Heat-Celtics ECF preview: Key matchups, questions and prediction

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) controls the ball while Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) defends during the first half at TD Garden.(Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)
Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) controls the ball while Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) defends during the first half at TD Garden.(Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports) /

Before the start of this season, Jimmy Butler let everybody who asked him know. If he got another chance to take one shot to eliminate the Boston Celtics, as he did at the end of last year’s Eastern Conference finals Game 7, he’d take that shot again.

TBD if this series will come down to one shot, but the Miami Heat will face the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals for the third time in four seasons. In 2020, the Heat beat the Celtics in six games, highlighted by Bam Adebayo’s Game 1-saving block. Butler’s go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7 in Miami nearly tipped last season’s series, but the Celtics narrowly avoided a historic collapse and advanced to the NBA Finals.

Now both teams meet again. This time, the Celtics are the No. 1 seed, considered favorites, not only to win the series but also the championship altogether. The Heat are the No. 8 seed, the second ever to advance as far as the conference finals. Make no mistake, these teams are more evenly matched than their records make them out to be.

The central players are the same: Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo vs. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Others like Duncan Robinson, Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Kyle Lowry, Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Robert Williams III (to name a few) have plenty of experience on this stage.

The Heat are playing their best basketball of the season. They shapeshifted from a team built around Butler scoring in space to knock off the Bucks to an ensemble cast that beat the Knicks at their own physical game. To beat the Celtics, the Heat will have to be a bit of both.

The Celtics are the NBA’s deepest team, headlined by a star in Tatum who just scored 51 points in a close-out game against the 76ers and is knocking on the door to be admitted into the innermost circle of the league’s current superstars.

How the Heat defend Tatum is a logical starting point when discussing this matchup. In last year’s conference finals, P.J. Tucker started as the primary defender on Tatum. With Tucker gone, that assignment shifted to Caleb Martin this season, but that was before Martin was moved into a reserve role.

Will Erik Spoelstra switch up his starting lineup, swapping Martin for Kevin Love? That could depend on what Boston does with its starting lineup. Down 3-2 to the Sixers, Celtics coach Joe Mazulla went back to the double-big lineup with Horford and Williams starting alongside Tatum, Brown and Smart. The Celtics won the next two games and won the series. The veteran players reportedly backed the lineup decision and it would make sense for the Celtics to stay with it, as opposed to the smaller lineup with Derrick White in place of Williams that Mazulla preferred for most of the season.

Against a two-big lineup, Love’s size and rebounding would be key. He could pick up Williams while Adebayo defends Horford. Butler has typically started possessions on Brown in this matchup. That would leave one of either Vincent or Strus to defend Tatum. Neither of those seem like great one-on-one options, but my guess is Spoelstra would ask Vincent to pester Tatum and send quick help when Tatum gets into the paint.

(One other scenario: Have Adebayo start on Tatum and slide Strus onto Horford. That leaves the front line pretty vulnerable but there aren’t any catch-all solutions in these alignments.)

The other option could be to go small, have Martin start on Tatum, Butler on Brown, Adebayo on Williams and Vincent on Smart. That would leave Strus to defend Horford, but the Heat were OK with that matchup in last year’s conference finals and even had Strus start possessions on Brook Lopez before moving Love back into the starting lineup in the first round.

For the Celtics, Brown figures to be the primary defender on Butler while Tatum slides onto someone less threatening so he can help and recover. Boston likes to have Horford begin possessions on Adebayo so he can be in position to switch on pick-and-rolls.

All of these matchups will get scrambled. Both teams switch willingly and want to get out in transition. Versatility and execution on defense will be tested. Both coaches will scheme things up to get their best players in easier scoring situations. In the end, whoever between Butler and Tatum is imposing his will more forcefully will give his team a significant edge.

Other key battlegrounds include 3-point shooting, rebounding and turnovers. Both teams are among the best in protecting the ball these playoffs and are relatively even on the boards (Celtics holding a slide advantage on the defensive end, Heat being slightly better getting offensive rebounds).
During the regular season, the Celtics took the second-most 3s in the league and made them at the sixth-best clip. Elite. The Heat were 27th in 3-point shooting percentage and can go through lulls of not being able to get up enough shots. There was a positive regression near the end of the season and in the first round, but the Heat then shot 30% from 3 against the Knicks.

To give themselves a chance against the Celtics, the Heat need to shoot somewhere closer to 35% in this series. That’s on Vincent, Lowry, Love, Martin, Strus and Robinson.

There are two new factors that didn’t exist in last season’s conference finals matchup. Lowry, reinvigorated in a reserve role, and newly-minted Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon. Both will play important roles in this series.

A key pocket of the game will be the beginning of the second quarter. That’s when Butler prefers to get his rest and the offense runs though Lowry and Adebayo. They have developed quite a bit of pick-and-roll chemistry. In the final moments of Miami’s close-out game against the Knicks, Lowry found Adebayo for a clean dunk. The Heat will test Boston’s defense this way. Go under and give Lowry, shooting nearly 36% from 3 in these playoffs, a clean look. Switch it and Lowry can take a big man off the dribble or Adebayo will be matched up with a smaller player in the post. If the Celtics help, both Lowry and Adebayo are generous passers who can find the open teammate.

By the end of the Sixers series, the Celtics were basically only playing seven guys. Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard, who were out of the rotation, should be factors at least early in this series. How quickly will Mazulla shrink his rotation?

Spoelstra, by comparison, has gone with a longer bench in this postseason. Lowry, Martin, Robinson, Cody Zeller and Haywood Highsmith should all see some run early on. Highsmith’s defense on Tatum could be helpful. Will the Celtics target Robinson more effectively than the Knicks did, and can he make enough 3s to warrant minutes?

A few more things I’m monitoring:

  • If Williams does start on Love, can Love make enough 3s to draw Williams away from the paint and eliminate him as a help defender? Doing so could free up space for Butler to get to the basket. Would the Celtics experiment with having Williams guard Adebayo – not a threat from 3-point range – and play off of him? Doing so could give Bam those foul-line jumpers, but maybe the Celtics are willingly to live with those. Plus with Adebayo being Miami’s primary screen-setter, that’s putting Williams into pick-and-roll coverage more than they’d like.
  • Free throws could be an equalizer for the Heat, who averaged nearly two more per game than the Celtics for the season and in playoffs.
  • Probably went too long without mentioning Butler’s right ankle. Following Game 6 in Miami, Butler had a noticeable limp in the locker room. After scoring 30 or more points in four of five games against the Bucks, Butler has yet to reach 30 points since spraining his ankle in Game 1 in New York. Butler will have four full days of recovery before Wednesday night’s Game 1.
  • Spoelstra may be coaching his best postseason of his career. He’ll have tricks, schematic swerves and plenty of options ready to go. Mazulla is a rookie head coach. Among all the battlegrounds, this is the one where the Heat’s advantage is most clear.

This will be a hard-fought series filled with big moments, fascinating matchups and coaching decisions. But these teams have seen a lot of each other over the years. They know the ins and outs of the scouting reports and tendencies without having to think, like which direction each player wants to drive, when the kick-out pass is coming, who they can play off of and when.

There is so much history here. You can even call it baggage. Can the Heat shake the Celtics in seemingly the only way they can? Did last year’s conference finals win give them confidence or trepidation? I guess we’ll find out. As for a prediction, I’ll close my eyes and say Heat in seven. Buckle up.