HEAT vs. Celtics, The Threequel: Starters, Turnovers, Coverages And Everything Else To Watch For As The Eastern Conference Finals Opens

Is this the best rivalry in the NBA right now?

No other set of teams can claim meeting in three of the past four Conference Finals. No other set of teams has had the results swing in either direction – a necessity for a true rivalry – with Miami winning one series in six games and Boston winning the other in seven. Maybe the back and forth doesn’t extend into the pre-handcheck era, but you’d be hard pressed to find a matchup with more recent history – particularly when you consider the changing cast of characters over the years.

None of that really matters. It’s just a fun thing to consider before diving into the meat of a series, the reality of which should be stated clearly – Boston was the better team this season. By any measurement, they came out well ahead of a HEAT team that, by the same measurements, would likely be the worst to win a title (they had a negative points differential after all) in the three-point era, statistically speaking. The Celtics may not have been quite a dominant as they were in the second half of the previous season, but their league-leading Net Rating (+6.7) was close enough.

Boston is going to be favored. The projection systems are going to give them heavy odds. Journalists and analysts are going to pick them. It makes sense. The HEAT can win, undoubtedly, but picking them requires discarding much of what we saw during the regular season and choosing to believe in the smaller sample sizes, both in recent weeks and in toughness and resolve that shows up in the late, tight minutes.

The counter argument is that Miami was building something all season long, even if the results were never quite there. Erik Spoelstra saw what happened to his team’s offense against Boston last year, when the shooting fell off and Boston’s switching defense guided (pushed) them into quicksand, and decided changes were necessary in order to maximize their postseason potential. One of the beneficiaries of those changes broke his hand about a month ago, but otherwise it was Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo first and everything else built off of them – their matchup hunting, their scoring, their playmaking, their impact on the geography of the floor.

The offense cratered as the shooting couldn’t sustain the previous season’s results, but there was always a glimmer of something meaningful in the way the team was playing off of its stars. Meaningful in the sense that it would matter in the most important games, if they could just get back to them.

They got back there alright. It took 45 percent three-point shooting, Butler having one of the best series anyone has ever played and Giannis Antetokounmpo missing a few games – not to mention consecutive fourth-quarter double-digit comebacks – but they knocked off the No. 1 seed all the same. They thrived in the grind of the Knicks series, always looking like the better team despite Jalen Brunson’s most willful efforts. And now they have a chance to face the team which spurred many of their changes in the first place.

“We’ve had to find a lot of different solutions for a bunch of different coverages,” Spoelstra said. “That’s the most important thing. You let the game dictate. We still have to get to our main things. We’re aggressive but we also have to move the ball, that’s regardless of the scheme. Cycling through different challenges in some weird way has allowed us to wrap our minds around that.”

Any series against a team that switches a ton automatically becomes a Butler series. It’s a matter of fact, if not record. He’s the HEAT’s best isolation player, one of the best in the league, and you’re going to have to score one-on-one against switches. But now he’s got Adebayo, with his isolation usage pumped up all season, to help shoulder that burden. Al Horford is a brilliant defender – check what he did against Joel Embiid in the last round – who is both well acquainted with Adebayo and trusted by his team to defend him in single coverage, but Adebayo has a couple big games against him last year and averaged 25 against Boston this regular season. Even if the weight of this series isn’t on his shoulders, this is another opportunity, after facing Milwaukee’s drop coverage, to test the theory held season-long that he was building his postseason profile.

“His development has been built for, not specifically any team,” Spoelstra said of Adebayo. “It’s been all of these experiences we’ve had on these deep runs. You need to find different ways to get your best players impactful. There are different schemes. When you play against the Bucks, New York and Boston, it’s three different kinds of gameplans. It’s been 2-3 years of Bam’s iron will of player development. I’ve seen great improvement in his ability to be effective against different kinds of schemes and teams.”

Miami can win this series, they’ll just have to do it in ways they haven’t won with this postseason. Good thing their entire team identity has been finding different ways to win, whatever-it-takes-ing their way through every moment, every second.


One of the most relevant developments in this series happened in the last one. No, not against the New York Knicks. Against Philadelphia.

Trailing 3-2 and facing elimination on the road, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla made the call to return to the starting frontcourt combination of Al Horford and Robert Williams. That’s the configuration that kickstarted one of the best defensive runs of the past two decades for Boston last year. But with Williams missing the first 29 games of this season and Boston opening the season at a historic offensive level, Mazzulla never returned to the two-big look for more than a handful of games.

