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BOSTON – Raise your hand if, before the NBA’s restart, you picked the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That’s alright! Everyone is in the same unexpected boat after Miami and Boston eliminated the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the East, respectively, during the Conference Semifinals. This is the first time since 1969 that neither of the top seeds in the East advanced to the Conference Finals.
These two teams have advanced to the NBA’s Final Four thanks to stacked rosters that are full of talent and depth. Both teams have plenty of firepower at both ends despite neither team having a player who has garnered MVP traction in his career.
Boston won the season series between these two teams by a count of 2-1. Miami, however, won the most recent matchup, played Aug. 4 inside the bubble, 112-106.
Let’s take a look at a handful of keys for this series before it gets underway at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday night.
These teams don’t necessarily live and die by the long ball, but it’s close. Of the five remaining teams in the tournament, it is the Heat who average the most 3-point attempts per game this postseason at 37.1. Boston ranks second with an average of 36.3.
Miami is loaded with 3-point shooters who have been on the mark this postseason. The team is shooting 38.0 percent from long range as a team and six of its top rotational players have shot at least 36.4 percent from beyond the arc. Guard/forward Duncan Robinson is one of the top marksman in the league, as he ranked third in 3-point makes (270) and fourth in attempts (606) during the regular season.
Boston hasn’t been quite as accurate from distance, having hit 34.1 percent of its attempts through the postseason, but its roster is more than capable of drilling long-range shots. Jayson Tatum (40.3 percent), Gordon Hayward (38.3 percent), Jaylen Brown (38.2 percent), Kemba Walker (38.1 percent), Semi Ojeleye (37.8 percent) and Brad Wanamaker (36.3 percent) all shot it well from distance during the regular season. Add Marcus Smart and Grant Williams to the equation as well, as Smart has connected on 26 treys this postseason and Williams has shot 66.7 percent from beyond the arc during the Playoffs.
Hayward’s Impending Return
Monday marks four weeks since Hayward went down with a Grade III right ankle sprain. The initial timeline for his return? “Approximately four weeks,” per the team.
Hayward went through a small-group workout following Monday’s practice and Brad Stevens said he “looked good” and is “getting better.” It is still to be determined as to when Hayward will be available to return.
Whenever Hayward does return, and whether he starts or comes off the bench, it will be a significant boost for Boston. His presence will add another highly skilled and versatile veteran to the rotation and will allow Stevens to have at least two scorers on the court at all times.
Defend Without Fouling
Boston has been by far the top defense in the league throughout this postseason. It will need to continue that trend during the Conference Finals, all while keeping Miami off the free-throw line, which has been a problem this season.
Miami averaged 29 free throw attempts per game this season against Boston, highlighted by a 39-attempt night during the most recent matchup between these two teams – and the Heat were without Jimmy Butler for that game.
Butler averaged 11.0 free throws per game against Boston this season, Goran Dragic averaged 9.0, and Bam Adebayo averaged 7.3. The C’s must work to keep those numbers low during this series.
Miami’s Elite Ball Movement
Another area of emphasis for Boston’s defense will be handling the movement with which Miami executes its offense – both on the ball and off the ball.
The Heat are one of the top teams in the league when it comes to cutting off the ball, as Stevens mentioned following Monday’s practice. When one player has the ball, the other four are not only moving, but moving with effort.
Then comes the passing, which Miami does with the best in the league. There are no ball-stoppers on its roster. The Heat know that they must move the ball from side-to-side to find open shots, and they do so, which has led to them ranking fourth among all playoff teams in assists per game with an average of 24.4.
How does a defense combat that level of effort and teamwork from an offense? By doing the exact same thing. The C’s need to play hard and communicate at an elite level to cool off the Heat.
Get Kemba Rolling
The Celtics just eliminated the defending champions while Walker, the East’s starting point guard in the All-Star game, averaged just 17.0 points per game on 42.1 percent shooting from the field and 27.3 percent shooting from long distance.
Just imagine what they will accomplish when Walker gets rolling.
History tells us that Walker could very well catch a rhythm against Miami. Walker averaged 19.7 PPG against Miami during the regular season and lived beyond the 3-point line. He averaged 10.3 attempts from long range over three games against the Heat and connected on 41.9 percent of those attempts. Walker also averaged 6.3 assists per game against Miami, his fifth-highest average against any team in the league.
Walker is too good and too proven a player to continue to struggle the way he did against Toronto’s box-and-one defense. The C’s will to everything they can, from getting the ball to him on the move to creating space for him to operate one-on-one, in order to get him back in a rhythm and support Tatum’s and Brown’s offense.