The third-seeded Boston Celtics and fifth-seeded Miami Heat respectively took out the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the NBA playoffs, marking the first time since 1969 neither of the top two seeds have reached the Eastern Conference finals. Boston is playing in its third conference finals in four seasons, and Miami has reached the penultimate round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
How they got here
The Celtics looked left for dead when Kyrie Irving and Al Horford departed in free agency, but Kemba Walker’s arrival reinvigorated a culture that had soured last season after consecutive conference finals appearances. The All-Star point guard’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for joining a playoff-caliber roster was a refreshing turn, and his selfless encouragement helped Boston’s young guns reemerge as rising stars.
Jayson Tatum bordered on superstar following his first All-Star selection, and Jaylen Brown was not far behind him after his All-Star snub. Beyond them are Gordon Hayward, another lethal wing and arguably the league’s best fourth option when healthy, and Marcus Smart, an All-Defensive guard coming into his own as a scorer. That plethora of pliable playmakers makes the Celtics a nightmarish matchup on both ends.
Boston ranked fourth in both offensive and defensive efficiency during the regular season, and appeared every bit as good in their eight seeding games. They swept the reeling Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, setting the stage for a second-round meeting with Toronto, a defending champion with the heart to show for it. Their semifinals was a seven-game defensive battle, despite the Celtics controlling six of them, and Tatum established himself as the best player in the series with a Game 7 performance beyond his 22 years.
Jimmy Butler left the Sixers for Miami in last year’s free agency, joining an established Heat culture that suited his unforgiving work ethic. They exceeded expectations all season, thanks to Bam Adebayo’s ascent into stardom, the rejuvenation of Goran Dragic as an elite pick-and-roll playmaker and the emergence of a trio of unlikely rotational mainstays. Together they formed the core of a team convinced it could contend.
Late lottery pick Tyler Herro and G League find Kendrick Nunn were fringe Rookie of the Year candidates, and Duncan Robinson improved from someone who rarely saw the floor last season to one of the game’s most prolific three-point shooters. A trade deadline deal adding Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala to that mix of wings gave Heat coach Erik Spoelstra lineup flexibility between offense- and defense-first options.
The Heat finish the regular season as the East’s best three-point shooting team, converting 37.9 percent of their 35.4 attempts per game, enough to form a top-10 offense with two stars who rarely shoot from deep. The defense wasn’t far behind, and it only improved in Orlando, where Butler dialed up the intensity and Spoelstra leaned into lineups with Adebayo at center. Miami swept the undermanned Indiana Pacers in the first round, and then thoroughly strangled the top-seeded Bucks in a gentleman’s sweep, losing their lone playoff game to a desperate Milwaukee team that had just lost Giannis Antetokounmpo to an ankle injury.
Head to head
Boston won both meetings between the two teams before the league suspended its season from mid-March to late July. The Celtics controlled both games. Walker and Brown combined for 59 points in their early December meeting, spoiling a 37-point effort from Butler. Brown paired with Hayward for 54 points in late January, fending off a more balanced effort from Miami despite Tatum’s absence with a groin injury. The Heat shot a combined 40.4 percent from the field (30.7 percent from three-point range) in the two games.
Their lone meeting during the seeding games told a different story. Even with Butler resting a sore foot, the Heat rode Adebayo’s punishing post play, Dragic’s surgical skill and Robinson’s hot hand to victory. It was their only matchup with Crowder and Iguodala in the fold, and they helped turn the tide defensively against the Celtics, who could not manufacture efficient offense despite a full complement of players available.
Likely starting lineups
Since Hayward suffered an ankle injury at the end of Game 1 against the Sixers, the Celtics have swapped Smart in a starting lineup that features Walker, Tatum, Brown and Daniel Theis. That lineup outscored opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions in the regular season and is just shy of that in the playoffs.
It will be interesting to see what Boston does when Hayward returns. Monday marks the fulfillment of an optimistic four-week recovery timetable, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he expects Hayward to rejoin them “at some point” in the conference finals. He will presumably be somewhat restricted in terms of minutes and peak performance, so his status as a starter is presumptuous. With Hayward starting in place of Smart during the regular season, Boston outscored opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions.
The Heat started Meyers Leonard or Kelly Olynyk at center for much of the regular season, providing a floor-spacing big man alongside Adebayo at the four. Upon arriving in the bubble, they committed full-time to starting Adebayo at the five, rotating various wing shooters and ball-handlers around him and Butler.
Spoelstra ultimately settled on pairing Dragic, Crowder and Robinson with Butler and Adebayo as his starting lineup in the playoffs. That quintet finished a plus-33 in just 51 minutes during the regular season and is outscoring opponents by a far more modest 3.4 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. It is the injection of Herro into Robinson’s spot that has swung games for Miami, but it is hard to imagine Spoelstra straying from a starting lineup that has emerged from the first two rounds without much resistance.
