It’s going to be hard.
Nobody should fall under any other impression as the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics meet for a third time in four seasons in the east finals. The Heat surprised an injured Celtics team in the Bubble in six games before a beat-up, one-seeded Miami team overcame an eight-point deficit late in Game 7 and Jimmy Butler lined up the game-winning three before the buzzer. Jaylen Brown’s reaction, oh s***, encapsulated a series that nearly shifted Celtics history. Boston secured the stop and advanced to the Finals, finally shaking the Heat.
Now, they need to beat them to return to the Finals nearly one year to the day last year’s Finals began. The Celtics enter as overwhelming favorites while the Heat play with revenge on their mind. Max Strus remembers the three he hit in the fourth quarter of Game 7 erased multiple plays later from New Jersey on an out-of-bounds call. Boston, meanwhile, still seeks to find its focus and consistency. Al Horford stopped practice on Tuesday to tighten up the team in what Malcolm Brogdon called a light and loose session. Joe Mazzulla and players talked all week about flexibility, embracing adjustments and the players taking the lead on many initiatives.
For the Heat, Erik Spoelstra’s schemes, intensity and adjustments drove another unimaginable playoff run.
“Everybody has a culture. We have ours as well,” Mazzulla said as he addressed the Heat culture that brought Boston’s opponent to town. “Both teams have shown that they’re able to get through good times and bad, and it says a lot about the players in the organization more than anything.”
The Celtics narrowly avoided another untimely exit against the 76ers less than one week earlier while the Heat overcame a fourth quarter deficit in the No. 8 seed play-in game before stunning the Bucks and Knicks. Butler averaged 31.1 points. 6.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game on 52.7% shooting, 36.1% from three, while drawing 10.1 free throws per game.
Miami became the second eight-seed to reach the conference finals without Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo. Oladipo will miss this round while Herro still can’t dribble or shoot nearly four weeks removed from surgery. Initial reports indicated he’ll miss at least six weeks after breaking his hand.
Herro missed three games last year and played injured in Game 7, so the P.J. Tucker loss will be missed most from last year’s series — a different one despite many of the familiar faces returning. Robert Williams III will start Game 1, likely opposite of Kevin Love who replaced Tucker in February after his buyout from Cleveland. Gabe Vincent starts instead of Kyle Lowry. Mazzulla now coaches instead of Ime Udoka.
“I don’t think there’s much difference,” Mazzulla said. “That’s the reason why they are where they are. I think (the Heat are) healthy, I think they’re connected, I think they’re shooting the ball a lot better and they’re playing with physicality.”
The Heats’ similarities to last year’s run extend beyond the personnel, though, with their three-point shooting pointing up to 36.8% in the playoffs after a 27th-ranked 34.4% regular season. They’re getting the necessary volume up to compete with the Celtics too, over 36 per game, with Boston leading the playoffs hitting 39.5% of their 38.9 threes each night. Duncan Robinson (42.6%) returning to the rotation helped with that, while Caleb Martin (38.6%) and Max Strus (36.9%). Love and Vincent sit just below 34% as the team’s volume shooters.
All of them and Butler’s mid-range shooting, which enters this series at 39.1%, will prove necessary to beating Al Horford’s drop and Williams III’s returning roving role, which he’ll test out on Love and Martin. Their willingness to launch and ability to convert from the corners, with greater on-ball comfort than Tucker could muster should test Boston’s ability to stay in their current alignment.
Bam Adebayo, who averaged 11.3 shots per game in last year’s east finals, needs to play aggressively. He scored six and nine points, respectively, in blowout losses in Games 2 and 4 before barely showing up to Game 6 while Butler forced the Game 7 with 47 points. Both he and Butler prefer to facilitate, and having Adebayo pass enhances Butler’s cuts, but they need to make up a significant offensive gap.
“It’s gonna be a series of shot-making,” Butler said. “Whether they get us stagnant or not, if you throw the ball up and it goes in, it’s always good offense. I don’t think your first option, second option, or even your third option will be open on any given play. It’s all up to being a basketball player, making a great move, making the right read, you getting a bucket, getting to the free throw line or getting someone else a bucket. It’s definitely going to be a series of some high-intensity, high-IQ basketball and may the best team win.”
Boston enters with a 118.1 offensive rating to Miami’s 115.7. The Celtics and Heat begin the series allowing 111.0 points per 100 possessions each this postseason. Miami nearly won last year’s series shooting 41.6% from the field and 30% from three, though. They won’t out-score the Celtics. They’ll only stay in this series defending their asses off, and making this — again — one of the ugliest east finals since the 1990s.
That starts with Butler, who allowed Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to shoot 24-for-45 (53.3%) in last year’s series. The Heat took Smart and Derrick White out of the series while Williams III, hobbled by knee pain, managed 9.2 PPG and Horford shot 39.1% from three. That stemmed from Brown and Tatum averaging 29.1 PPG and 8.6 APG on 47.5% shooting.
