Miami Heat Roundtable: Biggest storylines going into the Eastern Conference finals

Oct 21, 2022; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) dribbles the ball against the Boston Celtics during the third quarter at FTX Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 21, 2022; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) dribbles the ball against the Boston Celtics during the third quarter at FTX Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports /

Besides Jimmy Butler, who needs to step up for the Miami Heat, and what are the biggest questions heading into the Eastern Conference finals vs the Boston Celtics? The All U Can Heat staff got together to discuss the storylines and matchups that will decide who advances to the NBA Finals.

What storyline will decide Heat-Celtics?

Azam Masood: The 3-point shooting. Miami was first in the NBA in 3-point percentage in 2021-2022, saw that percentage crater in the 2022 playoffs (which ultimately was their downfall against Boston last year), then had the hole left by the crater carry over to the 2022-2023 season, where Miami finished 27th in the Association. Somehow, Miami found some 3-point juice in the playoffs, crushing Milwaukee with outlier accuracy before coming back to earth again against New York. Boston, on the other hand, was shooting so well from 3 this year, they were on pace to shatter offensive efficiency records through the winter. Some regression came for them (both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ended up having down years compared to their career norms), but they still finished sixth in the NBA in percentage and are currently first among playoff teams. Miami may have overcome its bad 3-point efforts in New York by mucking things up, but they will need to match Boston’s firepower from outside to make this a series.

Aaron Washington: Turnovers (or lack thereof) will have a huge impact on the outcome of the series. During the regular season, the Celtics and Heat both finished in the top 10 in giveaways per game (seventh and ninth respectively). As the previous two rounds against Milwaukee and New York have shown us, Miami games will more than likely be grind-out affairs. If that is the case again in these Eastern Conference finals, each possession will be critical in order to generate enough scoring opportunities. The Heat struggled to keep the Knicks off of the free throw line all series due to the exploits of RJ Barrett and Jalen Brunson, leading to a FT/FGA rate of .26 as opposed to the Heat’s .22. They also had a lower eFG% in those six games. However, the Heat still has the better offensive rating because of their ability to generate more shot attempts and maintaining a sub-10% turnover rate (9.1 to 13). It will be important for them to keep that going since the Celtics are so deadly in transition. If they can win that battle of ball control – much like they did last year –  then they have a great chance of overcoming the talent deficit along with a few key injuries.

António Dias: How do the role players perform? In theory, Boston’s role and bench players have an advantage over the Heat’s. But that was also the case against the Knicks coming into the series, with Miami’s complimentary unit coming out on top in the end. In fact, the Heat’s bench beat the Knicks’ 183-90, more than doubling their points. And that ultimately gave Miami the advantage. We expect Butler and Bam to get theirs, with Tatum and Brown doing the same on the other side of the floor. A healthy Kyle Lowry should provide the Heat with enough aggressiveness and court vision to exploit Boston’s defensive deficiencies – and the Heat clearly got it going last year when Lowry was able to lead them. So, how many of the other guys in the rotation are able to step up in each game? Will Max Strus, Duncan Robinson and Kevin Love hit their shots without being liabilities on defense? Will Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent be good enough scorers not to have their defenders sagging off them to help inside? And who gives the Heat more consistent production: Haywood Highsmith or Cody Zeller?

Besides Jimmy Butler, who are you looking at to step up for the Heat?

Azam: Saying Bam is too easy, so I’m going to pivot and go to Kevin Love. Love was a huge factor for Miami against Milwaukee, but badly faded as an offensive threat as the Knicks series dragged on (he only attempted, and made, one shot against the Knicks in Game 6). It remains to be seen if Love remains a starting power forward or goes back to the backup center role in this series (it may hinge on if Boston sticks to their own two-big lineup with Al Horford and Robert Williams). The Heat have been terrorized by Horford and his wretched-looking, but accurate 3-point stroke for years. It would be nice if Love could match that sort of shooting from the outside just to give the Boston frontcourt something else to think about. He absolutely cannot have any more 0-7 games from distance.

Aaron: I will be keeping a close eye on Lowry in this series. After a sporadic performance in round one, he stepped up in a big way in round two, regaining the aggressiveness on both ends of the court that makes him so dangerous and why the coaching staff/front office were so excited to bring him in two years ago. At his best, he is one of the best passers on the team and on-ball defenders who can hound guards all over the court. I am interested to see who he matches up with defensively in Boston’s bench lineups and what Miami does in order to keep him from being overwhelmed by larger players. His pull-up shooting prowess might be even more vital when it comes to what he brings on offense. With news that Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla is sticking with Robert Williams III in the starting lineup for Game 1, there will be plenty of opportunities for Lowry to shoot 3s against a dropping Williams. Aside from those facets of his game, his ability to take charges and deliver pinpoint kick-ahead passes will kickstart the team’s play off the bench. He looks healthy and now is the perfect time for him to deliver on some of that $30 million dollar investment the team made in him this season.

António: Caleb Martin will be my swing guy for the Heat. He will be tasked with defending Jayson Tatum most of the time he’s on the floor and when that doesn’t happen, expect to see him guarding Jaylen Brown. More than that, what he does on offense will be key for the amount of time Williams spends on the court. His constant activity off the ball and unwavering confidence shooting the ball will offer a different look to what the Celtics saw with PJ Tucker last year, which may not allow Williams to roam as freely around the paint as he did a year ago and in the last series against Philadelphia. If he keeps up his 38% shooting from 3 and his off-the-dribble attacking, combined with a good enough job on Tatum, that could prove to be the necessary ingredient to write a different story than what we saw last May.

What are you watching when the Heat are on offense?

