Remember the last time the Heat and Celtics squared off in the Eastern Conference finals? It was in 2020, when we were all stuck inside and NBA players were in the bubble at Disney World. Jayson Tatum got blocked at the rim by Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic had the series of his life, Jimmy Butler was selling coffee, and the Heat won in six. Two years later, here we are again, with the Heat and Celtics set to tip off on Tuesday, 230 miles south of Disney in Miami. So much has changed.
Only four Miami players who earned minutes in that bubble matchup remain on the team: Adebayo, Butler, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson, who started every game in that series but is now earning DNP-CDs. The Celtics retain six players who appeared then: Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Grant Williams, and Daniel Theis. The young guys are all much more seasoned now. Brad Stevens is no longer the coach. It’s now Ime Udoka, and their scheme has completely changed.
Two years ago, Herro dropped 37 points off the bench in Game 4 by attacking Kemba Walker and Brad Wanamaker while Boston played drop coverage with Theis or Williams sagging into the paint. Herro was able to pull up for jumpers over and over with a tiny guy trying to contest his shot.
But that option isn’t around anymore. Not only has Smart blossomed into the Defensive Player of the Year, but also, and more importantly, the Celtics don’t have any weak links anymore. Derrick White is one of the better defensive guards in the league. Payton Pritchard is small but feisty. And they play a different style. This season, the Celtics switched on screens more than any other team, which was a calling card of the league-best defense that has carried them deep into the postseason. When Tatum and Al Horford have defended a pick-and-roll this postseason, they’re allowing a microscopic 0.25 points per play. That’s an outlier number that ranks first out of the 95 combinations who’ve defended at least 25 pick-and-rolls during the playoffs, according to Second Spectrum. If we include the past five postseasons, it’d still rank first. Herro won’t face a smaller guard on the perimeter or a big in the paint. It’ll likely be a switch, at least to start the series. If Herro and other Miami ball handlers are able to get into the paint for open shots or force the defense to collapse, leading to kick-outs for open 3s, then Boston must adjust.
We just watched the Sixers blitz Herro all series, using pressure to force him into some sloppy turnovers. It was a pick-your-poison problem, though. Butler ended up roasting Philadelphia, sometimes as a result of the pressure on Herro, by slipping screens to roll inside, by cutting, or by simply ending up with an easier matchup against a scrambled defense.
Throughout the playoffs, