2023 Playoffs: East Final | Celtics (2) vs. Heat (8)

Series preview: Celtics, Heat clash again for Eastern Conference title

The heavyweight Celtics meet the Cinderella, 8th-seeded Heat in a familiar Eastern Conference finals matchup.

Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler headline a very familiar Eastern Conference finals matchup between Boston and Miami.

One hundred and thirteen days will have passed since the Boston Celtics’ and Miami Heat’s last clash back in January to when they tip off Wednesday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. That’s an eternity in an NBA season, the equivalent of nearly four months for both teams to morph, shift, stiffen and ideally improve.

Then again, there’s a familiarity between these rivals that transcends the current calendar. This marks the third time in four years that Boston and Miami will battle for a berth in the NBA Finals, and many of the fundamentals about each team remain.

In the Orlando bubble playoffs in 2020, the Heat won in six games, taking advantage of the neutral court setting to advance. Last spring, the Celtics led 3-2 before dropping Game 6 at home, forcing them to clinch in Miami to earn their Finals shot against Golden State.

For the permanent record, then, this is the rubber match. But don’t assume the storylines from a year ago necessarily will apply now, Boston’s Jaylen Brown said Sunday.

“Nothing about last year matters,” Brown said after Boston’s blowout of Philadelphia at TD Garden. “I don’t think Miami is thinking about last year. I think they’re coming out and ready to play basketball. If anything, atone for last year. So we’ve just got to come out with a great fresh mind and execute.”

The Celtics have been considered favorites in the East for most of the postseason (once the Heat eliminated No. 1 seed Milwaukee), but needed 13 games to reach this point. Miami is rolling on house money, only the second No. 8 seed to reach the conference finals round (New York got there en route to the 1999 Finals).

“It is really freaking hard to get to the Eastern Conference finals,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, after his team dumped the Knicks in six games on Friday. “We’ve had our normal, big, audacious goals for this season, but when you get to one step like this, there’s great gratitude because there’s a lot of teams that would love to be in this position.”

Two teams remain, one survives beginning on the Celtics’ parquet floor Wednesday.

Regular-season Results  

Oct. 21: Celtics 111, Heat 104

Nov. 30: Celtics 134, Heat 121

Dec. 2: Heat 120, Celtics 116 (OT)

Jan. 24: Heat 98, Celtics 95

3 Things to Watch

The Heat manufactured an unusual path to the Eastern Conference finals.

Miami’s defense on Tatum. The Heat typically stick to their defensive fundamentals and don’t get too fancy against particular individual threats. But Tatum roasted Philadelphia in Sunday’s clincher, scoring 51 points for the highest personal total in the history of NBA Game 7s. Also, memories of Jalen Brunson’s elusive trickery from Friday are still fresh. He got 41 points against a variety of defensive looks, and Miami’s saving grace was a shortage of scoring help from other Knicks.

Might Boston revert in its starting lineup? Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla had a light-bulb moment before Game 6 against the Sixers, starting big man Robert Williams III next to Al Horford rather than staggering their use. It was an idea that worked last spring and it worked again to close out Philadelphia. But against the Heat, Boston might do better going back to Derrick White with Tatum, Brown, Horford and Marcus Smart. It potentially could prompt a counter from the Heat to sit down Kevin Love and use Caleb Martin in the spot with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Max Strus and Gabe Vincent.

More glare on the coaching matchup. Late in his first year on the job, Mazzulla, 34, was considered to be at a disadvantage against the Sixers’ Doc Rivers, one of the league’s most accomplished coaches. Now he is matched up with arguably the best in the NBA in Spoelstra. From Miami’s in-series and in-game adjustments to its climb from Play-In Tournament status a month ago, his teams often overachieve and rarely fall short of expectations. Few outside the Heat’s film room expected them to reach this round, while anything shy of a Finals return will be seen as a setback for Boston.

X Factor

Jimmy Butler has been named to the 2022-23 Kia All-NBA Second Team.

Will ‘Playoff Jimmy’ get enough scoring help? While Miami will have to cope with Tatum, Boston will be dealing with Butler, whose zeal for big stages and clutch moments is his most impressive trait. He is averaging 31.1 points on 52.7% shooting, with 6.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.7 steals. Already he has had nights with 56, 42, and 35 points. Since turning his ankle in Game 1 against the Knicks, Butler has looked more mortal: 24.5 ppg on 41.7% accuracy (only 1-for-8 on 3-pointers). With multiple Celtics defenders likely to split time on him – Brown, Smart, White – the next Heat options will loom large. Tyler Herro reportedly is still a couple weeks away, at best, since fracturing his right hand in the opener against Milwaukee. Adebayo is the guy, then, averaging 18.1 this postseason after chipping in 25.0 in the four regular-season meetings with Boston. The continued resurrection of Duncan Robinson – a lost soul who shot only 32.8% from the arc during the season but surprised with 42.6% success (26-for-61) in two playoff rounds – seems essential.

Number to Know

16.8 — In these playoffs, the Heat have outscored their opponents by 16.8 points per 100 possessions in 194 minutes with Duncan Robinson on the floor. That’s the best on-court mark among 138 players who’ve averaged at least 10 minutes per game.

First of all, it’s amazing that Robinson has played 194 playoff minutes, given that he didn’t play that much (190) over the last three months of the regular season and didn’t see the floor in the Heat’s two Play-In Tournament games. He was called into action when both Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo suffered injuries in the first round, and he’s been effective, shooting 26-for-61 (42.6%) from 3-point range.

But that plus-16.8 with Robinson on the floor speaks to the success of the Heat’s bench in general. Jimmy Butler has been their star, but they’ve been really good (plus-14.7 per 100) when he’s been off the floor. Despite the injuries to Herro and Oladipo, Miami had better depth than both Milwaukee and New York.

The Celtics have also been at their best with a reserve (Malcolm Brogdon) on the floor, outscoring their opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions in his 361 playoff minutes. Brogdon has been even better (30-for-69, 43.5%) from beyond the arc than Robinson, and he’s more likely to be on the floor down the stretch of a close game. (The Heat play a lot of those.)

These are two teams that rely heavily on their stars, but bench minutes could be critical, as they have been for both teams thus far.

— John Schuhmann

The Pick

Miami has been the grindingest team of the 2023 postseason to advance this far, and that’s not going to change. Anything more now is gravy, compared to the pressure on Boston not to go backwards from last year’s Finals appearance. In Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon’s view, his team would be making a mistake if it relied too much on its multi-threat scoring punch. “It’s ‘Who’s going to out-tough? Who’s going to play harder than the other team?’” Brogdon told NBA TV after Sunday’s clincher. “It’s going to come down to rebounding. It’s going to come down to getting stops on the defensive end.” It also should come down to Boston’s greater depth, its variety of looks at both ends and a renewed confidence from surviving the Sixers with consecutive elimination victories. Celtics in 6.

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

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