Azam: I’ve already spent a lot of time on 3-point shooting, so the other thing I’ll be watching for is how much Miami is willing to challenge Robert Williams in the paint. Against Milwaukee, it felt like Jimmy Butler had all the answers for how to deal with Brook Lopez, while his teammates were flummoxed by the DPOY runner-up when meeting him inside (hence the killer 3-point shooting from Miami being such an equalizer). Against the Knicks, Bam Adebayo looked more comfortable challenging Mitchell Robinson while Butler had his struggles converting in the paint. It could be a matter of each player’s health going in opposite directions, but it will be paramount for Bam, in particular, to continue his regular season trend of dominating the Boston frontline (4 games, 25.0 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 3.5 APG). His shot attempts in the 2022 ECFs against the Celtics were far too erratic (4, 6, 22, 5, 15, 6, 21) and you hope he continues taking a steady 12-18 shots per game like he has this postseason.

Aaron: For me it will be how many quality shots they can generate against Boston’s activity and size. Horford-Williams lineups will make things very difficult inside for Bam, Jimmy, and anyone else that dares to take chances in the paint. There will surely be times when the Celtics lose focus as we’ve seen when they have the vastly inferior Hawks two games and almost failed to get by the Sixers in the previous round. Boston gave up 115-plus points in three out of the first five games before tightening the clamps in Games 6 and 7. 3-point looks will probably be there, but Miami must keep their off-ball activity up and be willing to get creative with their own lineups.

António: The off-ball movement and how the Heat can keep the Celtics players busy on that side of the floor, especially their star duo of Tatum and Brown. Don’t let them rest, keep attacking and going to your drive-and-kick game, while also looking to keep Strus and Robinson moving and getting looks. This also makes things easier for Jimmy and Bam, as the Celtics will have much more trouble helping on their paint attacks if the guys they’re guarding keep on moving. Also, I expect Bam to continue to initiate the offense off of rebounds, so Boston can’t settle into their defense and pack the paint against him.

What are you watching when the Heat are on defense?

Azam: I’m very curious to see who will be guarding Tatum and Brown. If Miami sticks with their two-big lineup to start games, they could be in scramble mode as the Celtics hunt Kevin Love, but if Miami plays smaller, they may face issues on the glass. I worry that Miami will have to react to whether Boston goes two bigs or starts Derrick White; alternatively, I don’t think Boston would feel the need to adjust if Miami yanked Love out of the lineup. One key difference between this year and last year is Caleb Martin. Last year, Martin was a bit player in the series and didn’t play at all in the pivotal Game 7. This series, he will be much more relied upon to shift between matchups and help shoulder some of the scoring load with Miami still missing key players. I expect him to be a 30-minute-a-night player in this series whether he starts or not.

Aaron: I wonder how often they will shift to a zone defense. Miami employs zone looks more than any other team in the league and is probably the most effective when they do so. However, the Celtics were one of the best 3-point shooting teams during the regular season and at times deploy five-out lineups that can all lace the nets if left open. It will be interesting to see how much they concede a few open outside looks in order to slow down the Tatum-Brown duo in the restricted area. On the other hand, going man for too much of the game leaves the Heat vulnerable in terms of mismatches. Tatum and Brown will surely be hunting Strus, Robinson, and Love frequently via pick and rolls. It will be important for Miami to switch up individual matchups as well as team-wide defensive schemes to prevent the stars from getting too comfortable.

António: Victor Oladipo will continue to be a big absence for the Heat on that end. His defensive work last season, putting constant pressure on Jaylen Brown and forcing him to be a driver, which got the Celtics in all kinds of turnover problems. Gabe Vincent may assume that role to start, as he did guard Khris Middleton and RJ Barrett a lot of the times in the previous series, but although his lower body strength and low center of gravity creates problems on drives, his lack of size may ultimately make Spoelstra change his approach. Even if Strus continues to be a positive on defense, him defending Brown forces the Heat to scramble on defense at all times. So, there’s possibly no way to hide Jimmy Butler on a shooter for large parts of games, even if Martin plays big minutes. Interesting to see what that means for Jimmy’s off the ball defense and even his offensive game.

The Heat have stolen the first road game in each of their two playoff series so far. Do you think they’ll do it again?

Azam: My gut says no here, though Boston has been as erratic as they come throughout these playoffs. I think Miami will need a game to adjust to the gulf in talent between what was a one-man Knicks show with multiple inefficient chucklers to hide on and the diversified Boston attack. Game 2 is where I think Miami will be in a better position to strike, and I do have hope this will be a long series assuming Jimmy Butler’s ankle has benefitted from the four days of rest.

Aaron: I think they will, assuming Butler is at least 80% of his usual self. If he still lacks the burst to generate points at the rim, they might not have enough to get over the hump in TD Garden against a rejuvenated Celtics team. Game 1 might be their best chance since Jimmy will be at his freshest and Boston might be a bit spent from a seven-game series. The Heat won Game 1 in both of the previous series and maybe that’s because they caught over-confident teams off guard. The Celtics have shown us that sometimes they play down to their competition and that could be just the crack in the door the Heat need in order to break through for a quick 1-0 lead in the series.

António: The shooting in that first game will be key for the Heat and that may make or break their strategy in Game 1. Shoot at an average clip and you may find the win to start, as Spoelstra is usually the one to bring in the surprise element and make the other coach react, while Mazzula proved to take some time to react to what the 76ers were doing in the last series. I think the Heat will take Game 1 with some good shooting and Spoelstra introducing some caveat no one is expecting, which slows the Celtics offense down. Also, I expect a really aggressive Butler to start, with something to prove.

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