What you’re about to see may end up being one of the greatest defensive battles in recent history.
After a torrid run through the second half of the regular season, the Boston Celtics finished as the No. 1 defense in the league. The Miami HEAT finished just behind them at No. 4, and when Bam Adebayo was available – he missed 26 games mostly due an injured thumb ligament – they had a defense that would have been No. 1. No teams switched more pick-and-rolls than these two, and no teams forced more isolations. The Celtics allowed the third-fewest direct paint touches per 100 possessions, per Second Spectrum, and with Adebayo on the court Miami allowed the second fewest.
“If both teams are on top of their games this should be a series where neither team is scoring 130,” Erik Spoelstra said. “Both teams hang their hats on rock solid team defense, making multiple efforts and being disciplined to schemes.”
Forget a rock fight, there’s a very good chance that this series is the (legally and within the rules) basketball equivalent of Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David pummeling each other for six minutes in an alleyway. Except they won’t be fighting over a pair of alien-revealing sunglasses. It’ll be a ticket to the NBA Finals, what could be Miami’s second trip in three years and sixth in the past 13, or Boston’s first since 2010.
Miami’s last Finals berth is a good place to start.
Despite ending in six games, the 2020 Conference Finals were as close as it gets. Miami finished that round with an Offensive Rating of 114.2 and Defensive Rating of 114.0, with wins of three, five and three points as they took a 3-1 series lead – a series in which they were actually outscored by a single, lonely point. The HEAT were also outscored in each of the first three quarters. So the difference, as you might guess, was in the fourth where Miami posted a Net Rating of +13.5 per 100 possessions, outscoring Boston by 22 points in all.
That may not sound all that wild in the end but consider the context. Miami had the third-worst Offensive Rating in the fourth quarter that season. Boston had the second best. But in the clutch, the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five points either way, they were fairly even, with Miami at No. 24 and Boston at No. 26. Both sides had some warning flags about their abilities to score down the stretch headed into that series, but in the postseason the HEAT swung one way – largely thanks to good three-point shooting and Jimmy Butler being something North of incredible – Boston didn’t swing at all and that was the difference. You probably remember some big Butler shots or Tyler Herro, as a rookie, going off for 37, with 17 in the fourth, of a pivotal Game 5, but so much of what worked for Miami was the stops they were getting. Whenever the Celtics couldn’t get a good look or turned the ball over, with Miami playing plenty of zone thanks to their multitude of rangy defenders, it gave the HEAT life going the other way.
Is that series relevant to this one? Does it matter? Somewhat and a little.
The core groups are mostly the same. Butler, Adebayo and Herro on one side, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart on the other. All those players are better or, in the case of Butler, the one true veteran of the group, at the very least just as good. We’ll get to all of them in a minute. The rest of the supporting casts have changed dramatically.
On Boston’s side, for as good as Tatum and Brown and Smart already were at that time the team was still built with the talents of veteran All-Stars Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward – who returned from an injury in Game 3 – in mind. While during the regular season all of Boston’s scoring talent made it easy for them to move Adebayo around the court and always have someone to attack one of Miami’s weaker defensive links, Hayward never looked himself in that series and Walker was continually engulfed by the HEAT’s big wings after they acquired Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala at the trade deadline. Grant Williams and Robert Williams were on the team but were so young they weren’t quite ready for primetime. The center rotation consisted of Daniel Theis and Enes Freedom. Brad Wanamaker was playing backup point.
Since then the Celtics have reconfigured around their youth. Tatum and Brown lead the scoring. Smart starts at point. Al Horford has returned to the fold looking as good as ever. The Williamses are major rotation pieces – Robert was available, coming off an injury, to play in Game 7 of the Milwaukee series but didn’t see the court – and Derrick White, acquired at the deadline, rounds things out. They might not be quite as dynamic as the former group, but they make up for it with a precise, switching defense that features very few obvious pressure points.
Miami has undergone both more and less change. Less in the sense that Butler and Adebayo are still the featured pieces, Herro has grown into a neon lightning rod off the bench and there’s still dynamic shooting available, with Max Strus slotting into the starting lineup where Duncan Robinson was two years ago. More in the sense that everything else is different. P.J. Tucker is as good a fit as a flexible four next to Adebayo has anyone could have hoped for. Dewayne Dedmon has been a revelation as a backup center. Victor Oladipo has pushed himself into the rotation to give the HEAT a little downhill mojo and defensive stability. Gabe Vincent is the epitome of this group’s Find A Way ethos and Caleb Martin is ready to plug-and-play into any lineup at a moment’s notice. All season long this group has proven itself better, both more consistent and more potent, than that 2020 team that found another gear in the Orlando Bubble.
The big question is the status of Kyle Lowry and his hamstring. In the previous Boston series, Goran Dragic was the unsung hero as he averaged 22-5-4 on 40 percent shooting from three in Miami’s four victories. Miami may have won those games in the clutch, but Dragic kept them alive in the third and early fourth quarters. In his place is Lowry, a defensive upgrade who has consistently been the source of the HEAT’s most stable offensive flow. The HEAT have players who are more than capable of stepping up in his stead, of providing two-way impact and making plays. They just don’t offer the same dominate-a-quarter capability, on or off the ball, that Lowry does.
That’s where we are now. Both teams are different, both teams are a better, both teams have ways of getting to the other by playing to their own identity.
And for as different as these teams are, they still share similar weaknesses to the groups of two seasons ago. The HEAT’s fourth-quarter offense finished No. 21, No. 24 in the clutch. Boston was No. 26 in clutch offense and despite being No. 8 in halfcourt offense they were also reliant on that halfcourt execution with how little they added in transition. Both sides can get stuck in the muck and flattened out when the game slows down.
