Eastern Conference finals preview: What to expect in Heat-Celtics rematch? Elite defense

·9 min read
Al Diaz/adiaz@miamiherald.com

Two years after the Miami Heat eliminated the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals in 2020 in the Walt Disney World bubble, they will face off again for the conference crown.

“It’s just going to be exciting to be able to kind of run it back against them with fans in the arenas,” Celtics forward Grant Williams said.

But a full arena won’t be the only thing that’s different about this season’s East finals matchup between the Heat and Celtics, which begins with Game 1 on Tuesday (8:30 p.m., ESPN) at FTX Arena.

Some key characters remain, but there are many that weren’t around for their bubble clash.

Only four Heat players who earned minutes in the 2020 East finals remain on the team: Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson.

The Celtics still have six players who appeared in the 2020 East finals: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams and Grant Williams.

The Heat is still coached by Erik Spoelstra. But Brad Stevens is no longer the Celtics’ coach, it’s now Ime Udoka.

“It’s different,” Spoelstra said when asked how much can be drawn from the 2020 East finals entering this year’s series. “Our team is different, our prep was a little bit different with them. It’s not like you have the same 15 guys on both teams.”

The Celtics, which overcame a shaky 23-24 start by closing the regular season with a 28-7 record, enter this year’s matchup as the slight betting favorite to win the East finals. But the expectation is it will be a hard-fought and close series between two of the NBA’s best defenses.

“What I love about this team the most is ain’t nobody paying attention to who anybody else picks because we know that we can win,” Butler said. “Those are guys I want to go to war with. ... We’re going to fight and we’re going to come out on top.”

Here are five questions surrounding the matchup, with answers on what to expect in the Heat-Celtics series:

The Celtics won the regular-season series over the Heat 2-1. What does that mean for the East finals matchup?

Not much. It’s too small of a sample size. Also, the Heat played one of the three games without three starters in Butler, Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker, and the result was a 30-point loss in Boston.

The Heat’s only win against the Celtics came in the teams’ third and final meeting of the regular season, as Miami came away with a 106-98 victory on March 30 at TD Garden. The Heat trailed by four with 6:28 to play, but closed the game on an 18-6 run to escape with the victory behind 64 combined points on 51.2 percent shooting from the trio of Adebayo, Butler and Lowry.

What’s the injury situation for both teams?

The Heat and Celtics are dealing with injuries to key players.

Lowry has been ruled out for Game 1 because of a strained left hamstring and his status for the rest of the series is uncertain. The Heat’s starting point guard did not practice on Sunday and Monday, and has missed six of the last eight games.

Gabe Vincent is expected to start in Lowry’s place. The Heat is 6-0 this postseason with Vincent in the starting lineup.

Celtics starting center Robert Williams is expected to be available for Game 1 of the East finals with no minutes restriction. Williams missed the final four games of Boston’s second-round series against Milwaukee because of left knee soreness.

Smart is listed as questionable for Game 1 after sustaining a sprained right foot in the Celtics’ Game 7 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday.

Miami Heat heading to East finals. A look at the full series schedule and ticket info

This is a matchup between two of the NBA’s top defenses. What makes the Heat and Celtics so good on that end?

Both teams have a bunch of good defenders and dynamic defensive systems built around their personnel.

Boston features this season’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year in Smart, an elite rim protector in Robert Williams if he’s able to play, a versatile defender who can guard multiple positions in Grant Williams, and the length of Tatum and Brown.

The Heat’s defense is anchored by the switchable Adebayo, with All-Defensive caliber players in Butler, Lowry and Tucker surrounding him. Vincent, Victor Oladipo and Caleb Martin are also quality defenders that are expected to be used in this series.

The Celtics posted the NBA’s top defensive rating and the Heat recorded the NBA’s fourth-best defensive rating in the regular season.

Along with the fact that they closed the regular season with top-five defenses, Miami and Boston have something else in common. Both defenses switch a lot, but also sprinkle in a variety of other looks to keep opponents off balance.

The Celtics were the only team in the league that switched more screens than the Heat this regular season.