Games 6 and 7 marked the first time in the postseason that Horford and Williams started together, having averaged just 5.2 minutes together in the previous 11 games. The 76ers proceeded to post Offensive Ratings of 89.6 and 95.7 as Boston kept Horford mostly attached to Joel Embiid in his pick-and-rolls with James Harden and brought Williams over from the weakside on any downhill attack.

Celtics Preview: Rob Williams Paint Help

That’s a tough look for any team to score on, even if Boston was essentially challenging Harden to score. With how much Miami has been reliant on Adebayo pick-and-rolls, it’s not hard to see how third-party rim protection could throw a wrench in the gears, especially with good wing defenders chasing the ball from behind – or attached at the hip – and Horford cutting off those dotted line catches for Adebayo just as he did Embiid’s nail opportunities.

Of course, that type of coverage is only possible because Boston was comfortable with Williams helping off P.J. Tucker and conceding that spray pass to the corner – just as they were last year leading to Tucker not being on the floor down the stretch of Game 7. And there’s the predicament at the dawn of this series. Coaches tend to stick with what has been working most recently until proven otherwise. Mazzulla has already stated, on Tuesday, that Williams will remain a starter. With Erik Spoelstra starting Kevin Love, can the Celtics be as effective as they’ve been with what might not only be their best defensive lineup, but their best overall lineup?

On paper, that’s a win for Miami. If the other team is going to help off a good shooter, you let that shooter try to punish the defense. But it’s never that simple. Williams, who is capable of some of the best three-point closeouts you’ve ever seen from a player his size, doesn’t have to concede the same shots to Love that he did Tucker. Boston can stay in rotation, sending an additional defender to the corner and filling in from there. They’re capable of that. Williams also doesn’t have to be assigned to Love in the first place. In Game 1 against Milwaukee this year, Giannis Antetokounmpo – wanting to play a similar free-safety role alongside Brook Lopez – was on Gabe Vincent with Miami otherwise starting two good shooters in Max Strus and Tyler Herro. Those plans went awry, of course, but it was their plan.

It might only take a few threes from Love to force an adjustment, but there are further layers to consider. Say Boston decides to go back to their spread, five-out lineup used for most of the regular season, with Derrick White – or Grant Williams, even, for maximum switchability – alongside the four regulars. That’s a group that stretches your defense out as well as any. They’ll test Love’s defense in space, whether he’s dropping back or showing out off of screens, in ways that neither Milwaukee nor New York could even dream of.

What if Miami adjusts first and moves someone like Caleb Martin into the starting lineup despite Spoelstra’s seeming resistance to doing so with how successful Martin has been with bench groups? The Celtics put Williams on Martin last year during the regular season and to Martin’s credit, he didn’t try to punish the coverage only with outside shots – though he will shoot if left open – and regularly drove the paint.

“Shooting the ball is going to be big for me especially if they’re going to have guys overhelping,” Martin said. “There are multiple ways I’m going to try and be effective and impactful if they’re going to put guys like that on me.”

There’s another layer to this that wasn’t exactly present last time around, namely that with Miami less focused on switching this year they’ve often thrived in this postseason the closer they can keep Adebayo to the rim. That was especially true against New York, when Mitchell Robinson’s presence, plus a decent dose of zone, meant Adebayo could hang around the paint and deter the attacks the Knicks were so dependent on. Boston’s stretch will make that more difficult, but at least with Williams – literally the only non-shooter in Boston’s rotation – in the game that makes it easier for Adebayo to be the same kind of help defender, and rim deterrent, that Williams is on the court to be.

It’s popular to say that starting lineups don’t matter, but with Boston essentially playing a two-big rotation, with Horford and Williams both playing the five, a two-big starting lineup is the cleanest way for them to get to that look. Miami has the personnel options to make it tougher on the Celtics to crowd the paint with length. Keep an eye on how this plays out over the first couple games. Maybe someone blinks first. Maybe nobody does. Maybe blinking isn’t even a battle lost in the long run.


There are some stats that you never forget. Even if the exact numbers escape you over time, the meaning behind them linger in the shallow recesses of the brain ready to be called upon whenever the right context presents itself.

For last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, it was all about the turnovers.

