2020 NBA Playoffs
2020 NBA Playoffs

Film Study: Heat's transition game catches Celtics off guard

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann NBA.com

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Sep 16, 2020 10:26 AM ET

The Heat took advantage of the Celtics' shaky transition defense in Game 1.

The Eastern Conference finals are already living up to expectations. The Miami Heat came back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to win Game 1 in overtime. Bam Adebayo saved the game with one of the best blocks you will ever see and Jimmy Butler was 2-for-2 on shots to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or OT, having shot 1-for-15 in those situations prior to Tuesday.

Jayson Tatum was 0-for-2 on final-minute shots for the lead or the tie, and offensive stagnation was an issue for Boston. But the other end of the floor was the larger problem for the Celtics as they blew that 14-point lead. The Heat scored 35 points on their final 20 possessions of the game, part of a wacky sequence of events where Miami was more than twice as efficient in the second and fourth quarters (72 points on 43 possessions, 1.67 per) than it was in the first and third (34 on 46, 0.74 per).

Game 2: Heat vs. Celtics, Thursday at 7 ET on ESPN

This was actually the slowest-paced game of the Eastern Conference playoffs thus far. So don't let the low score (106-106 after regulation) fool you. Despite the anemic first and third quarters, the Heat scored 117 points on just 99 possessions, making Game 1 the Celtics' worst defensive game of the postseason thus far (30 total games), with the two teams combining for just 198 possessions in 53 minutes.

Second quarter - A stretch of pace

The slow pace overall doesn't mean that both teams walked the ball up the floor for 53 minutes. In fact, the Heat's 16 fast break points in Game 1 were more than they had in any game in the first round and just two fewer than their high in the conference semis. It was their transition game that sparked their offense early in the second quarter and ultimately made the difference on Tuesday.

But more surprising than the Heat having success in transition was the Celtics allowing it to happen. One of the biggest keys to Boston's conference semifinals victory over the Toronto Raptors was transition defense. After the Raptors led both the regular season (18.8) and the first round (18.5) in fast break points per game, the Celtics held them to just 11.4 per contest in their seven-game series.

If you want to know why Pascal Siakam struggled against the Cs, start with the fact that only three (2.7%) of his 110 field goal attempts came in the first six seconds of the shot clock, according to Second Spectrum tracking. In both the regular season and in the first round, 20% of Siakam's shots came in the first six seconds of the clock, but the Celtics cut off his transition opportunities, and he's not nearly as efficient in the half-court as he is in the open floor.

The Heat, in general, do not run like the Raptors. They ranked second in transition efficiency according to Synergy tracking, but only 13.3% of the Heat's regular-season possessions, the league's fourth lowest rate, were in transition. Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, that number was just 11.2%.

Maybe the Celtics let their guard down a bit? If that's the case, their guard will be back up after watching the film from Game 1.

After the Heat scored just 20 points on their first 25 possessions of the game, Kelly Olynyk began a run of nine straight scores by squeezing in a reverse layup around Grant Williams. And then Goran Dragic went to work, sparking a stretch where five of Miami's next seven scores came from quick attacks against a Boston defense that just wasn't ready...

 

 

Play 1: After Kemba Walker feeds Semi Ojeleye for a dunk, he's not prepared for a Dragic push. By the time Walker gets over to the left side of the floor, Dragic is going downhill on his way to a short runner in the paint.

Play 2: After a dead ball turnover on the very next possession, Walker is in front of Dragic, but not in guarding position. Dragic abandons the set play (likely an entry pass to Adebayo at the left elbow) and attacks Walker again, getting an even better look than he had on the previous possession.

Play 3: Two possessions later, Dragic rebounds a Brad Wanamaker miss and Wanamaker does a good job of stopping Dragic's initial push. But he passes ahead to Tyler Herro, who immediately attacks Grant Williams off the dribble, draws help from Walker, and passes to a wide-open Andre Iguodala in the corner.

Play 4: The Celtics call timeout, but turn the ball over on their next possession. Butler pushes the ball up the floor and Tatum runs back to the paint instead of identifying Duncan Robinson in transition. Wanamaker is a little late with his contest and then watches what happens next. When Butler rebounds Robinson's miss, Wanamaker isn't there to contest the second-chance 3.

Play 5: When Tatum hits the floor after a tough miss in the paint, the Heat have a 5-on-4 break. The other Celtics get back, but Jaylen Brown allows Butler to get between him and the basket and Herro hits Butler for an and-one.

Credit the Heat for pushing the ball. Effective field goal percentage is highest in the first six seconds of the shot clock and taking advantage of a defense that's not set is a great way to get some easier points.

