In a league where talent tends to win out, a Miami Heat-Boston Celtics Eastern Conference finals is a bit of a shocker. Miami rocked the basketball world by making mincemeat of Giannis and the heralded Bucks in 5 games. Meanwhile, Boston had to fight tooth and nail to barely escape a 7-game tilt with the Raptors.
Saying this matchup is unexpected is a massive understatement. Since 2000, 12 ECFs have featured matchups between 1 and 2 seeds. For the first time in over 20 years, this one will feature neither. The Celtics will have the “home-court advantage” as the 3-seed, with Miami the underdog as the 5-seed.
Honestly, I could not be happier with the match-up (Boston homer-ism aside). Two gritty, defense-based teams that focus on the collective over the individual stars. This will be a throwback, grind-it-out series that likely won’t be settled until at least Game 6.
FIVE KEYS TO THE SERIES
Balance on Offense
Miami has a deep rotation that rides the hot-hand on any given night. In the bubble, they have 6 guys averaging double-digit points each night and don’t need to depend on massive nights by Jimmy Butler. Goran Dragic and Butler have been effective facilitators so far, helping to get young guys like Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro going.
On the other side, the Celtics bench has been inconsistent, creating a heavy burden for Kemba, Tatum, and Jaylen. Those 3 are responsible for nearly 66 points per game but can that be sustained against a tough Miami defense? Boston will look to Marcus Smart and (hopefully) Gordon Hayward to provide some much-needed secondary scoring.
Three Point Shooting
In the Boston-Toronto series, the team that won the 3-point battle took 6 of 7 games. While those shooting performances weren’t always pretty, it was evident how the Celtics use the 3-ball to open up the driving lanes for Tatum and Brown. A 3-point shootout is likely not what Brad Stevens will be looking for, as Miami has been masterful from beyond the arc, shooting 38% in the playoffs.
Gordon Hayward‘s Health
Same shit, different day for Boston and the Celtics faithful. Hayward’s career in Boston has been famously riddled with injuries. Unfortunately for them, Hayward’s run in the bubble has been no exception.
In Game 1 against the 76ers, Hayward rolled his ankle and was expected to miss 4 weeks. On Friday night, Celtics fans saw a glimmer of hope when Hayward took the court for the pregame shootaround.
With Hayward expected to return in the ECF, the Celtics could be getting a huge boost to their Championship hopes. In the regular season, Hayward averaged 17.5 on 50.0/38.3 splits, while also adding over 4 assists/game. By getting Hayward back, they’re adding a play-making facilitator that can help keep the offense afloat while giving Tatum/Brown a break. If he returns to 80% of his regular season self, Miami will really struggle to wrangle Boston’s wings.
In the past two series, Brad Stevens has toyed with his frontcourt rotation. He mixed in both Enes Kanter and The Timelord when giving an emergent Theis some rest. Williams was a differnce-maker against Toronto, as they struggled to contain his athleticism down low. Against Philly, Kanter provided a much-needed boost on the offensive glass.
Miami struggles inside on the offensive end and doesn’t have the size to bang with Boston’s bigs. If the Theis/Wiliams/Kanter combo can collectively average 20/10, the Celtics could cruise.
Late Game Execution
Miami’s roster is stacked with veterans that are used to playing in the spotlight. On the other side, not many Celtics have had to make plays on the grand stage at the NBA level. They bungled Game 3 against Toronto, which allowed the Raptors to climb out of a would-be 3-0 hole.
Jimmy Butler has ice in his veins and the Heat saw some Herro-ics against the Bucks. Combined with the gritty play of guys like Adebayo and Jae Crowder, the Celtics will be forced to make plays late to close out games. Their youth will be working against them but the Celtics have some dangerous weapons that will be bolstered by Marcus Smart’s propensity for game-changing plays on the defensive end. One or two key plays down the stretch may end up being the difference in this series.
Both teams have a propensity for grinding out wins and making every game competitive. While Boston has arguably the more talented roster, they could struggle against Miami’s deep rotation, which Erik Spoelstra can use to create a lot of different looks. Limiting the minutes of Celtics big-3 early in the series will be critical if they hope to make a trip to the Finals.
At the end of the day, the Miami Heat will escape with some close wins but Boston’s prolific wings will prove too much for the Heat to contain.
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