2024 Playoffs: East First Round | Celtics (1) vs. Heat (8)

NBA Playoffs: What to expect in Celtics-Heat series

Familiar foes, Boston and Miami will meet in the playoffs for the 4th time in 5 seasons.

A rematch of the last 2 Eastern Conference Finals awaits in the 1st round this year. Game 1 is Sunday in Boston.

After one of the best regular seasons in NBA history, the Boston Celtics are the clear favorite to reach the NBA Finals out of the Eastern Conference. Their biggest threats – Milwaukee, New York and Philadelphia – are on the other side of the bracket and either dealing with injuries or have a star trying to work their way back from a long absence.

The Celtics’ first-round opponent has also been shorthanded. The Miami Heat were without Jimmy Butler and Terry Rozier on Friday, and while they managed to beat the Chicago Bulls by 21 points to earn the No. 8 seed, they aren’t expected to have Butler for this series.

Boston swept the three regular-season meetings, with its 143 points on just 96 possessions (149 per 100) on Jan. 25 being the most efficient offensive performance the Heat have allowed in the 28 seasons for which we have play-by-play data.

Series schedule

Here’s how to watch the Celtics vs. Heat series:

All times Eastern Standard Time

  • Game 1: Heat vs. Celtics, Sunday, April 21 (1 p.m., ABC)
  • Game 2: Heat vs. Celtics, Wednesday, April 24 (7 p.m., TNT)
  • Game 3: Celtics vs. Heat, Saturday, April 27 (6 p.m., TNT)
  • Game 4: Celtics vs. Heat, Monday, April 29 (TBD, TBD)
  • Game 5: Heat vs. Celtics, Wednesday, May 1 (TBD, TBD)*
  • Game 6: Celtics vs. Heat, Friday, May 3 (TBD, TBD)*
  • Game 7: Heat vs. Celtics, Sunday, May 5 (TBD, TBD)*

* = If necessary

Top storyline

TCB. These teams have a history, with this being their fourth playoff meeting in the last five years. And we’ve learned that we should never dismiss the Heat, who beat the top two seeds in the East (including Boston) last year on their way to the Finals. If any Eastern Conference opponent can put some doubt in the Celtics’ heads, it’s this one.

But primarily, this series is about the Celtics’ ability to take care of business. They ranked in the top two on both ends of the floor and had the fifth-best point differential in NBA history. They’re healthy, and if they play anything close to their best basketball, this should be a short series. They need to have their foot on the gas at the start of Game 1 and keep it there throughout until the job is done.

Keep your eyes on

Zone defense. For the second straight season, the Heat led the league in the percentage of defensive possessions (13.4%) on which they played zone, according to Synergy tracking. The Celtics’ offense ranked seventh with 1.12 points per possession against zone this season, though they didn’t see much of the Miami zone (16 total possessions) over the three regular-season meetings.

They saw a good amount of it in last year’s conference finals, scoring an anemic 85 points on 112 zone possessions (0.76 per) over the seven games. They can expect to see more in this series, and the zone can stifle the Celtics’ drive-and-kick game, keep them out of the paint, and put them into late-clock situations.

Of course, the Celtics didn’t have Kristaps Porzingis last year, and there’s nobody in the league with a better ability to shoot over the top of a zone than the 7-foot-2 big man looking to win a playoff series for the first time in his career.

1 more thing to watch for each team

For Boston: Bench play. We knew the Celtics had the best top six in the league. We didn’t know they would be at their best with Sam Hauser and Payton Pritchard on the floor. Their aggregate bench NetRtg (point differential per 100 possessions) with reserves on the floor was plus-6.2, the best mark for any team in the 28 seasons for which we have play-by-play data.

Hauser and Pritchard will certainly be targeted by opponents in the playoffs. If they can hold up defensively, they Celtics can continue to dominate their minutes on the floor and extend leads when their best players are resting.

For Miami: Secondary creation. The Heat probably won’t have Butler, but they will have Tyler Herro, who missed (almost all of) last year’s playoffs and led the way with 24 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in Miami’s Play-In victory over Chicago on Friday.

But they’ll need somebody else to create offense off the dribble in order to make this series interesting. That could be Rozier, who’s missed the last six games with neck spasms. It could be Caleb Martin, who was almost the MVP of the conference finals last year, averaging 19.3 points on 60% shooting over the seven games. It could be rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr., who’s averaged 18.5 points (on 50% shooting) and 5.5 assists over the last four. And they’ll probably need great series from at least two of those three guys.

1 key number to know

-8.3% – Jrue Holiday had a usage rate of just 16.1% this season, the lowest mark of his career and down from 24.4% in 2022-23. That (-8.3%) was the biggest drop, by a wide margin, among 209 players that played at least 1,000 minutes in each of the last two seasons. The two-time All-Star has embraced a smaller role in a stacked starting lineup with a new team, and it’s worked for both him and the Celtics.

Holiday had his most efficient scoring season of his 15-year career, registering a true shooting percentage of 59.7%. The Celtics had the most efficient offense in NBA history, scoring 122.2 points per 100 possessions. And Holiday wasn’t the only guy sacrificing shots, with both Jaylen Brown (from 30.7% to 28.3%) and Jayson Tatum (from 31.9% to 29.6%) also seeing not-insignificant drops in usage rate.

The Celtics ranked second offensively last season and had the second most improved offense this season. They’re more dangerous in part because they’re more balanced.

The pick

Celtics in four. The Heat have proven to be a resilient group, and the Celtics struggled against the zone in last year’s conference finals. And Boston has some recent postseason demons beyond that.

But the Celtics are simply the much better team, especially with Butler unlikely to play. While Miami was able to stifle the Bulls’ 19th-ranked offense to get here, it now faces a much tougher challenge. The Celtics are a machine and they shouldn’t have much trouble reaching the conference semifinals for the seventh time in the last eight years.