By this point, the unexpected should be expected.
And yet, the fact that the Eastern Conference Finals won’t be featuring reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks, the team that looked invincible during the regular season to the point where they were breaking all sorts of statistical records, remains a mind-bending reality that is difficult to comprehend.
The Miami Heat club that ousted them, meanwhile, has been sitting poolside in the Orlando bubble for seven days now after handling their business in a shocking five games. They’re sure to be rested and well-prepared coming into their first ECF since 2013–14 (the final year of LeBron James’ Heatles).
As for the Boston Celtics, they’re entering the series battered and beaten after surviving a seven-game defensive slog against the Toronto Raptors, and their energy early on may be a telling sign for how the first couple games, at least, could go.
Still, both teams are playing as well as they could be expected to at this point, and will find in one another here a challenge (another for Boston, the first for Miami) that should make for an entertaining, if not extended series.
Regular-season review: Celtics won series 2–1
Unfortunately, there’s not much data from these games that tells us anything meaningful heading into this series.
In the initial meeting between these clubs, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, and Goran Dragic didn’t play (but Justise Winslow, who is no longer on the Heat, did!). In the second, Jayson Tatum was out. In the final contest, which took place during the seeding games, Hayward (presently injured) logged 36 minutes.
To top it all off, the Heat aren’t even starting the same group(s) that they were during any of those games, with Bam Adebayo now acting as the team’s de facto centre (a decision that’s proved massively beneficial) and Goran Dragic having taken over the starting role formerly belonging to Kendrick Nunn.
Perhaps the only takeaway (which will be expounded upon further momentarily) worth noting here: Adebayo absolutely bullied the Celtics during their last meeting, taking 18 free-throw attempts and looking entirely unstoppable.
Key matchup: Bam Adebayo vs. Daniel Theis
This may not be the matchup that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of these two teams going head-to-head, but Adebayo is such an integral cog in Miami’s offence and will be such an enormous concern for Boston on defence that focusing on anything else here would border on dishonesty.
With Adebayo now featured as the lone centre and surrounded by shooters, a version of the team the Celtics have yet to play, his place as a pillar of the offence has been heightened significantly. The Heat will often begin actions with the ball in Adebayo’s hands at the top of the key, the place he’s most dangerous. From there, he can await the outcome of off-ball actions designed to get those aforementioned shooters open and then deliver timely hand-offs or pinpoint passes (an underrated element of his game).
Of course, if the matchup is favourable, Adebayo can power through smaller or similarly-sized players to get to the rim. If he’s guarded tightly by a plodding big, he’s typically too fast for them to stop with his explosive first step. If his opponent sags off of him, he can hit elbow jumpers with regularity. And if he’s doubled, his passing and recognition is good enough that he can punish teams by kicking to the perimeter.
Boston will probably opt to have their starting centre, Daniel Theis, begin the series on Adebayo, though that may not last long. Boston’s other options are limited, though, as any smaller defender like Jaylen Brown or Smart increases the likelihood of Adebayo living at the free throw line.
On the other side of the ball, Adebayo is Miami’s most versatile and dangerous defender, and having him guard Theis will be an easy place to start. Boston’s centre is typically the screener in most of the team’s pick-and-roll actions, but with Adebayo as his man and more than capable of switching onto a smaller player (such as Kemba Walker) and swallowing them up, the advantages the Celtics are usually able to create there are suddenly gone.
Even if the Celtics don’t bring Theis into actions as a screener, but instead choose to leave him in the corner and operate through alternate means, Adebayo can cheat off of him (Theis is only shooting 18.2 per cent from three this post-season) and act as a defensive rover, patrolling the paint and blowing up plays as a help defender, something he’s adept at.
Adebayo’s multifaceted defensive prowess and ability to successfully switch at a moment’s notice will be the greatest obstacle the Celtics face in this series. The answer to this problem may very well be to attack the Heat in isolation, something the Indiana Pacers did quite well in the moments they got the appropriate matchups in the first round.
By having Tatum, for example, exploit his matchup (likely to be Jae Crowder, a capable defender) one-on-one, it keeps Adebayo out and away from the action as much as possible. The Celtics were an excellent isolation team during the regular season, too, ranking sixth in the league in isolation possessions per game and posting 0.96 points per possession on those plays, good for the 86th percentile.
Honourable mention: Jimmy Butler vs. Jaylen Brown
While Adebayo is the player whose performance will likely tell that tale of this series, Jimmy Butler is still the guy Miami expects to go get buckets in the big moments. And though he’s been a consensus perennial all-star for some time now, he’s never broken into the discussion of the league’s crème de la crème, his name always absent from the sect of basketball discourse ruled by the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard.
This series will provide him with the opportunity to change that.
T.J. Warren and Wesley Matthews certainly weren’t pushovers (and Butler has had some games this post-season where his play was well-contained), but Butler will find himself in a situation with even less room for error against a Boston team that contains a bevy of superior perimeter defenders that allows them to switch freely without giving up an advantage.
To single out a particular matchup, though, it will likely be Brown that starts on Butler, as he spent the most time on him (25.4 partial possessions) during two regular-season matchups. The Celtics trust Brown’s strength, even when he’s undersized (see: Last series against the Raptors, in which he guarded Pascal Siakam the majority of the time), against physical opponents like Butler.
With a significant portion of his offensive output coming from his ability to draw fouls by penetrating the defence (he’s averaging 10.7 free throws a game and converting 84.4 per cent of them this post-season), this will be the most difficult it’s ever been for Butler to just go get a bucket, regardless of the moment.
Celtics: Gordon Hayward
The verdict is still out on whether or not Hayward will even find his way into this series after spraining his right ankle in Game 1 of the Celtics’ first-round bout with the Philadelphia 76ers (though ESPN’s Malika Andrews did report that he went through a “hard, small group workout” on Monday), but if he does, he could make a considerable impact.
Assuming he doesn’t come out exceedingly rusty and force a quick hook from Stevens, Hayward can eat some of the minutes of Boston’s deeper rotation players while also providing Tatum and Walker more relaxed resting periods since he can act as a pick-and-roll handler, shooting threat, and general creator to keep the offence afloat with those two off the floor.
Hayward’s return also means that the Celtics could close with him, Tatum, Walker, and Brown on the hardwood together, a four-man unit they obviously haven’t had available to them in the bubble, but one that boasted a formidable plus-9.6 net rating in the regular season.
Heat: Goran Dragic
Since making his triumphant return to the starting lineup, Dragic has looked like the all-star player he has shown he can be in the past, and it’s a big reason the Heat are where they are at the moment. In his first six playoff games, Dragic dropped at least 20 points (the second-longest streak of his career) before faltering somewhat in the conference semifinals.
If the Heat are to survive this series, they’ll need Dragic to continue to produce, a task that will prove more difficult than ever with Boston’s perimeter defence. He’ll likely have Smart assigned to him as well, by far the toughest individual defender he’s had to face these playoffs.
Thus far, he’s accumulated a 26.1 usage percentage, the highest on the team. That may have to change (and force Miami to seek out a substitute offensive option) should he be unable to find success early.
Celtics in seven.
This series certainly—and surprisingly—feels like a coin flip and is just brimming with questions (e.g. How much zone defence will Miami play? Will Boston’s shooting be enough? Does the Heat’s inexperience show itself at some point?). Ultimately, the decision to go with the Celtics here is rooted in the belief that their stifling perimeter defenders combined with their ability to exploit matchups in isolation will be enough to nudge them over the edge.