The Miami Heat’s best lineup against the Boston Celtics has been obvious all series, and it’s not the one that starts games.
This was made abundantly clear on Tuesday, when the Heat fumbled a chance to sweep the Celtics and close out the series at home. With Kevin Love starting at power forward against a Celtics group that has shifted back to a small-ball lineup to begin games, the Heat dug themselves into a 10-4 hole in the first three minutes. With Love playing his second stint to open the second half, the Heat were outscored by eight, which paved the way for Boston’s deciding 18-0 run.
“It got out of hand pretty early,” Jimmy Butler said. “Our energy was pretty low, which we cannot have, and it’s on myself and the starting group to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Now the Heat will take a trip to Boston to try to win Game 5 and advance to the NBA Finals. Lose? Yes, they still have a chance to end the series in Miami over the weekend. But do they really want to give the Celtics — who warned on Tuesday morning not to let them win one game — any more of a chance to become the first team to ever come back from a 3-0 deficit and win a playoff series? To set the tone and close out this Eastern Conference finals series Thursday, the Heat should get to their best lineup right away, with Martin starting in place of Love.
The Heat have obliterated the Celtics with Martin in the game, outscoring Boston by 25 points in the series when they go smaller. When Love is on the court, the Heat have been outscored by one through four games, marking a 26-point swing. With Martin in place of Love, it’s easier for Miami to run with the Celtics lineup of Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford. Martin provides Miami with another credible defender to guard Tatum or Brown, while Bam Adebayo can handle Horford and patrolling the paint. Against those units, Love too often found himself trailing the action, huffing until calling for a substitution five minutes into each half.
Maybe those first five minutes don’t sound like much, but these Celtics are a team whose confidence can swing wildly with a few minutes of play. Allow them to get off to a hot start on their home floor, and risk them shooting over 50% for the game, as they did Tuesday.
“They hit a couple shots, and it’s like the gates kind of open for them,” Martin said. “The basket got a little wider for guys.”
Martin helps combat that. He’s shooting 46.2% from 3-point range in this series. On defense, he’s tallied four steals and three blocks, helping to create turnovers that lead to on-the-run chances on offense. With Love, the Heat have to negotiate their switches and try to hide him from punishing wings like Tatum and Brown. Martin can hold his own and allows the Heat to switch more freely, worry less when matching up in transition and run with Boston’s speed.
As an added benefit, bringing Love off the bench would cut down on Cody Zeller’s minutes. The Heat have struggled to generate space with Zeller on the court, and turning Love into a backup center against Boston’s second unit could help drag Robert Williams III away from the rim, creating driving lanes for Butler, Kyle Lowry and others.
This opinion is less to do with Love and more to do with matchups. Erik Spoelstra’s decision to move Love back into the starting lineup is a big reason why the Heat are a win away from the Finals, and he probably should be the starter against the Nuggets if they make it that far. But to get there, the Heat need only to win one game, and it’s glaringly apparent that starting Martin gives them the best chance to do that.
The Celtics ratcheted up their urgency, made the right adjustments and won their first game of the series. Now the onus is on the Heat to respond in kind.