“If I gotta guard (Tatum), Imma guard him,” Adebayo said. “There’s nothing to it. It’s whoever they put out there, that’s who we’re gonna guard.”
Both players enter the series in stride, Tatum off a 51-point masterpiece that arguably marked the best performance of his career in Game 7 on Sunday. Brown torched Tucker all series and finished with 22.9 PPG on 54.1% FG while opening up his game from behind the arc shooting 43.2% 3PT.
Malcolm Brogdon, likely the biggest difference on either side compared to one year ago, hit 52.3% of 44 threes attempted against the Sixers and White shot 39% from deep despite disappearing for much of the series on offense. Brogdon looked forward to helping Boston solve the Miami zone that gave Boston fits in recent series.
“I view myself as a guy that helps bring this team poise, and a game manager that can help slow down the game and keep things organized,” Brogdon said. “I think me, Marcus and Derrick are the guys to do that. It’ll be important for this series for sure. This is a team that can speed you up, very good defensive team, they make adjustments on the fly, guys execute at a high level on that team. It’s about taking care of the ball and getting the shots we want, which I think we will do.”
“I think I am actually a great fit to play against a zone defense. I penetrate, I make good decisions with the ball and then I shoot the ball well. I think, honestly, we have five or six of those guys on the team that can do that and adding another one in myself has been a huge plus.”
The issues for the Celtics come in the clutch, the ball control battle (14 TOV% in 2022 ECF) and, in timely moments, securing defensive rebounds. It’s no surprise Mazzulla continuously stresses those margins, because the Hawks and Sixers utilized them to extend their series to six and seven games. Boston narrowly lost the free throw and turnover battles while the Sixers played them nearly even on the offensive glass and shot attempt totals. A formula for seven games.
The Heat won 4-of-6 games that went to crunch time through the first two rounds after leading the NBA with 32 clutch wins during the regular season. In games decided before those final five minutes, they lost 16-of-28.
Boston played two early-season shootouts during the regular season, one during the Celtics’ historic offensive start where they shot 42.4% from three. Tatum hit eight threes and scored 49 points in the second game, followed by a 25-point Butler night where he did most of his work late to steal a four-point win. Miami evened the series in the finale at home against a Celtics team down Smart, Brown, Brogdon and Horford that still nearly tied the game at the buzzer. Butler also sat while Adebayo scored 30 points in the Heat’s 98-95 win, where Herro picked off Tatum in the back line of the zone on the second to last possession.
There wasn’t a ton to pull from those matchups. Boston fared better against the zone, but struggled when they saw it at times in the Philadelphia series. Butler hurt his ankle in round two and only shot 43.2%, losing his three-point shot completely. Robinson, Love and Vincent all struggled to shoot in the Knicks series, too, as the team fell to 30% from deep. Miami still managed to hold the Knicks to 29.9% 3PT and turned them over on 13% of their possessions in the six-game series.
“We’ve just gotta be aware. Offensive awareness has to be key,” Brown said. “I think that’s something that we’ve all grown in. That’s something Joe has emphasized throughout the year is offensive awareness, being able to make reads, being able to see what teams are in and being able to read it on the fly. We’ve gotta be highly aware, recognize what coverage they’re in and play the game the way you know how.”
There’s something beyond analysis, analytics and talent that led the Heat here through some tough opponents. Milwaukee and New York, however, also faced injuries in those series while the Celtics enter this series with full health and depth behind their starters, including Grant Williams, who will need to relieve Horford and Williams III after they both averaged around 30 minutes over the past two games.
It’s hard to imagine them losing this series, but after two rounds went longer than expected, it’d be shocking if this is the one that runs short.
“It was hard (last year),” Mazzulla said. “As it should be, and it’s going to be hard and there’s no expectations.”
Bobby Manning: Celtics in 7
John Zannis: Celtics in 5 (but probably 7…or Heat in 6)
I’m not gonna lie, the Philadelphia series brought me to the brink. Never again would I allow myself to be duped by these unserious posers. I’m done with them. Done for good.
Jimmy Toscano: Celtics in 6
On paper, this feels like a Celtics in 4 situation. It’s not common for an 8 seed to make it to the conference finals, but it’s apparent that (Playoff) Butler is a rare breed. I am not doubting Butler, but I am doubting the heat as a team. Joel Embiid just took the podium to exclaim that one or two guys can’t do it themselves.
I have a feeling Butler will be thinking the same thing by the end of the series, though he doesn’t need to say it. The Celtics are seven players strong. Maybe 7 1/2 if Williams can sniff some playing time this series. Ultimately, they will be too much for the Heat, even if Butler and Spoelstra can get them a game or two. I still expect Boston to fall into a bad habit here and there, but I just don’t think the heat will be able to fully take advantage, similar to the Sixers.
I have Celtics in 6. Realistically, it shouldn’t take that many games. If it does, a Nuggets team will ready to pounce on Boston.