.
Jayson Tatum and Grant Williams vs Jimmy Butler and P.J. Tucker
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It’s stars and veteran role players in the forward matchup. Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler are their teams’ best players. Grant Williams and P.J. Tucker are at opposite ends of their career spectrums, but both do their things on defense and as shooters.
Tatum’s first-round series against Kevin Durant was his “I’m not a superstar in waiting. I’m here.” moment. In the second round, Tatum was a bit off, but saved his best for late in the series. His 46-point Game 6 with the season on the line on the road might have been his best effort of his career.
Against Miami, Tatum will most often draw Butler to start possessions, but he’ll see a little bit of everyone. Miami is the one team in the NBA that will switch as much as Boston does.
Against Butler, Tatum has to be smart and he has to take care of the ball. He’s got just enough of a size advantage, that Tatum should be able to shoot over Butler. But, and this is key, Tatum has to avoid offensive fouls. He picked up around at least one per game against the Bucks, and that can’t happen here. Miami’s defense is too good for Boston to have to play long stretches with Tatum on the bench in foul trouble.
On the other end, Butler is doing what he always does: stepping up in the postseason. No place is this truer than with his three-point shooting. Butler goes all regular season treating the three-point shot as something he’ll take in case of emergency, then in the playoffs, he starts dropping them in like he’s a sharpshooter.
Now, just because he’ll take a few more triples per game, Butler won’t rely on that shot. His game remains based on getting downhill with the defender on their heels. If he can, Butler likes to get all the way to the hoop, but he’s perfectly happy to stick the pullup midrange jumper too.
Look for Boston to vary their looks against Butler to try and keep him off-balance. This will probably include sending traps and doubles, especially if Miami is short a shooter in some lineups.
As for Williams and Tucker, they both do the same things: they defend and they shoot threes. Both can do some work in the midrange or on drives, but they prefer to stay stationed at the arc. One thing Miami did get a lot out of against the Sixers was Tucker dropping into space around the paint as Butler or Bam Adebayo drove. He picked up a few short shots per game from that area. That’s something Boston will have to be aware of, as Tucker isn’t staying anchored to the corner quite as much as he used to.
Defensively, both Williams and Tucker will switch and be asked to guard scoring wings quite a bit. If history is instructive, both will do just fine. And this time around, there’s no Giannis Antetokounmpo for Williams to have to defend, but he will see plenty of time guarding Bam Adebayo.
Advantage: Boston. Grant Williams and P.J. Tucker seem to be about a wash. The same will be true if it’s Al Horford at the four, should Robert Williams reclaim his starting spot. That leaves the decisive matchup down to Jayson Tatum against Jimmy Butler. Playoff Jimmy Buckets is a different player from his regular season persona. But Playoff Tatum is stepping up his game too. After seeing Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo for 11 games, Tatum won’t be intimidated by seeing Butler for a couple of weeks.
Al Horford vs Bam Adebayo
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This matchup assumes that Ime Udoka sticks with what worked against Milwaukee and brings Robert Williams off the bench to back up Al Horford. If so, this is a place where Miami has to press their advantage.
Regular Season Al Horford was a good player. Playoff Al Horford has been a star. Horford’s series against Milwaukee was an all-timer. He was dominant defensively and did whatever was needed offensive, whether it be scoring or acting as a screener and ball-mover.
The challenge for Boston is that Bam Adebayo is one of the best centers in the NBA. His offensive production has dipped a bit in the playoffs, but that’s more about how the Heat ran their offense in their first two series than any slippage in play from Adebayo. And defensively, he’s been a monster, just like he was in the regular season. In most years, Adebayo probably would have won Defensive Player of the Year.
Miami runs a switch-heavy defensive scheme, with Adebayo switching more than any big in the NBA. That means he’ll spend a lot of time guarding everyone from Horford to the Celtics wings and guards. Because of this, look for the Celtics to run some sets where Horford, or Grant Williams, sit spaced to the arc if Adebayo is guarding them. That’s one way to keep him occupied without directly engaging his defensive talents.
On the other end, Boston will switch on and off Adebayo regularly as well. He’s not the threat to attack off the dribble that Giannis Antetokounmpo is, so look for Boston to sag off him some. That will clog up driving and passing lanes. For a while, Adebayo was developing a nice 15-to-18-foot jumper, but he’s mostly stayed away from taking it this season. Without that threat of a shot, the Celtics are going to play back and look to provide help when Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro drive the ball.
Advantage: Miami. Bam Adebayo is the best center in this series, but this isn’t the major mismatch it was in 2020. He dominated that series against Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter and rookie Grant Williams. Now, Boston has Al Horford back, along with a much better Grant Williams. And presumably Rob Williams will play a role, as well. But for the Heat to win this series, Adebayo needs to be a major difference-maker on both ends of the floor. And he’s certainly capable of that.
Derrick White, Rob Williams, Payton Pritchard and Daniel Theis vs Tyler Herro, Gabe Vincent, Dewayne Dedmon, Victor Oladipo, Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson
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Tyler Herro won Sixth Man of the Year, and deservedly so. He was arguably Miami’s best player that was consistently available this season. And Herro didn’t win 6MOY just because he scored the most points either. He was the Heat’s best playmaker at times and his scoring efficiency went way up too.
But Herro’s brilliance shouldn’t overshadow a Miami reserve group that is deep, versatile and tough. So much so that one of their primary players from previous playoff runs can barely crack the rotation right now.