But the Celtics will look at those plays above and realize that they could have been better. Walker not being ready to defend Dragic, Wanamaker ball-watching after contesting Robinson's initial 3, and Brown not taking the extra step needed to keep Butler out of the paint... Those are all mistakes that can be cleaned up with better focus and effort.

Fourth quarter and OT - Slow to react

Transition defense can come down to reaction time, because one step can be the difference between a contested shot or an open one. One second can be the difference between staying attached to an opponent running the floor and that same opponent running free.

The Heat found more transition opportunities in coming back from that 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit, and they again got help from the Celtics...

 

 

Play 1: On first glance, this is just a case of the Heat having numbers after a live-ball turnover. But look at where Dragic and Wanamaker are as Tatum's pass is in the air...

Start of the Heat's fast break

Yes, Dragic has the inside lane, but he also reacts faster. He actually gives up that inside lane to run wide, but still has three steps on Wanamaker (who doesn't exactly have the strides of Usain Bolt) by the time he crosses into the frontcourt...

Dragic beats Wanamaker

Play 2: After Brown makes a 3, he thinks he's guarding Adebayo. And by the time he realizes that he's supposed to be guarding Jae Crowder, it's too late and Crowder gets a layup.

Play 3: Daniel Theis picks up Crowder in transition, but trailing Crowder is Robinson, and Wanamaker is slow to meet him for the trail 3.

Play 4: Walker hits a tough floater to put the Celtics up three with a little more than a minute to go in regulation, but the Heat get the ball up the floor quickly. Walker keeps Tyler Herro from launching a quick pull-up 3, but then leaves him for a split second as Marcus Smart (who lunged to deflect Dragic's pass) recovers back to Dragic. Herro reloads and drains a huge shot to make it a one-possession game.

Play 5: In overtime, Adebayo leaks out after contesting a Tatum step-back 3 and gets an easy dunk. How do you stop that? Well, as Tatum was shooting the ball, Walker was standing above the 3-point line on the left side of the floor, and he didn't move until it was far too late...

Adebayo leaks out

According to Second Spectrum, the Heat were 12-for-16 in the first six seconds of the shot clock in Game 1, with the 16 attempts being more than Toronto had in the first six seconds in any of the last five games of the conference semifinals. Dragic had five more shots in the first six seconds on Tuesday (he was 6-for-8) than Siakam had over seven games against the Celtics (1-for-3).

"Transition defense really stands out," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the Celtics' fourth-quarter collapse. "That Herro three with a minute left in regulation was a killer."

The Celtics' mistakes weren't limited to transition situations. Botched switches led to a dunk for Butler midway through the fourth quarter and a wide-open 3 for Jae Crowder in overtime.

"They executed very well down the stretch," Smart said. "We didn't, especially on the defensive end. Miscommunication on a lot of guys' part. And in transition, we allowed them to do what they do best, and that's get out and run."

What's Next?

Given how many mistakes they'll see in the film, the Celtics will probably lean toward "We need to play better" more than "We need to make changes" for Game 2. The Heat, with their movement and versatility on offense, will continue to test them more than Toronto did on that end of the floor, but the Celtics are a better defensive team than what they showed in Game 1. Heck, they showed it in the first quarter.

"We couldn't get anything going [early] and that's a big-time credit to their defense," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They got us out of our normal rhythm. It wasn't about us. That's just what they do, and Goran was able to shake free a few times and put some points on the board."

Both teams will take a close look at how matchup-hunting worked for them. Miami was often looking to get Walker switched onto Butler, while the Celtics got very iso-heavy in the fourth quarter and overtime. Overall, their offense wasn't a big problem (this was only their third loss of the season when scoring more than 115 points per 100 possessions), but the Celtics will certainly look for ways to get the ball moving against the Heat's switch-everything (or zone) defense.

The Heat did trap some of Walker's pick-and-rolls, and he handled that well, creating a couple of open 3s. The Celtics were switching a lot too and both teams have already tried slipping out of screens to catch defenders off balance.

Gordon Hayward's status will remain a topic of conversation. He hasn't played since spraining his ankle in the first game of the first round, but he's been ramping up his activity over the last week. Hayward taking minutes from Wanamaker and Semi Ojeleye will be a heck of an upgrade whenever it happens.

It might be tough for the Heat to shorten their rotation after an overtime game in which five guys played 39 minutes or more, but they played 10 on Tuesday and Kendrick Nunn's minutes were a struggle. They could eventually go back to their first-round, no-Nunn, nine-man rotation.

A 1-0 series lead won't preclude the Heat from making their own adjustments.

"I don't think you can set the tone in a long series," Spoelstra said. "Obviously it's much better to get the win and go work on your teaching points from there, but we understand how we can't get too carried away with just one win."

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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