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

3 things to watch as Eastern Conference finals shifts back to Boston

The Celtics extend the East finals by making better reads and capitalizing on transition opportunities. Can they do it again?

Transition opportunities will continue to be critical for both the Celtics and Heat as the East finals returns to Boston for Game 5.

No team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series. But there have been few candidates as good as the 2023 Boston Celtics. Maybe none.

Of the other 150 teams that were down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, 126 (84%) of them had a worse record than their opponent in the regular season. The Celtics were 13 games better than the Miami Heat this season, the biggest such differential for the 151 teams that have been down 3-0.

The Heat actually had the worst regular-season winning percentage (.537) of the *121 different teams in NBA history that have held a 3-0 series lead. By winning percentage, this is the third biggest differential for a trailing team in the 151 3-0 series, with one of the two series that had a bigger differential being the Heat’s conference semifinals win over the Milwaukee Bucks in 2020.

* 27 teams have led multiple best-of-seven series 3-0. That includes the 2017 Warriors, who had 3-0 leads in all four of their series, losing only Game 4 of the Finals.

Statistically, that 2020 Heat team (+2.7 per 100 possessions, seventh best) was a little closer to those Bucks (+9.4, first) than this one (-0.5, 21st) was to the Celtics (+6.7, first) in the regular season. That series also came after a 20-week hiatus in the season. The other 3-0 series with a bigger discrepancy took place 76 years ago, before the NBA was called the NBA.

Biggest regular-season winning pct. discrepancy, team up 3-0 in playoffs vs. opponent

Year Round Up 3-0 RS W-L RS PCT Down 3-0 RS W-L RS PCT W Diff. PCT Diff.
1947 Semis Chicago 39-22 0.639 Washington 49-11 0.817 -10 -0.177
2020 Conf. semis Miami 44-29 0.603 Milwaukee 56-17 0.767 -12 -0.164
2023 Conf. finals Miami 44-38 0.537 Boston 57-25 0.695 -13 -0.159
1975 Finals Golden State 48-34 0.585 Washington 60-22 0.732 -12 -0.146
1995 Finals Houston 47-35 0.573 Orlando 57-25 0.695 -10 -0.122

So yeah, what we’ve seen in this series is unprecedented when you look at 82-game seasons. And a lot of the Heat’s postseason success is about hot shooting.

But the Celtics are still in a big hole, they’ve yet to win three straight games in these playoffs, and the last time they won four straight was before the All-Star break. There are reasons beyond “make or miss” for the Heat’s 3-1 series lead, and the Celtics aren’t the only quality opponent that Miami has out-executed in this postseason.

Boston did take the first step toward making history on Tuesday, winning Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. Here are three things to look for as the series goes back to Boston for Game 5 on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

1. Better reads

It is a make-or-miss league, and the Celtics had almost as many 3-pointers in Game 4 (18-for-45, 40%) as they did in Games 2 and 3 combined (21-for-77, 27%). There wasn’t a significant increase in ball or player movement, and the percentage of their 3-point attempts that were off the catch was only slightly higher (70% in Games 2 and 3, 73% in Game 4).

But the Celtics’ stars seemed to read the Miami defense better, forcing tough shots and drives into traffic less often.

On Boston’s third possession of Game 4, Jaylen Brown was isolated against Gabe Vincent, a defender he’s tried to attack quite often in this series. But after setting a cross-screen for Jayson Tatum, Al Horford made a sharp cut toward the basket, catching Kevin Love off guard. That drew Max Strus into the paint and left Derrick White open in the left corner. Brown first looked to hit Horford, but read the defense well and threw a long pass to White, who drained an in-rhythm 3 …

Jaylen Brown assist to Derrick White

Later in the first quarter, the Heat had some switch confusion on a back-screen, leaving Marcus Smart open in the post. And as soon as Vincent came over to help, Smart sent a cross-court pass to Brown for another corner 3. Late in the period, Brown made a sharp pass to Robert Williams III for a dunk after Williams set a flare screen and rolled to the rim …

Jaylen Brown assist to Robert Williams III

The Heat are a great defensive team, but there are openings to be exploited, especially with the attention they’re paying to Tatum and Brown. Every half second counts and continuing to make quick and smart decisions can help the Celtics score in their half-court offense.

“It’s been taking us a little while to kind of figure it out,” Brown said after Game 4. “It ain’t always going to be you scoring the ball normally because they’re not guarding us normally.”

2. Turnovers and transition

The Heat have lived late in the clock, taking 29% of their shots in the last seven seconds, compared to the Celtics’ 14%. But both offenses would prefer not to play in the half-court and, instead, take advantage of transition opportunities. And it’s not a coincidence that the game they won (Game 4) was the first in this series in which the Celtics had fewer turnovers than the Heat.

All turnovers are not created equal, of course. While the overall number was even (15-15) in Game 1, the Celtics had six more live-ball turnovers (12) than the Heat (six). That difference was plus-7 and plus-4 (bad numbers) for Boston in Games 2 and 3, and minus-3 (5-8) in Game 4.

You don’t need a live-ball turnover to run, though, and the Celtics were sometimes able to push off a made basket on the other end of the floor to get a good shot …

Grant Williams corner 3-pointer

Corner 3s are generally good shots, and the Celtics attempted more corner 3s in Game 4 (6-for-16) than they did in Games 2 and 3 combined (4-for-14).

Transition opportunities will continue to be critical for both teams. Getting them starts with getting stops and preventing them begins with executing offensively and not turning the ball over.

“When they score, it’s easy to set your defense,” Tatum said Tuesday. “But you’re getting stops, you’re getting turnovers, and you’re running. Maybe it’s a cross match, you find a mismatch or something. That’s how we want to play with pace.”

3. Butler in isolation

According to Second Spectrum tracking, Jimmy Butler has isolated 18.3 times per game in this series, up from just 8.3 times per game through the first two rounds. His 73 isolations over the four games are 43 more than any player in either conference finals series and 24 more than Brown (27) and Tatum (22) combined. Many of those have been true isolations, with Butler on one side of the floor and his four teammates all on the other side.

The Heat haven’t been as efficient with Butler in isolation in this series (1.06 points per chance) as they were through the first two rounds (1.16). And Game 4 was their least efficient of the four in that regard (0.76), with Grant Williams’ block of a Butler turnaround jumper being the highlight on the Boston side …

Grant Williams block vs. Jimmy Butler

There was no real secret to the Celtics’ success vs. Butler (who still scored 29 points) in Game 4. They were sharper defensively in general, doing a better job of staying in front of Butler’s drives and staying down on his pump fakes. They switched most screens and the defender against whom Butler attempted the most shots (3-for-7) was Rob Williams, who’s big and bouncy.

If they can be similarly successful in Game 5, the Celtics could be halfway to history.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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