May 17, 2022 11:40 PM ET
If one thing was clear headed into a series against a team that forces you into a metric ton of isolations and often only allows paint attacks by sheer brute force, it was that Jimmy Butler was once again going to have to be magnificent.
One game in and 41 points later, we can check that box. It wasn’t just that Butler made his shots, which he did (12-of-19), or that he got to the free-throw line (17-of-18), which he did. It was that he was everywhere, on either end, and always exactly where his team needed him. He wasn’t alone in doing so, but there’s a level of pressure that Butler can apply to your offense that makes every pass carry just a little more inherent risk to it – an effect that played a major role as the HEAT’s defense fed their offense over and over and over again in the third quarter. And as usual – after Boston made a run with Butler off the court – he was there to bring it home down the stretch as he hunted the Payton Pritchard matchup relentlessly, holding the Celtics off with free-throws and jumpers.
Boston isn’t going to give up anything easy, so the HEAT are going to need Butler to keep earning, or saving, points the hard way. Both teams are going to come out of this one with plenty to like – Boston wound up winning three of the four quarters – and if you came into this game expecting a long series there wasn’t much on hand to dissuade you of that notion.
On the other side of the floor, Miami’s defense in the first half looked very much un-HEAT like. The Celtics hit some tough shots to pull ahead, but that they were 16-of-20 at the rim for 42 points in the paint – which includes run-outs in transition – was worth a raised eyebrow or two. Tatum and Brown in particular didn’t have any of the shell-shock that Trae Young and James Harden seemed to have early in those series with how the HEAT were loading up players in the gaps on them. Boston’s two stars were patient, passing the ball back and forth until a half-second seam opened up in the HEAT perimeter shell and attacked decisively.
All that changed in the second half, which featured both a 22-2 run to open the third quarter and a 17-3 run to close it out. Whatever they did at the break, Miami found the defense that had carried them all season as they swarmed the paint, cut off passing lanes and made the Celtics as uncomfortable as can reasonably be expected in a series with this much talent involved. They scored 39 points in the third, to Boston’s 14, not because their offense found another level. It all came from stringing stops together and pushing back the other direction – a formula that might have to carry them throughout the series.
This isn’t Atlanta or Philadelphia, not in general but certainly not when it comes to defense. This Celtics group is miles ahead of those other two teams when it comes to precision and discipline on that end, with windows to attack closing at about 3x the speed they were in the previous series. Miami’s halfcourt offense, which has been the thorn in their side for most of the season, has its hands full in this series.
That being said, Miami actually scored reasonably well in this one even when they weren’t turning turnover into points, posting 112.2 points-per-play in the halfcourt. Boston is the only team that switches more screens than the HEAT, but what the HEAT did so well, before Butler went matchup hunting down the stretch, was make those switches have to be perfect as they either sealed the switch for a roll or slipped the screen entirely. If Boston wasn’t perfect on the handoff, the HEAT had a player running free to the middle of the floor – essentially a manufactured two-on-the-ball situation against a team that switches in part to avoid exactly that sort of thing. The Celtics will surely clean some of that up, but you couldn’t ask much more of Miami’s approach to breaking down one of the toughest defenses to break down.