On Monday night, the Boston Celtics will be facing off against the red-hot Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. While it’s a series without the defending champions or the league’s number one seed, don’t expect any of these teams to go down without another classic playoff battle.
How did we get here?
The Celtics are coming fresh off a slugfest of a series against the Toronto Raptors which saw multiple games come down to the wire. In the most entertaining contest of the playoffs yet, with all due respect to Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell, fans witnessed Marcus Smart unleash his inner Stephen Curry, numerous end-of-quarter buzzer beaters (including OG Anunoby’s series saving, game-winning buzzer beating three), and a tactical seven game coaching battle between Coach of the Year Nick Nurse and Brad Stevens. In all seven games, the Raptors forced turnovers and cooled down the Celtics with a flurry of aggressive zone defenses, but Boston responded by slowing down Toronto’s transition offense and ball movement. Even without Gordon Hayward, the Celtics still prevailed in seven as they also managed to limit Pascal Siakam, who was often forced into inefficient iso post-ups through the round.
As for the Heat, their well run motion offense exploited the Milwaukee Bucks’ stifling defense, knocking out the assumed back-to-back MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in Giannis Antetokounmpo in five games. Despite the Bucks league-leading defensive rating, they were a match made in heaven for the Heat, whose greatest offensive strength was Milwaukee’s Achilles heel. During the regular season, the Bucks ball screen drop coverage defense hounded opponents inside the paint but ranked dead last in the league in preventing three-pointers. This defensive scheme, coupled with Jae Crowder, Goran Dragic, and Tyler Herro’s three-point shooting torched the Bucks who failed to shrink the floor as the series went on. The Bucks’ lone win came long after Coach Mike Budenholzer finally made adjustments in response to criticism regarding underplaying his starters and his predictable game plan. However, it was too little, too late as the Heat completed the gentleman’s sweep in the game after.
Renewed Rivalries - The last time these two teams matched up in the playoffs was in 2012, during the era of the Big 3 Celtics and LeBron James’ Heatles. That Eastern Conference Finals went the distance, with the Heat eventually prevailing thanks to two monster back-to-back games by LeBron James. That series continued the bad blood between team presidents Danny Ainge and Pat Riley, a rivalry that dates back to the Celtics-Lakers rivalry in the 80s. As we follow the games, it’ll become more and more clear that the personalities and styles of both GMs have imprinted themselves on the identities of their respective teams.
How will the Celtics Defense Hold Up? - The Heat are notorious for their fluid motion offense, with their use of off-ball screens and movement to get quick open looks. Their “point-center” in Bam Adebayo effectively runs their most effective play — the dribble hand-off — with sharpshooter Duncan Robinson.
Over the course of the regular season, whenever the Heat utilize the hand-off, they average a league leading 1.07 points per play (PPP). When Duncan Robinson is involved, that number jumps to an incredible 1.38. It’s an effective play because the defense is often forced to switch matchups and must go over tough screens in order to prevent the three.
On the other hand, the Celtics are known for their small ball lineups, which prioritize frequent switching and rely on all players to hold their own against any offensive player, regardless of size. With discipline and active communication, this versatile defensive scheme can frustrate offenses, as defenders can take on the ball without losing precious time trying to go over a screen. During the regular season, Boston was first in the league in defending hand-offs, holding teams to a respectable 0.83 PPP. The only downside to this defensive strategy is that it often falters against teams who abuse size matchups and have the iso as a staple of their offense. We’ll have to see if Heat head coach Erik Spolestra will call on his team to abuse the Daniel Theis matchup on the perimeter or if Jimmy Butler can be that isolation X-Factor and get buckets on his own if Miami’s offense stagnates.
Will the season series even matter? - It’s no secret that playoff basketball raises play to another level - coaches can effectively plan out matchups to exploit, teams are now prepared to offset the opposing team’s most effective plays, and players often find their minutes soar into the 40s (unless you play on the Bucks).
During the regular season, Boston took the season series 2–1, with both wins coming before the restart and with Miami playing on the second night of a back to back. In the Heat’s win in the bubble, Jimmy Butler was ruled out for the game but Marcus Smart had fouled out after playing only fifteen minutes. Now, with the matchup ahead, both teams will be playing at relative full-strength, with the notable exception of Gordon Hayward for the first few opening games. It’s fair to say that with or without the atmosphere of playoff basketball, the outcome of this series may be very different from what we saw in the regular season.
If there’s anything we can take away from the season series, it’s the sheer difference in bench scoring. In all three matchups, the Heat outscored the Celtics bench, with an overwhelming 45–18 difference when the two teams squared off on January 29. It could spell trouble if Stevens is forced to go into his bench early, especially with the Heat being ranked third in the playoffs in personal fouls drawn with 23.0 per game.
Luckily for Boston, Miami’s defense will be a noticeable drop down from Toronto’s. The Raptors were the ultimate test against the Celtics as Nick Nurse threw almost every conceivable defensive formation at them. Boston’s diverse offensive repertoire was able to weather the storm in response and they eventually prevailed. While Miami is also still equipped with versatile wing defenders in Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Andre Iguodala, Boston can also hold their own as they feature double digit scorers from all over over the court. It’ll also be interesting to see whether or not Kemba Walker will take advantage of Miami’s much weaker backcourt defense as compared to Toronto.
In addition, Boston’s quick switching defense and ability to adjust will fare much better than the Bucks. In all fairness, the Bucks quality defense was able to hold their own against Robinson’s hand-off plays, lowering its effectiveness down to 0.89 PPP. The Celtics are better equipped for switching and it wont a be a surprise if the Heat will have to reach into their bag of tricks early in the round.
This series will undoubtedly be a nail biter and could definitely go both ways. Boston has the upper hand on defensive versatility and offensive variety. However, the Heat’s culture, along with Jimmy Butler sheer determination, could definitely will their way into the NBA finals. Nonetheless, Boston’s playoff experience and skill difference makes them the slight favorite to advance in this round.
Celtics in 7.
*All statistics are sourced from Basketball-Reference and NBA Stats
*I do not own any photos or videos of NBA players in this article, they are all under the ownership of the NBA and are being used for educational purposes.