Nobody’s perfect, but the Miami Heat will likely have to be if they’re going to beat the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. Despite enjoying home court advantage, the East’s top seed are +150 on BetMGM to win the series.
I picked the Heat to win it all in our preseason roundtable and they’ve performed pretty much like I thought they would this season, ranking ninth in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency.
The one matchup I didn’t want to see in the playoffs was the Celtics, who are basically a better version of Miami. Boston boasts the league’s fifth-best offense and best defense. Like Erik Spoelstra’s team, the Celtics play a switching defense and often have four to five players on the court who can guard any position, making it exceedingly difficult on opposing offenses to find an edge they can exploit.
Miami don’t bang around in the paint much, scoring the majority of their points from mid-range and long-distance jumpers. Those easy looks they got in the first two rounds of the playoffs will be a rarity in the conference finals. Boston ranks first in opponent shooting percentage, both inside and outside the three-point line.
The Heat may be the second-best three-point shooting team in the league, but it’s a lot harder to drain those when your opponent is draped all over you. In the three games these two played this season, Miami went 1-2 and shot just 32.8% from downtown.
Even though they lost two of three, they were able to contain Jayson Tatum, who’s averaging 28.3 points per game in the playoffs, but averaged 17.7 ppg against the Heat in the regular season. If Jimmy Butler and crew can lock up Tatum and Jaylen Brown and force the rest of the Celtics to beat them, we could witness a repeat of the 2020 Eastern Conference finals which Miami won 4-2. Or, we could see those other players step up to beat the Heat like Grant Williams did to the Bucks.
One area in which Miami has a clear advantage is their bench. It’s deeper than a thought by Jack Handey and provides Spoelstra with the versatility to put any kind of lineup he wants out on the floor. Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro and Gabe Vincent can fill it up from downtown, while Victor Oladipo and Caleb Martin are terrific defenders and capable scorers.
The Celtics only have a couple of players getting significant minutes off the bench. Foul trouble could factor into one or more games this series, as the Heat draw the third-most fouls per play (18.9%).
Robert Williams III will be available for Game 1 with no minutes restriction after suffering a bone bruise in his left knee that caused him to miss three games in the previous round. Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, however, is questionable following a foot sprain in Boston’s Game 7 win on Sunday.
Heat point guard Kyle Lowry has already been ruled out for Game 1 with a hamstring injury. He tried to return from the injury during last round’s series against the Sixers, and was dreadful for those two games on 3-of-14 shooting, including 0-for-8 from beyond the arc. It’s anyone’s guess when he’ll be back and how effective he’ll be.
Possibly the biggest personnel question of the series is whether Spoelstra will allow Duncan Robinson to see some action. Robinson is one of the NBA’s most lethal three-point shooters, but he’s also one of the league’s worst defenders. After beginning the season in the starting lineup, Spoelstra relegated him to the bench and has barely inserted Robinson in the playoffs.
This series could play out a lot of different ways, and there’s a decent chance the Heat win Game 1 with the extra rest, but I believe Boston wraps things up by Game 6. Miami won’t be able to get into their offensive rhythm against the Celtics’ stifling D. I like Boston -185 for the series and +200 to win the NBA title.
Stats provided by Basketball Reference, teamrankings.com, StatMuse, and nba.com.