Do you remember the last time the Heat and the Celtics met in the Eastern Conference Finals? It was 2020, when we were all stuck indoors and NBA players were in the bubble at Disney World. Jayson Tatum was edge-blocked by Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic had the streak of his life, Jimmy Butler was selling coffee and the Heat won in six. Two years later, we’re back, with the Heat and Celtics set to kick off Tuesday, 230 miles south of Disney in Miami. So many things have changed.
Only four Miami players who earned minutes in that bubble game remain on the team: Adebayo, Butler, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, who started every game in this series but are now earning DNP-CDs. The Celtics retain six players who appeared then: Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Grant Williams and Daniel Theis. The young guys are all much more seasoned now. Brad Stevens is no longer the coach. It is now Ime Udoka, and their scheme has completely changed.
Two years ago, Herro dropped 37 points off the bench in Game 4 attacking Kemba Walker and Brad Wanamaker while Boston played drop coverage with Theis or Williams sagging in the paint. Herro was able to save for the jumpers again and again with a little guy trying to challenge his shot.
But this option no longer exists. Not only did Smart become Defensive Player of the Year, but also, and more importantly, the Celtics no longer have any weak links. Derrick White is one of the best defensive guards in the league. Payton Pritchard is small but fiery. And they play a different style. This season, the Celtics turned on the screens more than any other team, which was a calling card of the league’s best defense that carried them deep into the playoffs. When Tatum and Al Horford have defended a pick-and-roll this postseason, they allow a microscopic 0.25 points per play. That’s an outlier number that ranks first among 95 combinations that have defended at least 25 pick-and-roll during the playoffs, according to Second Spectrum. If we include the last five playoffs, he would still rank first. Herro won’t face a smaller guard on the perimeter or a big one in the paint. It will probably be a change, at least to start the series. If Herro and other Miami ball handlers are able to get into the paint for open shots or force the defense to crumble, resulting in kickouts for open 3s, then Boston needs to adapt.
We just watched the Sixers blitz Herro all series, using pressure to force him into sloppy turnovers. It was a poison picking problem, though. Butler ended up roasting Philadelphia, sometimes due to pressure on Herro sliding screens to roll inside, cutting, or simply ending up with an easier matchup against a scrambled defense.
Throughout the playoffs, Butler has been integral to Miami’s success, averaging 28.7 points and 5.4 assists. The Heat outscored teams by 118 points in the 374 minutes he was on the floor and was outscored by 12 points in his 154 minutes on the bench. Only Max Strus has a bigger point differential for the Heat this postseason, which is a testament to his two-way play and hustle on defense. Plus, he’s such a shooting threat that he took Robinson’s starting spot.
But we’ve seen how defenses can take away what worked for the Heat in the regular season. Strus appeared on 82% of the screens he installed during the season, scoring 0.96 points by chance. That works out to 62% and 0.62 points per chance during the playoffs, according to Second Spectrum. With teams switching more screens and transfers, the chances of getting easy points while wandering behind the 3-point line just aren’t as frequent.
The Heat faced a below-average Hawks team in the first round and the Sixers have a worse defense than the Celtics, who have big quicks in both Williams, a position master like Horford and a group of wing defenders in the hard-nosed and long-armed. Meanwhile, the Celtics had to go through Kevin Durant and the Nets in the first round and Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champions in the second.
Against the Nets, Celtics defenders stuck like glue to Durant, denying him the ball when he tried to open up while assisting non-shooters like Bruce Brown and Andre Drummond. Durant shot less than 40 percent from the field for the first time in a playoff series since 2016. Brooklyn was swept. In the next round, Boston was okay with leaving Brook Lopez and other teammates open on the outside as long as it meant keeping Giannis from getting into the paint easily. Giannis averaged 33.9 points, but they had 45.5% shooting, his worst field goal percentage since the Raptors built a wall against him in 2018-19 en route to a championship.
Butler, Herro and Kyle Lowry (if he can return) will face a new challenge. Expect PJ Tucker and Gabe Vincent to receive the same lack of attention as the Bucks actors. The Celtics will instead prioritize keeping Butler out of his spots, and when he, Herro, or another ball handler gets possession, they’ll be happy to help deter inside drives.
Maybe the Heat will dust Robinson off to add ground shots, but that would present the same problem we saw the Celtics exploit in the last round against the Bucks when they attacked Grayson Allen. Robinson is an even bigger handicap on defense and Boston would chase him down endlessly, even though Miami is much better at countering with blitzes than Milwaukee.
Still, the Heat have the best defense the Celtics have faced so far in the playoffs. They’re also a switch-heavy team, but they blitz with more regularity. They will provide a lot more challenges than the Bucks or the Nets. None of these teams have as much nuisance on the ball as the Heat, who have Butler, Victor Oladipo and PJ Tucker, who have stalked Tatum and Brown throughout their careers.
If Erik Spoelstra wants to, he can rely on defensive-minded lineups that always secure the shot. Consider something like Adebayo, Tucker, Butler, Strus, and Herro. There’s a mix of shot creation with the versatility of defense to play different styles. Or Oladipo could replace Herro. Vincent too. What has made Miami great all season long is their adaptability. The Heat can play different groups and different styles, and still win.
Much like the Celtics, they fire up a ton of screens to mess up offenses and prevent the kind of driving and kicking opportunities Boston prefers to find. By switching, they force the isos. The Heat allowed just 0.9 points per isolation executed by the opponent during the playoffs, ranking behind only the Celtics, per Second Spectrum. Boston was able to exploit Milwaukee’s drop covers, but Miami will change a ton and force the Celtics into isos, which they’ve scored on at an average pace throughout the season and playoffs.
To take something away, defenses usually have to give up something as well. We just saw the Celtics throw a 3-parry against the Bucks, who allowed the league’s second-highest total on the season. The leader? That would be the Heat, who allowed 41.9 percent of 3 shots, per Cleaning the Glass. Live by the 3, die by the 3 might be the Celtics mantra again this round, but perhaps to an even greater extreme. Tatum, Brown, Smart and others won’t have as many juicy matches to choose from across all series. But their teammates will still get open shots.
Whichever team can take better advantage of the switches could come out on top. My prediction is Celtics in six.