Gabe Vincent could be thrust into the limelight, if Kyle Lowry can’t go. He was up to the task in the regular season, as he sort of ran the offense like Lowry-lite. But in the playoffs, Vincent’s shot has abandoned him. He’s also competitive, but not the proven defender Lowry is.
Dewayne Dedmon keeps doing his thing in his 10 minutes or so per game behind Bam Adebayo. He plays defense, rebounds and occasionally adds a little floor-spacing.
Victor Oladipo and Caleb Martin have been the real revelations. After missing a large portion of the season while rehabbing his knee, Oladipo has become a productive player off the Heat bench late in the year. However, despite some big scoring games, Oladipo’s shot, like Vincent’s, has also been inconsistent in the playoffs.
As for Martin, he’s been a find as a 3&D wing. But, once again, he’s also struggled to shoot it in the postseason. If he can get untracked, his size and defense will be helpful against Boston’s wing scorers.
Notice that we haven’t mentioned Duncan Robinson yet? That’s purposeful, as he’s largely been out of the Miami rotation. Robinson lost his starting role to Max Strus late in the regular season, then he lost his rotation spot to the combination of Oladipo and Martin in the postseason. A big part of that is teams were aggressively targeting Robinson when they had the ball. And his shooting slipped just enough this year that the lack of defense made playing him a risky proposition.
For Boston, they’ll play Derrick White, Payton Pritchard and a big. We’re guessing it will be Rob Williams off the bench to at least start the series.
White has certainly had his shooting struggles, but the rest of his game has been very impactful. He’s the best player the Celtics have for pushing pace. And his defense has been a key to both series wins. Look for White to have a major role in trying to keep Tyler Herro contained as much as possible.
Pritchard will do his thing as a shooter, but he’s also becoming a more confident playmaker too. Mainly, Boston needs him to stick shots and to be competitive on defense. Both White and Pritchard’s roles will increase greatly if Marcus Smart is unable to play, or is limited.
As for Rob Williams and Daniel Theis, they’ll both likely see some time. If Williams can make an impact as a defender, rebounder and lob threat, he’ll have done enough. Boston can really use his rim protection against a Heat team that loves to drive the ball. Theis will likely see spot minutes, assuming Williams can play. The key will be to limit those to times when Dewayne Dedmon is in the game, as opposed to Bam Adebayo.
Advantage: Miami. Tyler Herro tilts this one towards the Heat. He’s that good. White’s struggles shooting the ball also factor in here. And if he plays too much against certain lineups, the Heat will find Payton Pritchard on mismatches. The key for Boston is to keep the backup minutes as even as possible. The Celtics should have an advantage when the starting groups are on the floor. They just can’t let Herro run wild. And they have to be prepared for Duncan Robinson to re-emerge looking to shoot the lights out.
Ime Udoka vs Erik Spoelstra
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This is probably Miami’s biggest advantage in the series. Erik Spoelstra may be the best coach in the NBA, and he’s climbing the all-time ranks as well. He knows his team and personnel better than any coach in the league. That matters at this time of year.
It’s also fair to expect Spoelstra to have something ready for Boston that they haven’t seen before. Maybe it will some kind of weird zone. Or maybe they’ll attack offensively using someone as a ballhandler that the Celtics won’t expect. It’s a guarantee there will be some wrinkle.
Ime Udoka has done a wonderful job navigating his first season as a head coach. He’s pulled almost all the right levers in two playoff series too. More than anything, Udoka exudes confidence and that spills over to his guys. The Celtics play with no fear of either the opponent or the moment.
Advantage: Miami. Much like last series, it’s hard to pick against a coach who has won titles, when the other guy has won just two series. Erik Spoelstra is one of the best, and he’s done a great job cultivating the Heat’s “next man up” persona. They just plug the next guy in and expect him to do his job. Udoka has done well with that too, just on a more limited basis. This one leans towards the veteran head coach, but Udoka’s trial by fire has gone about as good as can be expected so far. Time to battle another champion.
Celtics in six games.
It stinks, but a lot of this series could be decided by health. If Marcus Smart or Kyle Lowry are unable to play, or play up to their standards, that’s a series-changer. Both are simply too important to their respective teams.
We know both teams will defend. That means this could be an ugly series. Both teams will probably foul and flop a lot too. There are longstanding reputations on both sides for that sort of behavior.
The key will come down to who can find offense easier. Miami has had to run so much through Jimmy Butler. Boston has a host of defenders they can run at him to make him work. Much like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Butler won’t run from the challenge, but the challenge may eventually wear him down.
When the Celtics have the ball, they simply have more options. They’ll space the floor around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and they’ll force the Heat to make difficult decisions about where and when to send help.
Look for Boston and Miami both to aggressively target mismatches. If you can’t defend, you can’t play in this series. These teams will find you and play you off the floor.
In the end, the keys may be turnovers and free throws. Miami tends to force a lot of turnovers, but they also give it away quite a bit, and they foul a lot too. Boston has to take advantage of scoring in transition and forcing the issue when they get into the bonus. Conversely, the Celtics have to take care of the ball and keep the Heat off the line.
Unlike most series, we probably can’t put a ton of stock into who wins Game 1. Neither team is going to be all that rattled by going on the road, but Game 1 is probably more key for the Heat than the Celtics. Miami has been sitting and resting for a few days. Boston had one day to recover, while implementing their stuff for this series, after a seven-game battle with Milwaukee. That should mean advantage Heat, but this Celtics group is incredibly resilient when things are stacked against them.
This should be a competitive, physical, hard-fought, long series. In the end, if Boston can steal one on the road, that should be enough to get them the victory and to send them to the NBA Finals.