Monday, June 27, 2022

Heat vs. Celtics playoff preview: In ‘throwback series,’ Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum take on superb defenses

After a sloppy, sped-up showing to start their second-round series, Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka said that their opponent’s physicality “caught us off guard.” Having won a seven-game slugfest against Milwaukee Bucks a couple of weeks later, Udoka said Monday that they are “very conscious” of what happened at the outset. 

“Every series is different,” Udoka said. “That initial moment of change, I don’t think we handled it the best against Milwaukee and we want to do obviously a better job coming into Game 1 here tomorrow.”

To Udoka, the poor performance that followed their sweep of the Brooklyn Nets “bodes well for us” ahead of the Eastern Conference finals, which begin Tuesday. They know that there are “a lot of differences” between the Bucks and their next opponent, the Miami Heat

Tough defense, however, is not one of them. Boston has disposed of Jrue Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, but now it must contend with Jimmy Butler, P.J. Tucker and Bam Adebayo

“Pat [Riley] probably is really going to enjoy this,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said Monday. “This is like a throwback series. I mean, if both teams are really on top of their games, this shouldn’t be a series where either team is scoring 130 points. Both of us, both teams hang their hats on rock-solid team defense and making multiple efforts and being disciplined to schemes.”

The Heat earned the No. 1 seed despite a string of injuries to their top players. The Celtics started 18-21 but ended up the second seed, the kind of turnaround that is only possible if you steamroll everybody after your slow start. Spoelstra expects that the games will be decided “in the margins,” and while he didn’t want to compare it to the 2020 conference finals, which featured these same two teams, that’s certainly what happened then — Boston scored one more point in the series, but Miami won in six games. 

(1) Miami Heat vs. (2) Boston Celtics

All times Eastern

  • Game 1 (at MIA): Tuesday, May 17, 8:30 p.m. | TV: ESPN
  • Game 2 (at MIA): Thursday, May 19, 8:30 p.m. | TV: ESPN
  • Game 3 (at BOS): Saturday, May 21, 8:30 p.m. | TV: ABC
  • Game 4 (at BOS): Monday, May 23, 8:30 p.m. | TV: ABC
  • Game 5* (at MIA): Wednesday, May 25, 8:30 p.m. | TV: ESPN
  • Game 6* (at BOS): Friday, May 27, 8:30 p.m. | TV: ESPN
  • Game 7* (at MIA): Sunday, May 29, 8:30 p.m. | TV: ESPN

*If necessary

1. How the heck can Miami score against this defense?  

Boston had the best defense in the NBA in the regular season, and Miami’s offense was only slightly above average in the halfcourt. In the 2020 bubble, Adebayo bullied Daniel Theis on the way to the Finals. Judging by the way Al Horford and Grant Williams held up against Antetokounmpo in the second round, Adebayo is going to find it more challenging to score one-on-one this time. And Butler isn’t going to see get the clean midrange looks that he got against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Kyle Lowry will miss the opener with a hamstring injury, and in the two games he played against Philadelphia, he was not his normal self. If he remains unavailable or limited, the Heat will miss his pull-up 3s, his hit-ahead passes and his screening. Without him, Butler will have to continue to carry a massive playmaking load. 

Other variables: Will the Celtics stick with the starting lineup that shut down the Bucks, or will they return to Robert Williams III? Grant is one of the league’s sturdiest one-on-one defenders, but Robert is one of its most disruptive help defenders.

Miami is looking at a defense much like its own, but with fewer defensive liabilities. Butler is strong and skilled enough to go right at guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but can he score against them efficiently? How aggressive will Adebayo be when one of the Jays switches onto him? If Boston is without Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, who is questionable for Game 1 with a mid-foot sprain, then it has the luxury of replacing him with Derrick White. The Heat will go matchup-hunting when Payton Pritchard checks in, but can they turn White, an excellent defender, into a mismatch problem, too? Against smallball lineups, expect them to crash the glass like crazy. 