If anything has regularly gotten in Miami’s way, it’s their late-game offense. While their pick-and-roll numbers against switches are better than you might think – No. 6 in the league – switching, good switching, is what kills the ball movement for a team that is at its best when the ball is traveling by air rather than ground. Butler was incredible in isolation this season, No. 7 among 54 players with at least 250 isolations at 1.09 points-per, and especially so when Lowry was available to set him up. As much as Miami worked on hunting matchups this season in anticipation of the postseason, too much of one thing is never their thing.
In Boston’s two blowout wins against Miami – one early in the season, one without Butler, Lowry and Tucker – their switching reduced the HEAT’s flow to a trickle. Those were two of the most juiceless offensive performances of the season, though one of them can be mostly excused due to absences and the other occurred with Erik Spoelstra using a different rotation.
If anything has regularly gotten in Boston’s way, it’s also their offense – though less so after New Year’s, from when they had the No. 2 Offensive Rating. The defense almost always plays, but you can jam them up with switching and get them playing one-on-one. Sound familiar?
That’s not exactly what happened when the HEAT went up to Boston in March and took the fourth quarter, 27-15, on their way to an eight-point win – a game that featured Lowry shooting 6-of-12 from three. Even with Miami locked in defensively, the Celtics never stopped moving the ball. Brown missed a dunk and a layup, they missed some corner threes with Miami aggressively helping off the strong side to get in the way of drives, Tatum only attempted three shots and they shot 6-of-22 overall, 1-of-8 from deep. Meanwhile the HEAT didn’t earn one shot at the rim in the halfcourt, but shooting 5-of-9 on non-rim two’s, most coming from Butler, was enough.
Curiously, Butler was able to shake free in the mid-range because Boston did what Philadelphia just finished doing. They spent a lot of time hugging Miami’s shooters while defending Butler’s pick-and-roll two-on-two, exactly the reason Butler was giving the 76ers fits with his constant forays into the paint while optimal three-point looks were hard to come by.
“We’ll continually take what the Celtics give us, whether it’s an open three or getting into the paint,” Butler said.
We might end up seeing is the same dichotomy we just witnessed in the last series. The HEAT showing Boston’s best scorer in Tatum a crowd to limit his aggression, the Celtics cutting off Miami’s shooters and putting the weight on Butler’s back. Then again, Ime Udoka might watch that film, see what Butler did with games of 33, 40 and 32 points, and decide against taking that path. And Tatum is a much-improved playmaker, with more height than Trae Young or James Harden, so giving him passing lanes may be a trickier matter than it was two years ago. Maybe this entire series comes down to each side executing a similar scheme, switching and loading up the gaps and building a shell around the paint while allowing threes in bunches. That’s what the HEAT do normally, and it would hardly be a departure for a Boston squad that limited paint touches slightly more. That’s the larger point with what we’re about to see. Either team has the personnel to execute just about anything their coaches can think up.
“They have a lot of defensive leaders, guys that are vocal, they’re physical, and they’re really, really good at communicating,” Tucker said. “It’s a lot of the same traits that we have, too.”
It would be surprising if we didn’t see some zone on Miami’s part. No team faced more zone than Boston this season, by about 80 possessions over the team in second place, for good reason. They scored 1.01 points-per-possession against zone, third worst in the league. We’re only talking 460 possessions so it’s not a huge sample, but teams clearly saw something that made them use it, and Spoelstra has never been afraid to dial up various zone looks starting with a full-court press that drops back to shorten the shot clock. There’s history here, too, as Miami used zone against Boston in that 2020 series for a whopping 188 possessions, against which the Celtics scored 1.07 points-per.
But Boston didn’t have Horford’s skills nor his composure in the middle of the floor that year. With Horford on the court, Boston’s efficiency against zone jumps up to 1.09. Not a great number, but one that is survivable in a tight playoff game. Udoka, who Spoelstra was kind enough to remind everyone was on the bench for San Antonio during those epic Finals series in 2013 and 2014, is not going to be caught off guard.
We could go on for pages about every little tweak each coach could try. Does Boston send help at Herro when he comes off a screen? Does Tatum earn himself any hard doubles? Which shooters will either coach be comfortable playing off of in order to keep another foot in the paint? In which scenarios will the switchiest teams in the league actively avoid switches, or can they effectively pre-switch a screen to keep who they want involved in the action? How do the Celtics work around Adebayo on defense and how often can Adebayo punish switches on offense by slipping screens? How does Miami attack the paint if Robert Williams is good to go and back to defending off-center, looming in the paint to deter all comers – a look Caleb Martin was more than happy to attack back in January? Does either team want to or need to play smaller lineups with so many versatile defenders on hand?
Each side has a dozen answers for each question and the ability to raise another dozen questions with their own decisions. By the time we get a handle on the details of how these teams have chosen to defend, everything could change by the next game.
There will be no panacea in this series. No elixir that one coach can cook up that will decide who advances. These teams are too good for that, and they have too many options. The best path either side has to scoring might be to get stops and play off misses and turnovers. Miami was already keeping their halfcourt offense afloat against Philadelphia with some timely offensive rebounding, and they might need to dial that up even more against a Boston team that finished No. 17 in Defensive Rebounding percentage. Boston rarely gets to the line, so Miami’s occasional propensity for fouling might not be as much of an issue this time around.
Whoever wins, they’ll win it in the margins. They’ll stagnate their opponent’s offense more often than they get stagnant themselves. They’ll move and cut and make themselves difficult to guard. They’ll find ways to get three, four or five easy baskets even when they seem impossible. They’ll win loose balls, and they’ll be more composed. At some point, they’ll be the ones to hit more threes in the right game, or they’ll hit a couple tough shots in the final minutes. They’ll be great, in every sense.
The winner is going to have to earn this, and there’s no better kind of series than one that has to be won in the trenches.