Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Celtics and Heat square off in 2020 rematch

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) shoots over Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, March 30, 2022, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks have been dethroned by the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat had no trouble taking Game 6 to clinch their semifinal series against the Philadelphia 76ers, meaning Boston and Miami will meet for a rematch of the 2020 NBA bubble Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat are looking to lift the Larry O'Brien trophy on the 10 year anniversary of the NBA Championship that LeBron James brought home when he took his talents to South Beach to join Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. They also are returning to the Conference Finals for the second time in three years.

As for Boston, they want to make it out of the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2010, when they fell in Game 7 to their rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers. But if any Celtics squad has looked poised to do it, it's Ime Udoka's squad.

Season series: 2-1 Boston

Quick Tape (after Round 2)

Heat: 4-2 win over Philadelphia | No. 5 offence | No. 2 defence | No. 1 net rating

Celtics: 4-3 win over Milwaukee | No. 8 offence | No. 3 defence | No. 2 net rating

Betting Futures

To win series: MIA +145, BOS -175 (Courtesy of FanDuel at time of publication)

To win championship: MIA: +430, BOS: +210 (Courtesy of FanDuel at time of publication)

Heat Starting 5: Bam Adebayo, P.J. Tucker, Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Jimmy Butler

Heat Bench: Kyle Lowry (GTD), Victor Oladipo, Tyler Herro, Caleb Martin , Duncan Robinson, Dewayne Dedmon, Udonis Haslem, Haywood Highsmith, Markieff Morris, Omer Yurtseven

Celtics Starting 5: Marcus Smart (GTD), Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Robert Williams (GTD)

Celtics Bench: Derrick White, Grant Williams, Daniel Theis, Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, Nik Stauskas, Sam Hauser (Inj.), Luke Kornet, Juwan Morgan, Malik Fitts

Pulse of the Heat

Needless to say, Jimmy Butler has been carrying Miami since his arrival from Philadelphia, when the 76ers apparently chose Tobias Harris over him — and since then, his team has had a lot more success in the postseason in the Eastern Conference than Harris and company have.

Averaging 28.7 points per game in the playoffs on 52.5 per cent shooting, it's safe to say Butler is the heart of the Heat, controlling the offence and finding the rim when needed. Not only does he have complete control, averaging just 1.7 turnovers, but also isn't afraid to be physical at the net.

Butler had a 40-point night in Game 4 against the 76ers, and despite the loss, shot 65 per cent on 13-of-20 shooting and will be a threat to the Celtics defence — especially since, if they do go the route of trying to put two men on Butler, Miami has an array of starters who can also score with ease.

Pulse of the Celtics

Despite being home to one of the best defences in the league, if not the best, the true pulse of the Celtics is their depth. Players on the bench are able to play like the starting five, as Grant Williams showed when he dropped 27 points as a starter in Game 7 to beat Milwaukee.

Even Al Horford, at age 35, put up back-to-back 20-plus point games in Game 3 and 4 against Milwaukee, putting up 30 points and eight rebounds in Game 4 after posting three consecutive double-doubles in the first three games of the series.

There will be questions around an injury that dictates whether Marcus Smart will be a non-factor in the series, but with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown you still have the likes of Derrick White, Payton Pritchard and Daniel Theis, who have all put up double-digit performances offensively while filling in the gaps on defence that make Boston such a threat to play against.

What's at stake for Miami

Miami has a real chance to show that they are more than just Butler in this series as they have multiple players who can play on both sides of the ball and will present a different challenge to the Celtics than Milwaukee did.

Adebayo is the obvious first option, averaging 23.5 points and 10.5 rebounds through the first two games of the 76ers series with Joel Embiid out. While his numbers dropped with Embiid back, the Celtics do not have an Embiid-calibre player in the paint to be able to stop Adebayo and will have to find ways to shut him out.

The Heat's starting perimeter rotation can also be lethal, and if they get Lowry back midway through the series like they hope to, they are adding another player with elite court-vision who is not only a scoring threat, but will draw in defenders and pass the ball to an open shot for easy baskets as the Celtics rely on a lot of switch defending.

What's at stake for Boston

The Celtics can get revenge for their 2020 season with a win over the Heat, with many familiar faces in Butler, Adebayo and Herro awaiting the boys in green. Since that series, Miami has only levelled up by adding players like Strus, Lowry and Oladipo, too.

Boston has constantly fallen into the pattern of "almost" — on the outside, they look like a team that could go up against the best, but something was always missing. They desperately needed a centre, and got their wishes and more with Rob Williams. They needed defence, and led by Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, the whole team was able to play hard on Milwaukee in a blowout Game 7 win.

