2022 Playoffs: East Final | Heat (1) vs. Celtics (2)

4 things to watch for in Game 3 of Eastern Conference finals

After splitting a pair of blowout outcomes, will the Heat and Celtics play each other closer as the Eastern Conference finals shifts to Boston?

How will the Heat respond after getting blown out in Game 2?

Complete Heat-Celtics series coverage

BOSTON – Now that each team has clobbered the other through two games of the Eastern Conference finals, maybe we can get some action between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat close enough to merit a Last Two Minutes report.

It’d be nice if the play on the court was as close as the series itself (1-1). Such wild scoreboard swings – the Heat led by 20 in Game 1, the Celtics by 34 in Game 2 – are great for knee-jerk overreactions, but as with most things, the truth and the essence of the competition between these teams probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Here are a few things to keep an eye on heading into Game 3 at Boston’s TD Garden Saturday (8:30 ET, ABC).

1. It’s not Butler, it’s Bam

Jimmy Butler fell on his sword after Miami’s Game 2 spanking, chiding himself for the things he hasn’t done so far in the series while glossing over what he has.

“I think I got a bit selfish on the offensive end,” said Butler, who has scored 41 and 29 points in the two games, respectively, while shooting a combined 23 of 37. “I’ve got to look to use my teammates. They have been there for me all year long, and I got to get back to that because whenever they are scoring, whenever they are aggressive, we are a much better team.”

With point guard Kyle Lowry (left hamstring strain) absent to this point, Butler – who has the ball in his hands so much – wants to do a better job of balancing his scoring and passing duties. But it would be nice if he had an active, aggressive target for such passes.

It would be nice if Miami center Bam Adebayo could step up.

We remember Adebayo from the Heat’s bubble run to the 2020 Finals, right? In particular, we remember his work against Boston at this same stage, the conference finals, when he was Miami’s best player. Averaging 21.8 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists while shooting 60.8% and throttling the Celtics so often at the rim and in the paint, Adebayo was a breakout star at age 23. He has been a candidate for Kia Defensive Player of the Year ever since, a key at both ends of the court to all his team wants to go.

But he’s sputtering along at 13.6 points and 7.5 rebounds in these playoffs, compared to 19.1 and 10.1 in the regular season. He has gone from taking 13 shots per game then to just 8.2 now. Through the two games against Boston, Adebayo has totaled 16 points on 6-for-10 shooting in 66 minutes.

One of the differences now is Boston’s frontcourt and the challenges it presents to the Miami big man. Two years ago in the bubble, Daniel Theis and Jaylen Brown manned the center and power forward spots for the Celtics. Now Adebayo’s contending with Robert Williams III, Al Horford and various helpers from a tougher, stingier Boston defense.

Adebayo may miss Lowry more than some of his teammates do, too, as far as when and where the ball ends up in his hands. But it’s on him to look for his shot and generate opportunities off the glass – he’s averaging 1.6 offensive rebounds this postseason compared to 3.5 last year and 2.5 in the bubble.

2. Smart as the Celtics’ difference-maker

The Celtics have been here before – specifically, this is their fourth trip to the East finals in a string of playoff appearances stretching back eight years to 2015.

Marcus Smart was around then, wrapping up his rookie season after arriving as the No. 6 pick overall from Oklahoma State. Then and in the ensuing seasons, Boston always had other guys in mind for the point guard position. First Isaiah Thomas, then Kyrie Irving, then Kemba Walker were the floor leaders and scorers who were going to drive the Celtics toward a championship.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics steal home-court advantage.

Well, those guys are gone and Smart is still here. His worth was never more apparent than in the shift from Game 1, which Smart missed with a right foot sprain, to Game 2. The sturdy, scrappy, green-haired guard scored 24 points with nine rebounds, 12 assists (to one turnover), three steals and five of Boston’s 20 made 3-pointers. He was an irritant all night to the Heat, flexing his Kia Defensive Player of the Year chops while managing details and situations in his team’s favor.

The only concern from Thursday was that Smart stayed on the floor for more than 40 minutes, possibly angling for a triple-double when he otherwise should have been shut down in the blowout. The last thing the Celtics want is for Smart’s foot to flare up or some new ailment to appear, because there’s little recovery time in this round.

3. Closing out on Boston shooters

Regression to the mean says the Celtics won’t shoot nearly as well again from the 3-point line as they did in Game 2. They hit 20 of 40, including 9-for-11 in the first quarter to crack open the game en route to a 70-45 halftime lead.

Some of the looks were wide open, others were contested. But there’s an attention to detail here that will have to change. Add the Celtics’ 11-for-34 rate from Game 1 and their 31-for-74 cumulative still is good for 41.9%.

As Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said, “If you start the game [giving up] 9-of-11 from 3, that will get you out of your habits pretty quickly.”

4. Injury watch for two Heat veterans

Miami isn’t shy about using its injury report to account for every last twinge, tweak and tickle. Seemingly mindful that Philadelphia got fined $50,000 for fudging Joel Embiid’s injury status and Phoenix got dinged $25,000 for being less than forthcoming on Devin Booker, the Heat throw numbers on the report and sort it out later.

As of Friday evening, four Miami players all were listed as questionable: Lowry (hamstring), P.J. Tucker (left knee contusion), Max Strus (hamstring) and Gabe Vincent (hamstring). That might seem encouraging on Lowry, since he has missed eight of the past 10 games and was ineffective in the two losses in which he played against the Sixers in the conference semis. But “questionable” quickly can flip to “out” in those proverbial game-time decisions.

Tucker is a different matter. He rolled his ankle in Game 1 but surprised some onlookers by returning to action. He did not return after banging his knee in Game 2. Miami relies on him as their first defender of choice on Boston’s Jayson Tatum, and he’s a helpful corner three option who hit a career-best 41.5% this season to open seams for Butler and others.

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.