How the Miami Heat would’ve defeated the Boston Celtics in the first round

Mar 26, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) goes to the basket past Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) during the second half of the Boston Celtics 112-108 win over the Miami Heat at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 26, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) goes to the basket past Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) during the second half of the Boston Celtics 112-108 win over the Miami Heat at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports /

Could the Miami Heat have done what the Chicago Bulls couldn’t, and beat the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs?

The Miami Heat really thought they could make some noise in the playoffs. Goran Dragic said as much shortly following their final game against the Washington Wizards.

Initially, this sounded like a product of the sometimes irrational confidence one has come to expect from this scrappy Heat squad, never viewing themselves as the underdog. But when the Chicago Bulls went into Boston and took the first two games from the top seeded Celtics, it begged the question of just how much damage the Heat could’ve done in that situation.

While the series went sideways for the Bulls after losing Rajon Rondo for the final four games due to injury, the first two wins in Boston exposed some major flaws in the Celtics that the Heat could have capitalized on had they matched up as the eight seed.

The most glaring of those being Boston’s poor rebounding, with Chicago pounding the Celtics on the glass 53-26 in game one including 20 offensive rebounds that led to 23 second chance points.

Fred Hoiberg unleashed a steady dose of Robin Lopez (who ended up with a double-double), Bobby Portis, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo to dominate the Celtics’ frontline that couldn’t withstand the pressure of the Rondo-led offense on the perimeter or at the rim.

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It’s important to note here that the Bulls and Heat are cut from very similar stylistic cloths. In the last 15 games of the season, the Heat had the fifth best offensive rebounding rate and the Bulls were one of the best rebounding teams in the league all season (fourth best rebounding rate in the NBA). The centerpiece of the Heat’s rebounding is, of course, Hassan Whiteside.

Against the Celtics, Whiteside would’ve been the head of the snake for the Heat, pressuring Al Horford, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk inside. During their last visit to Boston, a 112-108 loss, the team tallied 16 offensive rebounds for 17 second chance points and 58 total points in the paint. Overwhelming the Celtics at the rim would be at the top of the list to bringing down the Eastern Conference’s top seed.

Along with Whiteside, another part of the Heat’s offensive attack on the Celtics would be in the various lineups they could put out on the floor to create mismatches. The Heat’s ability to go small and surround Goran Dragic with shooters gave the Celtics problems, as they were able to build their biggest lead of the game (15) behind a lineup that featured Dragic, Wayne Ellington, Luke Babbitt, Tyler Johnson and Willie Reed.

Spoelstra unleashed the rarely-seen Dragic/Babbitt pick and roll leading to wide open 3-pointer as Jaylen Brown has to stay at home on Ellington and Horford has to respect the penetration of Dragic.

Putting the Celtics big men in situations like this gets their defensive rotations off-balance allowing for open shots particularly from 3.

Although the Heat shot 24 percent from 3 in this game, returning to full strength with a healthy Dion Waiters and more contributions from Wayne Ellington, Tyler Johnson and James Johnson, that percentage would surely rise as the Heat were the fifth-best 3-point shooting team after the all-star break at 38 percent.

This all leads to the importance of Dragic, especially in a playoff setting. When the game shifts to a primarily half-court setting as it does in the playoffs, the point guard becomes vital to offensive success. Rondo flirted with a triple-double in Game 1 and a near double-double in game two on the way to the Bulls’ blowout victory.

Rondo was simply masterful, calling back to his days as a Celtic. He dissected Boston’s defense by doing much of what the Heat would’ve been able to do–break down the defense by attacking weak defenders like Isaiah Thomas and exposing Boston’s need to over help on Thomas’ inability to recover.

Robin Lopez was his favorite weapon in executing this. Here, Rondo has no intent on threatening the rim, but Thomas cannot get back quick enough and Horford gets taken all the way to the baseline. Lopez spots up and hits the jumper.

The extra factor the Heat would add to this attack is the threat of Dragic going straight to the rim. Ideally, his roll partner is either James Johnson or, as displayed above, a shooter like Babbitt, Ellington or Tyler Johnson. The Heat’s ability to throw different looks at the Celtics defense over the course of a series would’ve presented major defensive issues.

Speaking of defensive issues, the pint-sized elephant in the room with the heart of a lion is the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas, who is simply scorching anyone who stands in front of him with an average of 28 points per game in the playoffs.

Thomas is a handful any way you look at it–if you blitz him on a pick and roll, he’ll either split it or get around your big man. If you sit back, he’s going to hit the 3. Thomas’ unique ability to get his shot off with minimal space from a defender combined with his unbelievable body control at the rim makes him a nightmare.

How do the Heat deal with all of this?

Looking back to their April meeting, the Heat forced Thomas into six turnovers, just one off of his season high, and did so by using their numerous different, dynamic defenders.

The only hope against a do-it-all scorer like Thomas is to never let him get too comfortable on the offensive end. The Heat threw rangy, quick defenders at him like Rodney McGruder, Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson as well as James Johnson, who got his turn late in the game, to disrupt the flow of his game.

On top of aggressive one on one defense, Whiteside was there to meet Thomas around every pick and roll, at first directly challenging him and using his length to not let the speedy guard out of his grasp.

Out of Thomas’ 18 field goal attempts, 14 were deemed contested attempts by the NBA Stats site. Thomas’ brilliance allowed him to be 8-of-14 on those attempts on his way to a 30-point game (with 20 in the second half) and a Boston win.

But examining what the Heat could’ve done over the course of a series would’ve potentially led to Thomas having trouble getting into a rhythm, as the multi-pronged defensive attack of the Heat’s defense (sixth best in the NBA after the All-Star break) would’ve certainly annoyed the Boston point guard.

And it goes without saying that letting the Celtics’ “others” exceed their offensive average is a fatal blow to your chance of winning the game.

Ultimately, the eight seed knocking off a number one is a long shot but the Bulls proved that the Celtics have major problems when faced with certain scenarios. And the Heat would still have plenty of work to do. In that April game, Miami gave the Celtics 30 points off Heat turnovers and shot a dismal percentage from 3.

Next: Reviewing Waiters' career year in Miami

Over the course of a series, one could see the possibility of the steady, unrelenting Heat making life difficult for the Celtics. With a dominating advantage inside and shooters playing to or above their average at the right time, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see a path to victory.

But unfortunately for the Heat, they never got that chance.