We have a rematch of the 2020 conference finals, a series that was played in Orlando’s COVID-19 “bubble” and won by the Miami Heat. Some faces have changed, but these are largely the same cores that faced off two years ago.
Home-court advantage matters this time, and the Heat have it as the East’s top seed. But the Celtics have been the best team in the league over the last 3 1/2 months, and they just eliminated the defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks. Jayson Tatum has evolved into a star and the Boston defense has been stifling.
The Celtics have reached the conference finals for the fourth time in the last six seasons, looking to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. The Heat don’t have the storied history of the Celtics, but they’re in the conference finals for the ninth time in the franchise’s 34 seasons.
Both teams have been able to overcome an injury in their starting lineup. Kyle Lowry (left hamstring strain) has missed six of Miami’s last eight games and did not look good when he tried to play Game 4 of the conference semis. Robert Williams III (left knee soreness) has missed the last four games for the Celtics, but could be the more likely of the two to play early in this series.
Game 1 is in Miami on Tuesday (8:30 ET, ESPN).
3 things to watch
1. A switchy series: The Celtics have switched 55% of ball screens in the playoffs, the highest rate among 16 playoff defenses (and more than double the rate of the other 15). And though they adjusted their pick-and-roll coverage a bit late in the conference semis, the Heat have switched 40% of ball screens, the fourth-highest rate (second-highest among the eight teams to advance out of the first round). This will likely be a switch-heavy series that could come down to which team can better take advantage of mismatches. For Boston, that could be Tatum or Jaylen Brown attacking the Heat’s lesser defenders. Miami’s advantages could come via screening actions or on the offensive glass.
2. Can Butler continue to carry the offense?: Jimmy Butler has had pretty rough shooting numbers from outside the paint over the last few years, but he can still have some big offensive games and big moments. And in these playoffs, Butler has averaged 28.7 points per game with improved shooting both in and outside the paint. In 2020, he had a relatively quiet series against Boston (his 19.0 ppg were his lowest average in four series that year), but the Heat had three other players average more than 19 ppg as they won the series in six games. If the Celtics can keep Butler away from the basket and off the free throw line, he may (again) need more scoring help than he’s gotten in these playoffs thus far.
3. Depth advantage: Grant Williams was a starter when he scored 27 points in Game 7 against Milwaukee, but the Celtics have the second-ranked bench in the playoffs. And if Robert Williams is back on Tuesday, that bench gets even better. The Heat’s bench ranks just 10th, where Tyler Herro was the Kia Sixth Man of the Year. But Miami has been 35.1 points per 100 possessions better with him off the floor (plus-29.9) than it’s been with him on the floor (minus-5.2). That’s mostly about the strength of the starters — the Heat have outscored the Hawks and Sixers by 25.8 per 100 in 165 total minutes with their four healthy starters on the floor — but bench minutes could be critical, and the Celtics seemingly have more players they can trust on both ends of the floor.
Number to know
53 — The Celtics made 53 more 3-pointers than the Milwaukee Bucks in their seven-game conference semifinal series. That was the biggest such differential in a playoff series in NBA history. The Celtics’ 110 3-pointers were tied for third-most in any playoff series.
In the regular season, the Bucks allowed their opponents to take 44.8% of their shots from beyond the arc. That was the league’s second-highest opponent rate, topped only by that of … the Heat, who allowed their opponents to take 45.6% of their shots from deep. In the season series against Miami, the Celtics took 48.6% of their shots from beyond the arc, making 39% of their 3s over their two wins and going just 11-for-37 (30%) in their March 30 loss.
The Heat rank just 13th in playoff 3-point percentage (32.1%). Their two playoff opponents — Atlanta and Philadelphia — were both in the bottom half of the league in 3-point rate. But they’ve made one fewer 3 than their opponents over their 11 playoff games.
If Boston continues to have a significant advantage from beyond the arc, the Heat will have to find advantages elsewhere.
The Heat have home-court advantage, they had the East’s best home record (29-12) in the regular season, and they’re 6-0 at home in the playoffs. They’ve barely allowed a point per possession (100.5 per 100) over those six games and won the six by an average of 17 points. But the Celtics are 4-1 on the road, having saved their season with a huge win in Milwaukee in Game 6 of the conference semis. This should be another competitive series, with tough defenses to crack on both ends of the floor. But the Celtics, with fewer defensive weak spots and Tatum’s shot-making, should have better solutions for the Heat’s switching than vice-versa. Celtics in 6.
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