MIAMI — The Eastern Conference finals has been a weird series, with 20-point leads in all four games. There have been zero lead changes in the last two games, with the Miami Heat running out to a 24-7 lead in Game 3 and then scoring just one point on their first 16 possessions of Game 4 on Monday when the Boston Celtics evened up the series at two games apiece with a dominant 102-82 victory.
So what’s next? Who the heck knows. But here are some notes, numbers and film to get you ready for Game 5 on Wednesday (8:30 ET, ESPN).
1. Who’s healthy?
After the Heat scored just six points on their first 11 possessions of Game 1, Tyler Herro checked in, drained a pull-up 3 and finished the first quarter with seven points and three assists. When the Heat went the first 8 1/2 minutes of Game 4 without a field goal, Herro wasn’t there to rescue the offense due to a groin injury.
The Heat have been at their worst (minus 8.0 points per 100 possessions) with Herro on the floor in the playoffs. But his ability to manufacture offense off the dribble can be critical, no matter what kind of defense the Celtics are playing.
Herro wasn’t the only rotation player out in Game 4. The Celtics were without Marcus Smart (ankle sprain) and have been without at least one of their top seven players in every game in the East finals so far.
Herro, Smart and Robert Williams III (knee soreness) are all listed as questionable for Game 5. It’s a best-of-three series going forward and attrition could be the biggest determining factor.
2. Protect against the roll
The wildest thing about Game 4 was that the Heat made six more 3-pointers than the Celtics and still lost by 20. It was just the third time this season (and the first time in the playoffs since 2019) that a team lost by at least 20 points when making at least six more 3s than its opponent.
One difference was that Williams was in uniform. But the Celtics also made Bam Adebayo’s rolls to the rim more of a priority than they did in Game 3, when Adebayo led the Heat with 31 points on 15-for-22 shooting. Part of that was the Celtics’ transition defense being less than excellent. And part of it was Adebayo (5-for-26 from mid-range in these playoffs) making some jumpers. His end-of-the-clock fling with 1:23 left and the Heat up four was particularly back-breaking.
But Adebayo also got some clean rolls to the rim in Game 3 when the Celtics played up on ball screens …
That coverage was partly a reaction to the Heat shooting 13-for-24 on pull-up jumpers in Game 1 against the Celtics’ “drop” coverage. And on the very first possession of Game 4, you can see that the Cs decided that protecting the rim was most important …
Not only did Al Horford drop back so that he could recover to Adebayo’s roll, Williams was also there, leaving P.J. Tucker to make sure Adebayo didn’t get past Horford.
On the Heat’s sixth possession of the game, they ran an empty-corner pick and roll, which is tougher to defend (because there’s no help behind the roll) and something that defenses usually switch. But Horford was in drop again, and Williams ventured from the weak side to meet Adebayo’s roll to the rim …
The drop coverage puts a heavier burden on the Celtics’ perimeter defenders, but they did well in chasing the Heat’s guards and wings around screens and dribble handoffs. The Heat were also in a little bit of a rush …
The Celtics have switched just 31% of ball screens in this series, down from 41% in the regular season and 55% through the first two rounds of the playoffs. But even within their non-switching game plan, there are different ways they can defend pick and rolls and dribble handoffs. They seem to have found something that works in Game 4, but the return of Herro and/or more minutes from Duncan Robinson could force the Celtics to adjust again.
3. More Robinson? More zone?
If anything good came out of Game 4 for the Heat, it was that Robinson made some shots. He’s been out of the Miami rotation for most of the playoffs and, prior to Monday, he was just 3-for-19 from 3-point range since shooting 8-for-9 in Game 1 of the first round.
All of his makes came after the game was well out of hand, but Robinson was 4-for-8 from beyond the arc on Monday. That could keep him in the rotation for Game 5, especially if the Heat think that the extra shooting threat could keep weak-side defenders occupied and less willing to help in the paint.
Of course, more Robinson would probably be a good thing for both offenses.
The Heat have tried to protect Robinson by playing zone while he’s been on the floor. But according to Second Spectrum tracking, the Celtics have scored 34 points on 25 possessions (1.36 points per possession) against Miami’s zone in this series.
The Celtics had a little trouble with the zone late in the third quarter on Monday, but then ran a pretty simple play after a timeout that got the two high defenders occupied and allowed Jayson Tatum to get an open 3 without even moving …
If we see more Robinson in Game 5, we could see more zone. That hasn’t been a problem for the Celtics thus far.
4. Small ball not working
As noted with the Herro numbers, the Miami bench has come up short, both in this series and the playoffs overall. Dewayne Dedmon has had some particularly rough moments, but it’s not clear that Miami has an alternative when Adebayo sits down.
In the last two games, they’ve tried playing Tucker at the five, but those minutes have been especially brutal. In fact, in about 6 1/2 minutes with Tucker on the floor without Adebayo or Dedmon, the Heat have been outscored by 11 points, shooting just 2-for-15 from the field.
Markieff Morris would seemingly be another option at the backup five, but has played just 3 1/2 total minutes in the playoffs. The good news is that a couple of blowouts in this series have kept Adebayo relatively fresh. And if Game 5 is competitive, Miami may have no choice but to play him for 42 minutes or more.
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