The Celtics and the Heat both also use their switching schemes to help flatten out opposing offenses and keep teams from the rim. Boston allowed the second-fewest shots from within the restricted area (21.4 per game), and Miami allowed the fourth-fewest shots from within the restricted area (22.1 per game) in the NBA this regular season.

But the biggest difference between the two defenses is the shots that are available against each unit.

Even with the Celtics prioritizing rim protection, they still don’t give up a high number of threes. Boston’s length on the perimeter, ability to switch on screens and aggressiveness will test Miami’s ability to consistently generate open looks from deep.

The Celtics allowed the 17th-most three-point attempts (34.9 per game) in the NBA this regular season, limiting opponents to the worst three-point percentage (33.9 percent). Boston has also held opponents to just 32.9 percent shooting on threes this postseason.

Instead, the Celtics force teams to take a high volume of midrange shots. Boston’s defense gave up the the second-most midrange shot attempts (13.4 per game) in the league this regular season.

Meanwhile, the shot usually available against the Heat’s defense is the three-pointer. Miami allowed the fourth-most three-point attempts (38.3 per game) in the NBA this regular season.

The answer to solving a switching defense is usually to find mismatches and win those 1-on-1 matchups more often than not. Continuous off-ball movement to keep the defense rotating and on its heels will also be part of the game plan.

But the numbers also say the Heat will have to make a high percentage of its midrange looks, and the Celtics will need to shoot an efficient percentage from three-point range to find offensive success.

Taking advantage of mismatches in isolation situations and making the most of midrange opportunities? Butler and Herro’s skill sets fit exactly what the Heat’s offense needs in this series.

Adebayo will also need to make the Celtics’ switch-heavy defense pay whenever he finds a smaller defender on him.

“I think there will be a lot of defense played on both sides,” Butler said. “I like games in the 90s. That means you really guard somebody. You’re taking away the three-point line and playing inside the three-point line. You’re getting back, getting stops and a lot of physicality. It fits the way they want to play. It fits the way we want to play, as well.”

What should be the Heat’s biggest concern against the Celtics?

The same as it has been in every playoff series this year: Half-court offense. But the concern is even bigger in this series because the Celtics had the best half-court defense in the NBA this regular season, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Through all of the Heat’s success, shaky half-court offense has been an issue that has consistently bothered Miami this season.

The Heat finished the regular season with the NBA’s 11th-best half-court offense. During the past 10 seasons, only one team has made the NBA Finals with a half-court offense that ranked outside of the top 10 in the regular season: The Los Angeles Lakers in 2020.

Among the four remaining teams in this year’s playoffs, the Heat’s half-court offense has been the worst this postseason in terms of points per play.

Generating efficient half-court offense consistently will be tough against the Celtics, but it will be important to take some of the pressure off the Heat’s defense.

The Heat is 10-18 this season when finishing with a half-court offensive rating of worse than 90 points per 100 plays. Meanwhile, Miami is 27-1 when finishing with a half-court offensive rating of better than 105 points per 100 plays.

In a series that seems so close, does the Heat have an edge that’s being overlooked?

The Heat has four days off between series after closing out the 76ers on Thursday. The Celtics have just one day off that will be used as a travel day to fly to Miami on Monday after eliminating the Bucks in Game 7 on Sunday.

With the East finals schedule including a game every other day, the Celtics could play a game every other day for nearly three weeks if the series lasts seven games — a stretch that started on May 7 against the Bucks in the second round and would end with Game 7 against the Heat on May 29. In this scenario, Boston would play 12 games in 23 days compared to 10 games for Miami during that span.

Home-court advantage is also on the Heat’s side as the East’s top seed, with a potential Game 7 to be played in Miami.

In a series this close, the extra rest and home game could end up being the difference.

“A tough team. A team full of dogs. Guys that aren’t going to give up,” Brown said of the Heat. “Guys that are not going to give you anything, not an inch. So we got to go out and play with poise, play with the same mindset and fight. I expect nothing less than a great battle.”

Prediction: Heat in seven.

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