The Boston Celtics were a trendy pick to make the Eastern Conference Finals, but this wasn’t the matchup many had in mind.
The Miami Heat shocked the NBA world when they thoroughly outplayed the top-overall seed in the league, the Milwaukee Bucks, en route to a 4-1 series win and the franchise’s first trip to the Conference Finals since the 2014 season. But just because the Heat made a surprising run through the first two rounds doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be here. They were bet against coming into the postseason for legitimate reasons–the Indiana Pacers were a pesky first-round opponent and Milwaukee was given the benefit of the doubt as the No. 1 seed–but Miami has proven they belong; you don’t go 9-1 through the first two rounds of the NBA Playoffs by accident.
The Celtics didn’t need to overcome any underdog scenario, but they did battle back to stave off the defending NBA Champions from completing an epic second-round comeback. Boston was 0.5 seconds away from going up 3-0 in Game 3 in the previous series against the Toronto Raptors, but instead, a miraculous shot kept the latter alive and eventually pushed the series to a 3-3 tie. However, the Celtics did something that title-hopeful teams like the Bucks couldn’t: close out teams when provided the opportunity. Boston fought its way to a Game 7 win and into the next round by gutting it out against a team that no one would have denied didn’t deserve to make the Conference Finals, as well. While Celtics-Heat isn’t what many expected, these are the two clear best teams to come out of the Eastern Conference and they have provided nothing but entertaining basketball over the last two weeks. This is going to be fun, let’s break it down a bit further.
Former ‘Cats must stay big for Miami
From the Kentucky fan perspective, the allure of this series is the blue-and-white duo of two former Wildcats, Bam Adebayo and rookie Tyler Herro. Despite their youth, both players have been invaluable assets throughout Miami’s run in the seeding games and into the playoffs.
Adebayo has played like the All-Star he was named earlier in the year. The third-year player hasn’t regressed at all since the season restart; if anything, he’s improved. The big man is averaging 16.2 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in nine playoff games for Miami, shooting 54.1 percent from the field and an unexpected 87 percent from the free-throw line. During the regular season, Adebayo was a 69 percent shooter from the charity stripe but has managed to go 40-46 in the postseason. He’s been much more efficient from the midrange, too, so it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise for his free-throw percentage to see a spike. Adebayo clearly focused on his jumper during the truncated offseason and it’s paying off on the biggest stage.
But it’s been his defense, however, where Adebayo makes most of his impact. He’s taken the responsibility of defending whoever the Heat need him to at any moment’s notice. It hasn’t mattered if the person in front of him is Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, or Brook Lopez, Adebayo has been nearly impossible to score on. His hands are quicker than most ball handlers think, as Adebayo has been adept at swiping down at an exposed ball, striking it away with perfect timing. With feet quicker than any other center in the NBA, he regularly puts himself in such a great position to pull these types of plays off.
As for Herro, he’s been a boundless ball of energy for Miami, providing a scoring/playmaking mindset off the bench that the Miami Heat coaching staff has entrusted in the closing lineups. His defense leaves something to be desired and he can’t quite operate in isolation situations, but he’s more than capable of working in the pick-and-roll and has time and time again hit clutch shots for Miami. During his playoff initiation, the rook is averaging 14.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.3 assists on shooting splits of 41.3/40.0/85.7 through nine games. He can’t shy away now, though, although I wound’t expect him to. Herro is made for these moments and the Heat will surely ask him to live up to that.
Heat offense vs. Celtics defense
The biggest storyline of this series will be, in my opinion, the Celtics defense and how much the Heat can penetrate it.
Coming into this matchup, the Celtics have been the best defensive team in the playoffs and it hasn’t been particularly close. Boston’s defensive rating of 101.9 through the postseason is tops in the league and three points better than the second-best team (which just so happens to be the team they recently eliminated, the Raptors). All-Star forward Jayson Tatum has taken a leap on the defensive end of the floor (and seemingly a few other areas of his game since the restart began) and Boston has played 20.6 points per 100 possessions better on that end of the floor with him in the game during the playoffs, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Add in the impressive defensive play from fellow Celtics stoppers Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Daniel Theis specifically, and it’s easy to understand why they’ve been so stout on that end. Those four play a majority of the team’s minutes, with Kemba Walker filling in as the fifth player commanding a ton the clock, especially when the game is tightly contested. They’ve had to play all out on both offense and defense. It sounds like a simple concept, but too much effort on one end can affect play on the other end. Boston has played it’s best players heavy minutes out of necessity and won’t have much turnaround from one series to the next. Fatigue hasn’t proven to be an overwhelming factor for either of these teams thus far, but if it’s going to hit somebody, it would be the Celtics long before it’s the Heat. Miami will ultimately go seven days without playing a game between the Conference Semifinals and the Conference Finals.