On all possessions which started off a defensive rebound or a live-ball turnover in that series, the HEAT scored a pristine 1.30 points per possession. But when they were playing off Celtics scores, either field-goals are free-throws, their efficiency dropped all the way down to 0.94. The effect for Boston was not nearly as dramatic, as they mustered 1.10 points per possessions playing off Miami scores. In other words, turnovers and stops were the source of everything good on offense for the HEAT, which is why there were so many dramatic, snowball runs over the course of those seven games. The Celtics averaged 12.3 turnovers in their four wins. They averaged 19.3 in three losses. Even this season, Boston’s 13.3 turnover percentage jumped up to 18.8 in four games against the HEAT.

The main culprits on Boston’s part were their highest usage players in Tatum and Brown, who combined for about eight turnovers a game, 10 in Boston’s losses. Many of those weren’t just any turnovers, setting illegal screens or offensive fouls or throwing the ball out of bounds. They were direct transferences of possession, often outside the paint, where Miami could quickly take the ball in the other direction. Miami had 21 pick-six possessions overall (turnovers becoming near-immediate transition scores) in the series.

Celtics Preview: Tatum/Brown Turnovers

These things did not happen by accident. Rather, they were a direct result of the intersection of occasionally brute-force attackers and a scheme that specifically shrinks those attacking lanes. In that area, Miami hasn’t changed at all. Whatever pick-and-roll coverage they’re in, they are going to bring extra limbs and bodies into the path of the ball.

“That’s where we find our strength on defense,” Strus says. “We’ll keep being the aggressor.”

The personnel is a bit different, though, and neither Brown nor Tatum have been quite as loose with the ball this year. Among the regular rotation guys in the previous series, Victor Oladipo – who appeared to have timed out Brown’s dribble and gather specifically – led all players with three steals per 100 possessions. P.J. Tucker was fourth in that category, behind Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry. What all those players have in common is that they have incredible hands, swiping and grabbing and making the act of turning a dribble into a shot as miserable an experience as possible. The HEAT still have good defenders in their spots – this might be a series for Haywood Highsmith for this exact reason, along with simple one-on-one defense – and Lowry and Butler will create their own brands of chaos, but it’s tough to replicate true First Team All-Hands Team guys.

Maybe this series is different. Maybe Miami doesn’t need to force turnovers this time around in order to produce consistent offense. Maybe they force them all the same, with different players doing the forcing. All we have to go on is past performances, and based on what we’ve seen, and what we know from watching the Celtics play just about anyone else over the past 18 months, the turnover column in the box score might be second in importance only to the one that tells you how well a team is shooting from three. It won’t be a panacea, but it factors into who Miami wants to be.

“We’re at our best when we’re disruptive, but we also feel like our offense has taken some strides,” Spoelstra said. “Against a really good team like Boston, you have to compete at a high level on both sides. It’s not as simple as we’re going to get stops or turn them over.”


It’s been a postseason of drop coverage for Miami. Between Brook Lopez and Mitchell Robinson – even with Robinson playing up higher and New York crowding the paint – there have been plenty of opportunities for HEAT ballhandlers to come off a screen and know a shot will be available to them. You could even make the argument that, aside from Butler entering the Konami Code on himself, the confidence Miami’s shooters had knowing where and when they could get shots was the primary driver of the team’s blistering offensive pace in that series.

Al Horford is going to drop, too, but the difference with Horford is that he’s not dropping because it’s Boston’s only scheme. It’s almost calculated, giving the offense a look that Horford can toggle out of whenever the need is there. Just look at Horford’s switch rate, per 100 possessions, by quarter this season:

First Quarter: 6.6 switches per 100
Second Quarter: 7.8 switches per 100
Third Quarter: 8.4 switches per 100
Fourth Quarter: 11.2 switches per 100

That’s not someone who switches because he has to. That’s intentional, saving the bulk of his switches for the moments where protecting the paint above all else, playing the math game, is less important than contesting every shot. The later in the game it gets, the less important your points per possession becomes as simply maximizing your chances of putting points on the board, even on shots of lesser value, is often what wins you games. In other words, you might catch the HEAT getting some solid looks against Horford’s drop early on, but chances are they’re going to have to beat late-game switches one way or another.

“They’re second in switches but that can also play a more traditional drop coverage, so you can’t just prepare for one thing,” Spoelstra said.

Williams, on the other hand, will be in drop most of the time. It’ll look more like New York than Milwaukee, generally speaking, with Williams able to adjust the depth of his positioning while also being a bit more mobile, a bit more quick-twitch than both Robinson and Lopez before him – meaning he can both contest shots while shadowing a ballhandler that might get a stop on him. When Miami needs to stabilize and get a look, this might be where to get it, though keep in mind Boston also has the capability of pre-switching Williams out of those actions as his man gets called up should Mazzulla see the coverage being exploited too often.

