Three games into the Eastern Conference Finals and where are we? Both teams have seen highs and lows, but the Heat’s tenacity has allowed them to take a 2-1 series lead over the Celtics. As a Celtics fan, these games have been heart-wrenching and immensely frustrating. On the other hand, it’s hard not to love these games as a fan of the NBA.
Let’s jump in and breakdown what’s happened so far and what we can expect as these teams continue to duke it out.
Boston’s Blown Leads
For those of you watching the games, you saw this one coming. Here’s where the Celtics leads stood late into each game:
- 14-point lead in the 4th quarter – Game 1 (loss in OT, 117-114)
- 17-point lead late in the 2nd quarter – Game 2 (loss, 106-101)
- 12-point lead with 7:12 left in the 4th, lead shrunk to 5 with 55 seconds left – Game 3 (win, 117-106)
Despite those leads, the Celtics find themselves down in the series. Through a combination of prolific 3-point shooting and the Box-and-1 zone by Miami, the Celtics have allowed the Heat to hang around late in games. Following the loss in Game 2, things got a little heated in the Celtics locker room.
Sure, the Celtics bounced back and won Game 3. But these challenges in holding leads allowed Toronto to extend a series that should have ended in 5 games, rather than 7. The more concerning component is the lack of composure, with Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum reverting to selfish, iso basketball late in games that have stagnated the offense. For a team that has appeared united all season, these cracks in the armor are concerning.
Miami’s Composure and Grit
With that said, give Miami all the credit in the world. This team has BATTLED on both ends and Jimmy Butler continues to have ice in his veins.
Erik Spoelstra has thrown a lot of different looks at the Celtics and seems to have confounded Tatum/Walker at times. Miami’s defense forced 31 turnovers through the first two games and made key plays down the stretch. Like this one…
That’s a big boy play.
Miami has made one thing clear – no lead is safe. Through the first three games, the Heat are shooting 37+% from beyond the arc, with guys like Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro spreading Boston’s defense thin. Despite some scoring droughts, their shooting has enabled them to put up points in a hurry and let them hang around. With guys like Butler and Herro down the stretch, Miami has simply executed more effectively than Boston in the closing minutes.
Following the crushing losses in Games 1 and 2, the Celtics looked in need of reinforcements. Fortunately, rumors started coming out on Friday that Gordon Hayward may be ready to return. For the Celtics, he was exactly what they needed.
While Hayward’s stat line won’t jump out at you (I do love the 3 steals), the difference he made was noticeable. Where other Celtics struggled with the Box-and-1, Hayward seemed to be able to get into the middle of the defense and find the effective outlet passes for open looks. Hayward probably saw the court a little more than planned with Smart in foul trouble, but when he was out there, defensive rotations were clean and the Celtics were able to create mismatches against Miami’s bigs. As Hayward gets more comfortable, expect him to see more time and to be the main facilitator for Boston’s second unit.
What They Need to Do to Win
- Minimize Turnovers. The Celtics have played fast and loose with the ball and for a young, athletic Heat team, that’s not the recipe for success. Boston will expect Hayward to facilitate more, which he demonstrated in his limited minutes in Game 3. That will take the ball out of Jaylen and Tatum’s hands, who struggled with their passing early on.
- Cardiac Kemba. Whatever was wrong with Kemba in Toronto, he took with him into the ECF. Against the zone defense, Walker looked lost, either driving into traffic or jacking up an errant three as the clock ran out. We saw a more controlled Kemba in Game 3, which allowed him to drive and kick to the open guy. He made some big shots down the stretch and the Celtics will need that composure if they hope to advance.
- Balanced Scoring. While you won’t bank on their offense, contributions from guys like Enes Kanter, Grant Williams, and Brad Wanamaker could be a difference-maker in the series. Miami has been doubling Boston’s stars so if you can get some bench scoring, the Heat won’t be able to sell out on defense as much.
- Aggressive Jimmy Butler. Butler has been deliberately passive early in this series and it has worked. Dragic has taken over lead scoring duties, while guys like Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo, and Duncan Robinson have shined. However, the Heat have trailed big in every game and have needed heroic efforts from Butler down the stretch to eke out 2 wins.
- 3-Point Shooting. When the Heat catch fire, they’re impossible to stop. Dragic, Robinson, and Herro have allowed the Heat to score in spurts and close the gap so the Celtics can’t run away. If they can get going early, a Celtics team that has struggled under pressure may not be able to hang in.
- Play with Pace. The Heat are stacked with long, quick defenders. Typically, that translates to lots of steals and blocks, which can allow Miami to get out and run. Boston has struggled to get back on defense in the bubble, creating opportunities for their opponents. Given the minutes Celtics starters are logging, if Miami can run consistently, they’ll wear down Boston over the course of the series.
I’m sticking with it. Hayward is going to bring some rhythm to the Celtics second unit as the tough out some close wins. Butler will go into takeover mode on the brink of elimination but in the end…
Celtics in 7.
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