Odds are high that Boston’s defense won’t let up, at least not early on. If that’s the case, Miami is going to have to avoid lengthy stalls in the offense. They’ve been above average in the playoffs thus far, posting an offensive rating of 113.0 in the series against Milwaukee. Keep in mind, even though the Bucks were hardly themselves in Orlando, they led the NBA in overall defense coming into the postseason. The Heat ran through the Bucks defense like a varsity squad beating up on the freshmen. Even with three selections for an All-Defensive Team (Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe, and Lopez), the Miami offense was humming, playing off of constant ball movement and production from the top-down.
Miami doesn’t necessarily need massive scoring nights from Jimmy Butler, but they sure do help. He’s a player who can singlehandedly win games without scoring more than 15 points, but the Heat are so much better when Butler is always attacking the rim. He’s averaging nearly 11 free-throw attempts per game through nine playoff games; that needs to continue into the Conference Finals.
Zack’s players to watch
Aside from the obvious choices such as Adebayo, Herro, and Butler for the Heat or Tatum, Brown, and Walker for the Celtics, there are a couple of less-notable individuals that will play important roles in this series, whether they’re on the floor or not.
The stars will rightfully earn the recognition they deserve, but the Miami Heat wouldn’t even be in this position without veteran point guard Goran Dragic. The 34-year old Slovenian has been the steady hand on offense for Miami, stepping in as the starting point guard after coming off the bench for most of the regular season. All he’s done is average 21.4 points and 4.7 assists per game as the lead ball-handler. He has yet to go a playoff game without posting at least 15 points and he’s been the most reliable player for Miami throughout the Bubble. He operates flawlessly with Adebayo working at the elbows.
Gordon Hayward’s return?
The availability of Boston’s Gordon Hayward could change the entire trajectory of this series, whenever that might be. The All-Star forward suffered a Grade 3 ankle sprain roughly one month ago that forced him to leave the Bubble in order to undergo surgery and rehab the injury. Hayward was given a four-week timetable for his recovery, which he recently surpassed, and it is expected that he’ll try to make a return sometime during the series against Miami. His outside shooting would be an added bonus against a Heat team that has shown a tendency to play zone defense in the playoffs.
What about Enes Kanter?
Celtics center and former Wildcat Enes Kanter has seen limited minutes through the first two rounds, particularly against the Raptors. While Kanter found some clock in round one, he appeared in only two games against Toronto for a combined seven minutes. He was able to play against the Philadelphia 76ers in round one because he was a slightly better matchup against slower big men such as Joel Embiid and Al Horford. The Raptors, on the other hand, could trot out smaller lineups with a mobile Serge Ibaka playing center. Raptors starting center Marc Gasol was never enough of a threat to warrant a battle on the glass that would necessitate bringing in Kanter.
In the upcoming series against the Heat, Kanter’s minutes could come few and far between once again. Boston is essentially running with an eight-man rotation that does not feature Kanter, but rather favors more athletic and agile bigs such as Robert Williams Jr. and Grant Williams. Facing the endlessly versatile Adebayo and another shifty stretch big man in Kelly Olynyk for Miami, Kanter’s threat as a menace on the offensive glass could quickly be negated. Expect more from the Williams Bros. (not actually brothers) as opposed to Kanter.
Prediction: Heat in 7
I’ve gone back and forth all day on this, and while I know for sure that I believe this series will go seven games, I’m just not sure who will come out on top. But since I’ve been riding the Miami Heat bandwagon rather hard since my precious Phoenix Suns were eliminated, I’m going to stick with it. Miami advances to the NBA Finals in seven games.