For the second straight year, and the third time in the past four seasons, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat will meet in the Eastern Conference Finals.
As the East’s No. 2 seed, Boston earned its spot via a six-game first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks followed by a hard-fought seven-game Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Meanwhile, it took Miami just 11 games to advance to the conference championship despite being the lowest seed, as it became just the second 8 seed in NBA history to make it past Round 2, joining the 1998-99 New York Knicks.
The Heat will look to continue their string of upsets, while the Celtics hope to return to the NBA Finals so that they can take care of their unfinished business from last season.
Now, let’s dive into some of the essential topics heading into the series.
Recent Head-to-Head History
As mentioned, these two teams know each other quite well at this point. On top of that, they've been a dead-even matchup over the past four seasons.
Boston and Miami have faced off 26 times dating back to the 2019-20 campaign and they have each won 13 games.
Their Eastern Conference Finals results were basically split with the Heat winning in six in 2020 and the Celtics winning in seven in 2022.
In this year's four-game regular-season series, the Celtics won the first two matchups and the Heat won the second two. They each won one game on the road and one game at home.
Despite the even results, Boston easily won the overall scoring margin this season. Its two wins were by seven and 13 points, respectively, and its two losses were by four and three points, respectively, with the first loss coming via overtime and the second loss coming without Jaylen Brown in the lineup.
One more note: it's been a while since these teams have faced each other. All four regular-season matchups took place prior to the All-Star break with the most recent being Jan. 24.
Butler’s Health, Herro’s Status
On the health front, Miami and Boston are in two different places heading into this series.
The Celtics are almost entirely healthy (knock on wood) with the exception of Danilo Gallinari, who has yet to play this season after undergoing ACL surgery in the fall. Meanwhile, the Heat are a bit banged at the top of their rotation with two of their top three scorers either sidelined or hobbled.
Leading scorer, Jimmy Butler, sprained his ankle in Game 1 of the second round against New York, and although he only missed Game 2, he hasn’t been nearly as dominant as he was in the first round against Milwaukee.
After averaging 37.6 points per game on 59.7 percent shooting (44.4 percent from 3-point range) during Miami’s massive first-round upset over the Bucks, he dropped down to 24.6 PPG on 43.2 percent shooting (11.1 percent from 3-point range) against the Knicks. He also failed to reach the 30-point mark in all five of his appearances against New York, after reaching or exceeding that mark in four out of five games against Milwaukee.
The other significant injury was to Tyler Herro, who fractured two bones in his shooting hand during Miami’s postseason opener in Milwaukee. Herro was expected to miss four-to-six weeks from the time of the injury on April 16. Had he landed on the early side of that recovery timeframe, he could’ve been in line to suit up for Game 1 Wednesday night. However, head coach Erik Spoelstra said on Monday that Herro hadn’t even started to dribble or shoot yet, so we may not be seeing him until later in the series, if at all.
One player whom the Celtics will certainly not be seeing is Victor Oladipo. Miami’s sixth man tore his left patellar tendon in Game 3 of the first round and is out indefinitely.
Combined, those three players produced 53.7 PPG, amounting to nearly half of Miami’s league-low scoring average of 109.5 PPG.
It appears that Butler (22.7 PPG) will continue to play through his discomfort (he was seen limping after Game 6 against New York), but asking him to carry such a heavy scoring burden won’t be an easy task.
Key Matchup: The Jays/Marcus Smart vs. Jimmy Butler
Butler is without a doubt the X-factor in this series. He’s put the Heat on his back all the way to this point, and they will only go as far as he can carry them.
It will take a group effort to guard Butler, just like it did last season in the ECF.
Marcus Smart was the primary defender of Butler in that series, and he’ll be seeing a lot of Butler again this time around, especially now that Herro is out.
Butler had success against Smart last postseason, scoring 31 points on 12-of-19 shooting during Smart’s team-high 124.4 defensive possessions guarding Butler.
Jayson Tatum guarded Butler a little less than Smart did, though he had a higher success rate in slowing down the Heat wing. In 110.4 possessions against Tatum, Butler scored just 16 points on 7-of-17 shooting.
The majority of the remaining defensive possessions belonged to Jaylen Brown, who surrendered 26 points to Butler on 10-of-17 shooting during 83.9 possessions.
Brown will likely see much more of Butler on the other side of the ball. Butler defended him on 180.1 possessions last postseason, during which Brown tallied 36 points on 14-of-26 shooting.
As effective as he was last postseason, Butler will need to make an even greater impact on both sides of the ball in this series, considering his team’s shorthandedness.
Mazzulla’s Biggest Test
Joe Mazzulla has been tested in these playoffs, as would be expected for a first-year head coach. In front of him lies his biggest challenge yet.
Mazzulla will be facing off against one of the world’s elite basketball minds in Erik Spoelstra, who will be seeking his sixth trip to the NBA Finals with the Heat.
Spoelstra has arguably been the MVP (most valuable person) of these playoffs so far. Under his guidance, Miami defied the odds by knocking out the regular-season champion Bucks and then, despite being injury-riddled, managed to push past a physical Knicks squad.
Spoelstra is known for making critical adjustments throughout a playoff series, and Mazzulla must be prepared to face those while making adjustments of his own.
What Starting Lineup Will the C’s Go With?
The biggest adjustment that Mazzulla has made in these playoffs was the starting lineup tweak between Games 5 and 6 of the second round.
After falling into a 3-2 hole against the 76ers, Mazzulla relegated Derrick White to the bench in favor of Rob Williams, and the move paid off in the form of two straight wins to close out the series.
The question is, will the Celtics carry their double-big lineup (Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Rob Williams) into the next round?
Miami has been starting double bigs with Bam Adebayo and Kevin Love in these playoffs. So, Mazzulla will have to decide if he wants to match Miami’s lineup or throw a curveball by putting White back out there, which would potentially trigger a lineup counter from Spoelstra.