Game 1 of the Heat-Celtics ECF series begins tonight at 8:30 PM ET.
After a number of thrilling games in the Eastern Conference Semis in which the Celtics grinded out four wins against Giannis "4 Steps" and the Bucks, and Miami took out the Jekyll and Hyde 76ers in six, we're finally onto the Conference Finals. The top two defensive teams will be pitted against each other. I am juiced about it.
Two Defensive Juggernauts
Miami has been the best team in the East all season, despite a bunch of injuries. Major credit goes to Spo for adjusting schemes and getting creative. The Celtics, on the other hand, were unwatchable until January and then they 180-ed into a defensive monster that flustered Durant in Round 1 and made it hard for Giannis in Round 2...yeah, 200 points, 100 boards, and 50 assists is absurd but it was hard for him to get there.
Let's highlight a couple things...
The big question is, will the Cetlics make Jimmy Butler's life a living hell like they've done for other stars? He has been sensational in the playoffs, averaging over 28 PPG, 7.5 RPG, and 5.4 APG; all on a ridiculous effective shooting percentage of 61.8. He's had a lot of easy buckets in the paint, a region of the court the Celtics do a particularly good job of covering, especially with the Time Lord back in action.
Here's the small snag for Boston, though. Butler has upped his 3-ball from the regular season. If he isn't having his way in the paint, he may be finding some love from deep and Udoka will need to plan against that. He's also been a thief, averaging over two SPG. You know he's gonna be looking like that classic meme when Grant Williams puts the ball on the floor.
Both teams are built upon strong foundational players, are very deep, and can rely on bench guys for quality minutes. The C's have several guys they can throw at you on the defensive end. With Smart, Brown, Tatum, White, G. Williams, and Horford, the C's can switch on almost everything, which makes it tough to penetrate and run offenses. Robert Williams also does a great job of protecting the rim (when healthy). The Celtics like to put their opponent in isolation since they have elite on-ball defenders - will Jimmy be able to break his defender down? If not, will Bam have a larger scoring output when they run pick-and-roll?
If Butler is swallowed up, Miami can spread the floor well and hit with Herro, Strus, and Oladipo, but they need to elevate their level of play for the team to advance. At times, Butler must feel like a starting pitcher without any run support.
For Miami, their elite perimeter defense is going to hassle the Celtics, who love to jack up 3's. Miami held opponents to under 34 percent from deep, a much different defense than the Celtics were seeing in the previous round. Miami closes out quickly, so reliance on the 3-ball can lead to problems. I think we will see PJ Tucker (if he stays healthy - calf) as a primary defender against Tatum and Brown at different points throughout the series. The effective scheme mixed with their depth is something to keep an eye on. Even if the Heat stop Tatum and Brown, the Celtics have guys capable of going off for big games. Just look at Grant Williams in Game 7 against the Bucks or Marcus Smart in Game 6.
Consistency and Attack-Mode
Tatum and Brown are the two best players on the Celtics, (although, I'll make the argument that Horford was the best player in the series against the Bucks. "MVP! MVP! MVP!") but both forwards had some downfalls. Tatum was wildly inconsistent and Brown seemed to vanish at times. Tatum had a number of horrific shooting nights against the Bucks after an amazing series on both sides of the ball against Brooklyn. That inconsistency can be problematic against a tough D. Brown, while he shot a solid percentage, was not looking for his shot at times and not attacking the hoop, something I think he is excellent at and can wear down a defense with. It felt like he would then force unnecessary shots. For the C's to make it to the Finals they need their two best players to be....their two best players.
Miami has been afflicted by the injury bug and I think this will play a major role in determining the series. As a basketball fan I hate to see this. Floor General Kyle Lowry has been hampered with a nagging hamstring issue. Unfortunately, those never seem to go away. He's been their fourth best scorer and lead assist guy while running a top-notch offense during the regular season. Lowry has barely played in the postseason and hasn't been the same since he hurt it a month ago.
Opposite him is Marcus Smart, who has been banged to shit and listed as questionable. He's a gamer; he's going to fight. But he might not be quite as productive as we're accustomed to seeing.
Miami also has a number of guys listed as questionable with Tucker, Strus, Martin, and Vincent on the list. PJ, Strus, and Vincent have stepped up big time with Lowry out and will need to remain healthy.
Big man Rob Williams has had a lot of knee issues in his short career. He missed most of the Bucks series with inflammation and it's concerning for Celtics fans if he can't stay healthy against the Heat. He is vital to protecting the paint along with Horf. If he misses time with another flare-up the Heat will attack Theis. Theis does a decent job at the rim, but the poor guy gets no love from the refs (maybe I'm just a homer).
The Celtics took two of the three games against Miami in the regular season, with the Heat winning the last matchup. They proved to be a tough opponent for the Heat with a good margin of victory, and I see that continuing in this series unless Spo was hiding a few tricks up his sleeve. There are a lot of variables at play and it's going to be a defensive battle, with final scores looking like an 90's NBA game. For both respective squads, Butler needs more offensive support from his teammates, and Brown and Tatum need to show up for the C's. If Tatum and Brown play like they're capable of and the Celts continue to glove their opponents on D, I see them taking this series in 6. As a fan, I want 7.
Ultimately, it's going to be a "bar fight."