There are some philosophical questions at play. Miami tilted its offense toward isolations and post-ups this season. It can still do the pretty stuff, including all the dribble-handoffs with Adebayo and Max Strus or Duncan Robinson, but it gave Robinson a few DNP-CDs in the Sixers series. Against a defense like this, one might argue that it is essential to diversify the attack, use any type of misdirection you can and scrounge up buckets off of ball movement. The counter-argument, though, is that if the Celtics shut that stuff down, you’re forced into isolation situations against the clock, so you might as well simplify things from the start.

Boston switches because it is confident in its one-on-one defense. It is not content, however, to let every star scorer operate on an island — just ask Kevin Durant. It could decide to blitz Tyler Herro, like Philadelphia did. It could load up on Butler, Durant-style, and cheat off Tucker and Victor Oladipo to an extreme degree. Alternatively, it could scale down the help and turn Butler into a scorer, rather than letting the team find its flow.

If this series is as grimy as everyone expects it to be, then the Heat, who have been terribly turnover-prone all season, will need to take care of the ball. Their offense relies on getting to the free throw line frequently and forcing tons of turnovers. If they can do those things, they might be able to overcome a shortage of clean looks in the halfcourt. 

2. How the heck can Boston score against this defense?  

The Celtics are going to target Herro, just like everybody else does. But can Tatum make Gabe Vincent (or a less than fully healthy Lowry) look as overmatched as George Hill was? How will Strus hold up? Can Boston play reserve big Dewayne Dedmon off the court? These are the small, nerdy questions that could end up mattering a great deal. 

More broadly, though, the question is whether or not the Celtics can maintain their good offensive habits against a team designed to bring out their worst ones. Boston cannot afford to turn the ball over, and it cannot afford to be lulled into stagnant isolation play. It will no longer be able to find pull-up jumpers against drop coverage, but a lot of the principles from the Milwaukee series remain: Get into the paint, play the second side, find kick-out 3s, force Miami make multiple efforts.

The Heat play a lot of zone defense, and, at times this season, the Celtics have looked awful against it. Boston’s zone offense improved throughout the year, though, and it has enough shooting that it shouldn’t be a huge issue — in theory. In that 2020 series, the Celtics struggled against the zone, then figured it out, then saw it again later in the series and struggled again. Regardless of scheme, they need to stay poised, avoid settling for contested 3s and run their sets with purpose. In this sense, the Bucks series was the perfect primer — their formula for good offense never really changed, but their level of execution varied wildly for the first six games.

A few more questions worth asking on this front:

  • Will Miami respect Horford and Grant Williams’ shooting more than Milwaukee did?
  • Can Boston exploit the Heat’s propensity to foul? 
  • Whether he does it as a lob-catcher, an offensive rebounder or a passer, can Robert Williams III give the offense some juice?
  • This will sound familiar: Can the Celtics force live-ball turnovers and find easy baskets in transition? 

3. The 3-point battle

The Heat give up even more 3s than the Bucks do, but their opponents shot a horrible percentage, particularly in the corners. Boston shot 39.9 percent from the corners in the regular season, per Cleaning The Glass, and that number is even higher in the playoffs. After his Game 7 eruption, you are probably picturing Grant Williams standing there right now. 

It is not, however, as if Miami does not understand the value of the corner 3 — it attempts more of them than anybody else. The Heat led the league in 3-point percentage, but Boston’s opponents shot just about as poorly as theirs, on fewer attempts. You know what that means: Something has to give!

In this series, the 3-point battle is likely to be about quality, not quantity. Miami will try to free up Robinson (if he’s in the rotation) and Strus. Boston will run flare screens for Tatum and Brown. It’s nice when Tatum or Herro bails out a possession with a sidestep 3 late in the shot clock, but both teams will be looking for catch-and-shoot opportunities after getting the defense in rotation.

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