Matchups to watch
Tatum vs. Butler
The Eastern Conference finals could very well come down to which All-Star wing is the best in this series. Butler and Tatum only faced off once during the regular season, each holding the other in check over a handful of minutes directly opposite each other. But the burden of defending both will have to be shared, because their offensive roles require considerable energy. Just as the Heat will send Crowder, Adebayo and Iguodala Tatum’s way, the Celtics will counter Butler with Brown, Smart and Hayward upon his return.
It is that array of wing defenders that has both teams in position to emerge from the East. How Butler and Tatum respond to that resistance will go a long way in determining who represents the conference. Tatum has a broader offensive repertoire, most notably from distance, where he has shot 41.9 percent on 8.4 attempts per game in the playoffs. But Butler has the ability to get opponents in foul trouble, which would doubly punish the Celtics in the form of a dozen free throws and fewer minutes for their best players.
Herro and Robinson vs. Boston’s length and athleticism
Herro’s athleticism and Robinson’s length make them better defensively than the reputations that preceded them, but the Celtics have a number of options who can combine both length and athleticism to punish the Heat’s less experienced wings on both ends. Boston’s playmakers will hunt them on switches, and their ability to hold up against that onslaught will dictate how often Spoelstra can play his best offensive lineups.
Offensively, Herro and Robinson will expend a ton of energy trying to find some space with Smart and Brown hounding them. It will be a real test for Miami’s first- and second-year shooters against defenders with plenty of big-game experience. Withstanding that pressure is essential for Miami’s top prospects.
Erik Spoelstra vs. Brad Stevens
This series pits two of the game’s most cerebral coaches opposite each other. Celtics coach Brad Stevens just escaped a mind-meld of a series with Toronto’s Nick Nurse, who threw everything including the kitchen sink at Boston defensively, from zones to outright posing as a spot-up shooter in the corner of the floor.
Miami and Boston have all but trimmed their rotations down to seven players. Spoelstra sprinkles in a bit of Nunn and Olynyk, but he will mostly count on Herro and Iguodala off the bench. Hayward’s return will expand Stevens’ options beyond mixing and matching Brad Wanamaker, Semi Ojeleye and the Williamses.
Both coaches excel at leveraging patient offenses into high-percentage scoring chances and alternating defensive looks to make those same opportunities difficult to decipher on the other end. Whoever can confound the other more often will give his team an edge in a series as evenly matched as the two coaches.
Walker vs. Dragic
Walker cannot stop Dragic, and Dragic cannot stop Walker. And neither can hide from the other.
The Celtics might be able to get away with hiding Walker on Crowder, if Crowder stays put as a spot-up shooter, but both offenses will look to exploit the opposing point guard. Walker struggled against Toronto’s hard-nosed guards, scoring 15 or fewer points in three of his last four games, but getting to work against Miami’s weaker on-ball defenders could unlock his potent scoring on the biggest stage of his career.
Dragic will compete defensively, but he has fewer places to hide, especially once Hayward returns. He will be isolated, posted up and attacked relentlessly by Boston’s playmakers, but he is fully capable of hitting back on offense. He scored 43 points on 26 shots in two regular-season games against the Celtics, and his usage should only increase in the playoffs. How often Boston expends its best defenders trying to keep Dragic from penetrating should also determine whether Miami can free up its shooters for further damage.
Bam vs. Celtics centers by committee
The steady of improvement of Theis as a pick-setter, rim-runner and switchable defender earned him Boston’s starting center spot, but Adebayo is superior at all of those skills. Theis can get into foul trouble, especially against a battering ram like Adebayo, and that would force even greater matchup problems.
Enes Kanter was Boston’s first center off the bench for much of the season, but he may be unplayable against Adebayo and his floor-spacing backups, just as he was against Toronto. That thrusts second-year center Robert “Timelord” Williams and rookie small-ball five Grant “The General” Williams into the biggest action of their careers. Timelord is an otherworldly athlete full of untapped potential, but he runs into trouble freelancing, and while Williams is more sound defensively, he has limitations athletically on both ends.
How the Celtics can win
Walker gets cooking, Tatum is the best player in the series, Brown and Smart outwork their counterparts on the wing, Hayward returns to tip the balance of skill in their favor, and a Boston defense that held Toronto to a single point per possession does the same against a team with fewer options to create halfcourt offense.
How the Heat can win
Herro and Robinson catch fire, Butler is the best player in the series, Dragic puts Walker through a rinse cycle, Adebayo wreaks havoc inside of 15 feet, Spoelstra pulls some defensive wrinkles out of his short-sleeve shirts, and Miami’s confidence matches its hustle in a bar-fight of an Eastern Conference finals.
Celtics in seven.
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