Now, the Celtics face another incredibly deep team, with star power at all five positions as well as a deep bench rotation bringing the heat — no pun intended — for 48 minutes every night that will make Boston's defence work to their maximum.

Key stat for Miami

Max Strus leads the league in defensive rating, net rating and is top 10 in the league in offensive rating for the Heat, making him one of their more dangerous guards in the playoffs — which is a huge nod for a guy who went undrafted and played in the G League.

He doesn't get the same traction that Butler, Lowry or Herro do on the Heat, but he came alive in Game 5 and 6 for Miami, dropping back-to-back double-doubles with 19 points and 10 rebounds in Game 5 and did one better with 20 points and 11 rebounds in Game 6's series-clinching win.

The stat is obviously partially skewed due to Strus' playing time compared to others on Miami, but if the last two games have shown anything, it's that he is ready to roll with the big dogs when it comes to Eastern Conference basketball.

Key stat for Boston

The Celtics are killers from the three-point line, and scored 53 more shots from beyond the arc than Milwaukee did through their seven games. Not only was the differential the biggest in a playoff series in NBA history, but the 110 three-pointers that the Celtics scored in total tied for third-most in any playoff series.

Tatum shot 55.6 per cent from three in Game 7 against Milwaukee and 46.7 per cent in Game 6, while Brown shot over 40 per cent from three for the final four games of the series, and even shot 60 per cent for 18 point on 6-of-10 shooting from the arc in Game 2.

Miami Heat's Jimmy Butler, left, and Duncan Robinson (55) defend as Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) handles the ball during the first half of an NBA conference final playoff basketball game, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Match-up to watch

Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum are the obvious answers, and their star power has been a treat to watch over the playoffs. As scoring machines capable of tipping in one-third of their team's points each and every night, both of them have been key to the success of their respective clubs during their path through the playoffs.

Add to that the level of defence both can play — on teams that are already defensively sound — and the precision passing both bring to the court, and you have two stars who are incredibly well rounded. It's safe to bet that both will be difference makers for their respective teams in the Eastern Conference Finals — which can be detrimental if one has an off night.

One more match-up to watch will be Rob Williams versus. Bam Adebayo, as the last time the two teams faced off it was a combination of Theis and Grant Williams who took on the responsibility of Adebayo. Williams is a much better rim protector and will have a better chance at locking Adebayo down.

Heat win if...

The Heat need to shut down Boston from the three-point line. The Celtics are not a team who you can leave open at the arc in hopes their shots won't fall because they don't want to go up against Adebayo in the paint.

Even shutting down just Tatum and Brown isn't enough as Smart, Pritchard and Williams can all be money from three and aren't afraid to take shots from the arc either. Giving up an extra point on a shot when hard defence can at least try to force the Celtics to drive the rim and get physical is not an option for Miami if they want to win.

Celtics win if...

They can shut down Jimmy Butler, plain and simple. They Celtics struggled to shut down Giannis Antetokounmpo, as any team would, but the series was pushed to Game 7 simply because of multiple, unstoppable 40-plus point performances from the Greek Freak throughout the series.

The good news for Boston is that Butler does not have the size to be able to attack the rim as well or go for second chance points, but he sure as hell doesn't lack the physicality or drive and will be aiming to do the same thing regardless. Butler is another player who is rarely a non-factor, having scored less than 20 points just once in the playoffs on a night where he still managed to tip in 15.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler looks on in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

One bold prediction for Miami

Oladipo will make a difference in the series as the Heat need a defensively sound player to be able to handle the Celtics' perimeter, and Dipo is the man to do it. His injuries have slowed his minutes, but his 23-point performance against the Atlanta Hawks in Round 1 showed that he's still got the It Factor, and the Heat will be relying on him to help them close out and win the series since Robinson and Herro alone simply can't.

One bold prediction for Boston

Pritchard will be utilized more from the three-point line to help the Celtics continue to beat opponents from beyond the arc. He led the team in three-point shooting percentage with 41.2 per cent during the regular season, and the Heat have lacked three-point defence on their opponents all season. Eyes will be on Tatum and Brown, but Pritchard will be the silent assassin beyond the arc to widen the gap and put the Celtics ahead.

Series winner

This will be another series that gets pushed to the brink, but after the performance Boston put on in Game 7, there's no doubt that they can do it again, plus having a healthy Williams and Smart boosts their chances against a Heat team who is lacking depth. The Celtics are positioned to take this one, though it won't be as easy as their first-round sweep was.

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