What to watch for in Heat vs. Celtics series

The top-seeded Miami Heat and second-seeded Boston Celtics meet in the Eastern Conference finals. It is a rematch of Miami’s 4-2 victory against Boston in the same round inside the Orlando bubble two years ago.

How they got here

Miami Heat (53-29)

Two years removed from their surprise run to the 2020 NBA Finals and a season since being swept by the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round of the playoffs, the Heat swapped erstwhile All-Star point guards (Kyle Lowry for Goran Dragic) and veteran wings (PJ Tucker for Trevor Ariza). Lowry and Ariza were brought in to supplement Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, only the 36-year-olds played more regular-season games than either Miami mainstay, and the Heat scrapped their way to a No. 1 overall seed.

Tyler Herro‘s emergence as a landslide Sixth Man of the Year winner and Duncan Robinson‘s recovery from a poor-shooting start helped sustain Miami’s 12th-rated offense this season. No team better identifies minimally contracted players who embrace its culture, and this year Miami extracted value from Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin, who combined to shoot 40% on nearly five 3-point attempts per game.

Miami’s money is made on the defensive end, where its 108.4 defensive rating cracked the league’s top five during the regular season. The Heat were nearly four points per 100 possessions better in the first two rounds of the playoffs, respectively stifling All-NBA creators Trae Young and James Harden in lopsided victories against their Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers in the first round and conference semifinals.

As he did during Miami’s 2020 playoff experience, Butler has taken his game to another level, averaging a 29-8-5 on 53/36/81 shooting splits through two rounds. He also joins Adebayo and Tucker as three of the most physical and versatile defenders in the NBA. What little the Heat lack in skill, they make up in effort. Nobody knows that better than the Celtics, who Miami bullied in its 2020 conference finals showdown.

Boston Celtics (51-31)

The Celtics were 18-21 on Jan. 6, fighting for an Eastern Conference play-in tournament berth. This after a .500 encore season to their 2020 Eastern Conference finals run. Then, as if the toughness first-year coach Ime Udoka had been trying to instill for the first three months of the season had settled in overnight, Boston jelled into a juggernaut midway through this campaign, laying waste to almost everyone across the league.

Jayson Tatum emerged as a fringe MVP candidate atop a rotation rife with All-Defensive candidates. There is no glaring weakness in the Celtics’ traditional starting lineup of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Robert Williams III, who were +24.3 points per 100 possessions in meaningful regular-season minutes. Grant Williams and trade acquisition Derrick White extend Boston’s two-way versatility to seven players.

The Celtics owned the East’s best offense and best defense over the final three months of the regular season, netting a rating (+13.5) that more than doubled that of the Heat (+5.2), who were the conference’s second-best team during that span. Boston’s first two playoff rounds proved that second-half surge was no fluke. The Celtics’ sweep of Kevin Durant‘s Brooklyn Nets and their seven-game slugfest against Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s defending champion Milwaukee Bucks revealed their collective growth this season.

Head to head

The Celtics won their regular-season series against the Heat, 2-1.

Boston dominated its Nov. 4 matchup with Miami, 95-78, not that the 39-point boost from Aaron Nesmith, Romeo Langford and Dennis Schroder off Boston’s bench offers much insight. Likewise, Martin, Vincent and Strus started in place of Butler, Tucker and Lowry in the Heat’s 30-point loss to the Celtics on Jan. 31.

Their March 30 meeting, which the Heat won, 106-98, offered a better glimpse of the rotations both teams intend to employ in this series. The Celtics were without Robert Williams, who added a bone bruise to the meniscus surgery he had on his left knee almost seven weeks ago. He was in uniform for their Game 7 against the Bucks but never entered the game. His status for the conference finals is uncertain.

Miami’s lone win against Boston featured nine ties and 16 lead changes. Down the stretch, the Heat’s defense stifled a Celtics offense that had the tendency to stagnate late in close games. Lowry, Butler and Adebayo scored 18 of the Heat’s 21 points over the final 7:30. That execution is required to beat Boston.

Miami Heat wing Jimmy Butler and Boston Celtics counterpart Jayson Tatum will do battle in the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three seasons. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)Miami Heat wing Jimmy Butler and Boston Celtics counterpart Jayson Tatum will do battle in the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three seasons. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Miami Heat wing Jimmy Butler and Boston Celtics counterpart Jayson Tatum will do battle in the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three seasons. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Closing lineups

Miami Heat

It depends on Lowry’s health. His left hamstring injury has cost him six of the Heat’s 11 playoff games, including all four of their wins against Philadelphia in the conference semifinals. He will close games if his injury is not severely limiting his impact, which is no given after his two appearances against the Sixers.

Butler, Adebayo and Tucker should be on the floor in crunch time against Boston’s length and versatility. The two other spots will depend on Lowry’s hamstring, how Herro holds up defensively and which version of Victor Oladipo shows up against his toughest opponent since returning from career-threatening injuries.

Strus and Vincent might be more effective as two-way players if Miami is not desperate for shot creation against Boston’s defense. Butler, Adebayo, Tucker, Strus and Vincent have carried the Heat through the first two playoff rounds, outscoring the Hawks and Sixers by a combined 45 points in 82 minutes together.

Boston Celtics

Similarly, the Celtics’ closing lineup depends on what contribution they get from Robert Williams. Tatum, Brown, Smart and Horford have played almost every clutch playoff minute for Boston. The fifth spot has vacillated between White and Grant Williams, depending on who is more effective throughout each game. White is +18 in 54 playoff minutes with that aforementioned quartet; Grant Williams is -21 in 98 minutes.

Matchup to watch

Tatum’s profile is skyrocketing after outplaying Durant for the entirety of the first round and out-dueling Antetokounmpo in two elimination games to close out the conference semifinals. Butler will make it his mission to prove he belongs ahead of Tatum in any discussion about the best playmakers in the East.

They spent fewer than five minutes directly defending each other during the regular season, according to the NBA’s tracking data, and Butler got the best of Tatum in those small sample sizes. Turn back to the 2020 Eastern Conference finals, though, when they primarily guarded one another for more than 30 minutes apiece in the six-game series. Both shot worse than 40% in those head-to-head battles, but the margin between Tatum in his third season and now is the difference between a fringe All-Star and an All-NBA lock.

Tatum has spent the majority of his 11 playoff games this season hounded by Antetokounmpo, Durant, Jrue Holiday, Wesley Matthews and Bruce Brown — good defenders all. Butler has primarily operated opposite James Harden, Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, De’Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic. He has not seen the same level of aggression Tatum has faced so far, and he will not find a weak link in Boston’s defense.

The challenge is greater for Butler than it was two years ago, but no one enjoys a challenge more than him. Miami’s best chance to beat Boston could come down to whether Butler can outplay Tatum on both ends, because the Heat’s rotation is more pick-your-poison than the depth of the Celtics’ two-way contributors.

Series schedule

May 17: Boston at Miami, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

May 19: Boston at Miami, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

May 21: Miami at Boston, 8:30 p.m. ET (ABC)

May 23: Miami at Boston, 8:30 p.m. ET (ABC)

May 25: Boston at Miami, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)*

May 27: Miami at Boston, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)*

May 29: Boston at Miami, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)*

(*if necessary)

Miami Heat (+135)

Boston Celtics (-165)


Celtics in six.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach