HEAT-Celtics Preview: It's "Guard Your Yard Time"
This Chapter Is About Switching, Shooting And Winning Individual Matchups
Coming into the previous series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the HEAT had plenty of inherent, structural advantages to point to. Under Erik Spoelstra’s watch Miami has long schemed exceptionally well for teams built around the overwhelming talents of a singular star. And their offense, full of dynamic and diverse shooters and attackers, was uniquely suited for going at a defense laser-focused on doings things one way the right way. The Bucks made them earn it, losing the series on the terms of engagement they set themselves outside of an outlier Game 1, but the HEAT’s strengths in that matchup were such that surprise, even feigned, was not particularly deserved despite the knocking off of a dominant No. 1 seed.
This will not be that.
It can’t be that, because the Celtics are not a one-way team. Miami’s opponent in the Eastern Conference Finals comes at you with angles, just as capable at beating you on your terms as they are winning on theirs. Each side will come exceptionally well prepared, but this is not a series about systematic advantages. This will be about the players. About the fight.
“We’re not going to try to reinvent the wheel,” Erik Spoelstra said. “The further you get along, the deeper a series goes, there’s fewer surprises and things that shock you. It becomes what it’s supposed to be about, and that’s competition.”
The more appropriate overture here, then, might be Henry V.
Once more, with new faces abound, unto HEAT vs. Celtics.
The Milwaukee series was partially defined by the Bucks’ adherence to their drop coverage, which was so ingrained in their scheme that even smaller, switchable wing defenders were at times dropping back even when a Goran Dragic or Jimmy Butler came down the lane. The refusal to make sweeping adjustments paid off at times as there were stretches where the HEAT’s offense ground to a halt against all that ubiquitous length – perhaps the most important development within the series was Milwaukee’s inability to capitalize on those droughts – but Miami could almost always find space. There’s a comfort in knowing where the pressure points will be every time down the floor.
Such comfort is rarely afforded to Boston’s opponents. They do not concede space, particularly in high-leverage moments, and rather than trying to defend what you want to run they simply won’t let you run it much at all.
Here’s Goran Dragic running off a couple screens into a Kelly Olynyk handoff.
Against the Bucks, this would have resulted in Dragic turning the corner and driving into the paint against a waiting Milwaukee big man. Instead, Boston simply switches the first action and has Daniel Theis at the level of the handoff. The result is a makeable shot for Dragic, sure, but this is where the term “flatten you out” comes from. All side-to-side, nothing going toward the paint.
“If you’re not detailed and you’re just out there endlessly running around, they can flatten you out and take away triggers and advantages,” Duncan Robinson said.
There’s a reason so many successful teams in recent years are those that can switch, and why shot creation is at a premium this deep into the postseason.
Inevitably all that switching can reduce possession into a series of one-on-one matchups. Jimmy Butler and Dragic are going to have to score on elite defenders. Bam Adebayo is going to have to hunt mismatches. The Celtics won’t give those matchups easily, shrewdly maneuvering to protect a player like Kemba Walker here (watch away from the ball).
But before those late-game scenarios where your horses have to start pulling the cart, the HEAT don’t have to let switches just happen to them. Switches require precision and communication, and the best way to bust communication is to run your offense better, and faster, than the defense can react.
If they’re going to run a second defender at Robinson, then punish the defense while helpers are in rotation.
“We had seen a lot of different coverages in the course of the regular season, and our offensive game really evolved because of that,” Spoelstra said. “We can expect a lot of different things. We just have to rely on each other, rely on our habits and the way we like to play offensively regardless of what the scheme is.”
And then there’s Bam, a player advantage in a series without many systematic ones. We all remember Draymond Green rolling down the middle of the floor after Stephen Curry gets trapped, receiving a pocket pass only to whip the ball to an open shooter? Well, when you know the switch is coming a slipped screen can functionally turn the switch into a trap, as far as two defenders being on the ball.
There may be a little less opportunity for Adebayo to playmake with handoffs, but every opportunity for him to get a catch in space in an opportunity for him to thrive against a defense lacking in interior length.
By that same logic, a good pick-and-pop can hurt Boston because of when they don’t want to switch. Theis will switch out as will Grant Williams, but of Boston’s options at center Robert Williams and Enes Kanter will hang back a bit more. Serge Ibaka enjoyed a buffet of top-of-the-arc threes in the previous series, and Olynyk could do the same.
As much as Miami wants to share the ball, it will come back to individual matchups for significant stretches. The HEAT will have to shoot, too. There may not be a magic number to hit like there was against Milwaukee, which had been nearly unbeatable unless their opponent hit at least 15 threes when Giannis Antetokounmpo was healthy given the way they sank into the paint, but Boston will concede some threes as well because of their willingness to help inside. A good kickout pass, of which many HEAT players are capable of, will find an open shooter. But as the Toronto Raptors just experienced, you can ill afford to miss those shots when you come by them. It would be not be surprising at all if the team enjoys a significant margin in points behind the arc is the winner of most games in this series, barring a huge free-throw differential.
The HEAT switch, too.
While much will be made of Boston’s control of the regular season series, which they won 2-1, none of those matchups will be particularly representative. Not only was Miami playing on a back-to-back in all three games, but both teams were missing key rotation pieces in each outing. Assuming Gordon Hayward returns to the series from an ankle sprain, this could effectively be the first time these teams are facing one another will full rosters.
None of that will matter as much as the fact that Spoelstra changed up his starting lineup, swapping out Meyers Leonard for Jae Crowder, despite the original lineups regular-season success. With Leonard, the HEAT were often in drop pick-and-roll coverage just like the Bucks, and few guards thrive against drop coverage more than Kemba Walker. But where Walker could once run off a Theis screen into his shooting pocket, the HEAT can now switch.
Where Jaylen Brown once came off a Theis screen into a driving lane, a switch returns him back to his original matchup and an isolation possession.
Don’t get to used to that result. Boston chooses the path of wisdom when it presents itself. Remember watching the Indiana Pacers routinely attacking Adebayo one-on-one? The Celtics might have been the best team in the league at moving Adebayo around the court, via switches and off-ball actions, and running actions away from him. At the very least, they will often have someone that can occupy Adebayo’s attention.
No, the Celtics aren’t going to keep running into a wall over and over. They will hunt matchups they like.
"It's no secret who they're going at, they're going at me and Duncan [Robinson],” Tyler Herro said during the Pacers series.
We’ve used that quote a few times now in this space, as much to draw attention to the self-awareness of the players in question as to help make a point. Those two won’t be the only players with added defensive pressure given all of Boston’s capable scorers, but everyone knows what the deal is.
“This game is going to be a lot of guard your yard time,” Adebayo said. “Get your stop. One on one basketball, you have to win your matchup.
“We know if any of those guys get in a flow, they can go off for 30-plus.”
Miami won’t leave anyone on an island. They don’t just mindlessly switch every action on the floor and let their opponent dictate matchups. Nor will they keep help at home when a teammate is in need. Spoelstra teams don’t let things just happen to them, at least until they’ve exhausted all possible solutions.
“It’s all about competing,” Butler said. “You can do anything that you think you can do, that you want to do. That’s all defense is. It’s effort, paying attention to the scouting report, knowing what guys are going to do. We got guys that bury themselves in the scout, bury themselves in the film. I’m not too much worried about it, but they do have some players, they do have some hoopers that can put the ball in the basket.”
An interesting note: Boston is 28-2, including playoffs, when Jayson Tatum’s usage rate is over 29 percent. When it drops below 25 percent, their record is 9-10. Toronto saw fit to send traps and doubles at Tatum at times, and while Tatum did well in passing out of those situations it’s possible the best solution could sometimes just be making sure Tatum isn’t the one taking the shot.
Another answer could be zone, a trusty fallback for Spoelstra when man-to-man defenses have failed to hold water.
“Whether we use it this series or not, I don’t know,” Spoelstra said. “Our man defense has been more stable during the playoffs, so we haven’t had to use it.”
Miami owed much of their August 4 win, without Butler, to their use of zone which held Boston to 18 points on 28 possessions. Toronto had the same thought, mixing up just about every zone look known to man as Boston produced just 0.75 points per 100 possessions against zone defense in that series, per Second Spectrum.
Their opponent getting a crash course in all those surprise defensive looks may play as a disadvantage for Miami, but at least they have evidence in front of them for what might work.
In the end, just like on the other end, it’ll come back to individual matchups. There’s no running from what’s coming.
“By the time you get to the Conference finals, you can’t hide,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not like your opponent isn’t going to be experienced in how to exploit you.”
The Long Nights
Miami can certainly win this series. They can certainly win the title, at this point. But don’t expect them to break Boston. Each team is too well coached, each team has too much talent, each team competes too hard for either to walk over the other.
That’s what this series will be about. Competition. Who wins this matchup one night, and who wins it the next. Who fouls less, turns the ball over less, remains most disciplined on defense and doesn’t foul. Who makes the plays that will be talked about a year from now.
This is when we’re going to learn the most about this HEAT roster. When they don’t have clear systematic advantages over their opponent, when there isn’t a clear plan for a present danger, what are they going to be? We know the character of this group. We know who they are. We don’t yet know how they’re going to get to their identity in this series.
That may mean some agonizingly long, stressful nights for fans. You may find yourself standing more than you sit, or changing couch cushion to see if you can get that next corner three to fall, but that’s what this is all about.
It’s the Conference Finals, folks. You didn’t think it was going to be easy, did you?