The switch is still the thing. Only Brooklyn switched more screens than Boston this season, and you could argue that nobody executes as creative, sophisticated switch schemes as this Celtics squad, just as capable of switching away from the ball as they are on it. Like the HEAT, they also haven’t been quite as good at it this year. A possession featuring a Boston switched screen during the 2021-22 season was expected to allow 0.87 points-per – bordering on silliness. This year it’s jumped back up to 0.96, elite but not historically so. They haven’t been as razor sharp as before, though we should consider that having their backs up against the wall against the 76ers could very well have revitalized said tool.

For all the gains Miami has made with their offense this year – we know what you’re thinking, but it was all reflected more in style and process than in results, with an eye on postseason basketball – they continued to struggle at times against switches, scoring just 0.97 points-per-switched-screen. The good news there is that Butler, considering switches often lead to isolations, produced 1.09 points-per-switch this season as a ballhandler.

Chances are that the HEAT’s offense is going to look stalled out at times. It’s an inescapable reality when you’re playing a switching team hitting their apex. But switching requires an incredible amount of individual ability and team-wide precision, which is why most teams don’t even attempt to switch at the volume Boston does, including Miami after a few roster changes. When it looks bad, the HEAT are going to have to weather the storm. Butler and Adebayo in particular are going to have to break them out of those rough patches with some hard-earned buckets.

But the Celtics of this year have not shown an ability to execute with the same consistency as a season ago. That’s where the HEAT are going to have to make hay, forcing Boston into situations where they either have to execute, two, three or four switches in a row, or – by stacking actions and screens – execute two, three or four switches at the same time. There are seams in there to attack, a defender a step slow to get in front of the ball or a miscommunication in the madness, and Miami is a team more than familiar with forcing teams into mistakes and then capitalizing on them.

In that sense it’s going to look bad for Boston sometimes, too, because if there’s anything this Miami team does well it’s make the other team look bad – even if it’s sometimes at the cost of making themselves look good.


With all their shooters and scorers, rather with all their players who can both shoot and score, the Celtics can get a good look at a three just about any time they want. It’s an ability that can sometimes seduce a team as they lose sight of the paint, but it’s a dangerous ability nonetheless. Consistently running a true five-out lineup off the arc is one of the most difficult things to do in this league.

“When it comes to breaking down our half-court defense that we take so much pride in,” Love said, “we’re going to have to make four, five maybe six efforts at some point and some guys are going to be throwing their fists up saying, ‘Hey, I need a blow, I need a break.’ We’re going to have to go extremely hard to get these wins.”

Adds Lowry, “You can’t take away everything. You have to be to work an extra four seconds longer, or an extra three seconds harder or an extra rotation. We have to be on the same page and ready to go.”

Even if they’ve changed a bit from last year, Miami and Boston’s schemes aren’t so different. We’re once again going to learn the answer to the question of what happens when a team that takes a lot of threes going up against a defense which allows a ton of them. Difference is that Boston tends to get cleaner looks – the most catch-and-shoot opportunities in the league – and their Shot Quality (second best behind the Golden State Warriors) is going to routinely be better than Miami’s. There are going to be games in this series where it looks like Boston should be winning based on the differences in shots earned, but Miami might still be the team out in front through some combination of turnovers and offensive boards. Deserving to win doesn’t matter in the playoffs if you don’t actually win, and as the Bucks just learned sometimes a seven-game series is too short a time for percentages to normalize.

Miami’s win conditions in this series aren’t too complicated. They’ll need to force turnovers. They’ll need Boston to miss some good threes. They’ll need to capitalize against Boston’s early drop coverage just as they did against the Bucks. They need to win the possession game, ending up with more shots than their opponent. Their perimeter rotations and closeouts will have to be as good as they’ve been all season. And they need individual scoring efforts from Butler and Adebayo when the switching flattens them out and mucks up their movement actions.

But more than anything, they need to be who they’ve been. Not necessarily how they’ve played, but what this season has made them. Boston is supremely talented, but they have moments at the end of games where they take their foot off the gas. They leave the door open at times when it should be shut. This HEAT group, two games away from setting the record for games decided by five points or less in the regular season and postseason combined, is more than happy to kick doors down if they’re open even just a crack.

Maybe picking the HEAT in this series requires less schematic analysis and a couple more taps of the ‘Believe’ sign above the door. That’s fitting, because that’s what this team has been doing for the past month.

It doesn’t matter what their odds actually are. They make their own luck. They make their own chances. And they believe.