Series Preview: Celtics vs. Heat
Following a thrilling, seven-game series with the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s time for the No. 2-seeded Boston Celtics to gear up for an Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the No. 1 seeded Miami Heat.
Unlike the weeklong gap they had between Rounds 1 and 2, the Celtics will have very little time to reset and prepare for their Round 3 opponent with only one day between Sunday’s Game 7 against the Bucks and Tuesday’s Game 1 against the Heat.
However, as Al Horford said before boarding the team plane to Miami Monday afternoon, “I wouldn’t have it any other way to be in this position and have this opportunity in front of us.”
It will also be an opportunity for the Celtics to earn revenge against the Heat after losing to them in the 2020 ECF, which took place 20 months ago inside the “NBA Bubble” in Orlando.
As we get set for the rematch, let’s take a look at some of the top storylines below.
C’s Hold Edge in Recent Head-to-Head History
For what it’s worth, the Celtics were the most formidable foe that Miami faced all throughout the regular season. Boston won two out of the three matchups with an average scoring differential of 13 points in its favor. Its total scoring margin of plus-39 was by far the best of any Heat opponent.
Boston’s wins included a 122-92 drubbing on Jan. 31 at home and a 95-78 blowout on Nov. 4 in Miami, which marked the C’s best defensive effort on the road since 2018. However, Miami did grab the most recent contest with a 106-98 win at TD Garden. Though, the Celtics were without Rob Williams for that matchup against a full-strength Heat squad.
Boston’s 92.0 points allowed per game against Miami was its third-best defensive mark against any NBA team this season. The only two teams that scored fewer points against the C's than the first-place Heat were the lottery-bound Orlando Magic and Sacramento Kings.
Superstar Showdown: Tatum vs. Butler
Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler have been nothing short of remarkable for their respective teams of late, both ranking among the top five scorers this postseason. From a points-per-game standpoint, they’ve been nearly identical with Butler holding a slight edge at 28.7 PPG over Tatum’s 28.3.
Butler also has the advantage in rebounds per game (7.6 to Tatum’s 5.6) and steals per game (2.1 to Tatum’s 1.3), but Tatum holds the lead in assists per game (6.1 to Butler’s 5.4) and blocks per game (1.0. to Butler’s 0.6). They’ve shot with similar efficiency from 3-point range – Tatum at 38.6 percent and Butler at 36.4 percent – however, Tatum is averaging more than twice as many makes from long distance (3.5 to Butler’s 1.6). They’ve also posted nearly identical numbers from the charity stripe, as Butler is averaging 6.3 free-throw makes on 7.8 attempts, while Tatum is putting up 6.0 FTM on 7.8 FTA.
Tatum and Butler have also posted similar statistics in a head-to-head setting. In 10 career regular-season matchups, Tatum has averaged 20.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG, and 3.4 APG. Meanwhile, Butler has posted 22.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, and 3.8 APG in those same games.
In the playoffs, however, Tatum has dominated from a statistical standpoint. In six postseason matchups, Boston's star wing has averaged 26.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game, while Miami's star wing has put up 19.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG, and 5.0 APG.
One major difference between the two in these playoffs is how much their respective teams have had to lean on them. Tatum has had plenty of support from his supporting cast with different players stepping up alongside him every game. Meanwhile, Butler has been largely a one-man show. His 28.7 PPG scoring average is nearly double that of his next closest teammate, Bam Adebayo (14.6).
With Butler on the court, the Heat have an offensive rating of 120.1 and a defensive rating of 103.9. With him off the court, they have an offensive rating of 104.4 and a defensive rating of 108.1. That gives them a net rating of plus-16.2 with him on and a rating of minus-3.7 off – a whopping difference of 19.9.
Meanwhile, the Celtics have proven in several games this postseason that they can excel with superstar on or off the court, as they showcased during the third quarter of Game 7 against Milwaukee while Tatum was sidelined with foul trouble.
Boston’s Hot 3-Point Shooting vs. Miami’s Elite Perimeter D
The Celtics have never been a more confident 3-point shooting team than they are at this moment. They are the most prolific long-distance threat of any conference semifinalist, making 15.7 long-range shots on 41.7 attempts per game against the Bucks.
Boston made 20-plus 3-pointers twice during that series after never reaching such a mark in its postseason history. That included a team playoff record of 22 triples Sunday afternoon, which also set an NBA Game 7 record.
However, there’s a major difference in how Miami defends the 3-point line compared to the Bucks. Miami allowed opponents to shoot just 33.9 percent from beyond the arc this season, which was second only to Boston’s mark of 33.88 percent. The Heat are also coming off a second-round series during which they limited the Philadelphia 76ers to just 11.2 3PM on 33.7 3PA (33.7 percent).
No matter how stellar Miami’s perimeter defense has been, it will have its hands full against the Celtics. Boston has five players who are averaging more than two 3-point makes per game: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford, and Grant Williams are all among the top 22 in postseason makes from long distance.
On the other side, Miami has only one of the top 35 in postseason 3-point makes, and that’s former Celtic two-way player Max Strus. Interestingly, the Heat had the best 3-point efficiency in the NBA during the regular season, but in the playoffs, they have regressed to 13th out of 16.
The Injuried Point Guards
The difference in this series could come down to the health of both teams’ starting point guards. For the Celtics, Marcus Smart is battling through a mid-foot sprain and for the Heat, Kyle Lowry is hampered with a strained hamstring.
Smart, who has been banged up in a plethora of ways throughout the Playoffs, sprained his foot late in Game 7 and is listed as questionable for Game 1 Tuesday night. Lowry, who strained his hamstring during Game 3 of the first round, has missed six games this postseason, including the last two against Philadelphia, and is questionable for the series opener as well.
Smart also suffered a quad contusion during Game 1 of the second round, which caused him to miss the following game. However, it didn’t appear to have any negative impact upon his return, as he averaged 14.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 5.6 assists throughout the final five games of the series.
Lowry’s health has been much more debilitating, as he hasn’t been himself since initially straining his hamstring nearly a month ago in Atlanta. He was only able to play in Games 3 and 4 against Philadelphia, during which he scored just six points in 56 minutes of action.
One other injury-related tidbit is that Rob Williams will be available for Game 1 without any minutes restriction. The fourth-year center was inactive for Games 4, 5, and 6 due to left knee soreness, and he also didn’t play in Game 7 despite being cleared to play.
Having an additional 48 hours of rest before Game 1 tips off could be crucial for Williams, as he prepares for a bruising battle against former All-Star Bam Adebayo.
Another Test for the 'Road Warriors'
This will be the first series of these playoffs during which the Celtics don’t have home-court advantage. But that might not even matter considering how well they’ve been playing on the road.
At 4-1, Boston has the best road record of any playoff team. Its only loss was a 103-101 Game 3 defeat to the Bucks, which could have gone either way.
The Celtics have posted an average plus/minus of plus-5.8 on the road this postseason, which is nearly twice as high as Milwaukee’s mark of plus-3.0. Miami happens to be the only other team with a positive plus/minus rating on the road, though just barely, at plus-0.8.
Boston is also battled-tested in Miami. As previously mentioned, its greatest defensive road game of the past three-plus seasons happened to take place back in November in South Beach.
Ime Udoka has said from the start of the season that he wants his team’s identity to be “road warriors.” That’s exactly what they have proven to be of late, and it's exactly what they must continue to be as they proceed without home-court advantage from here on out.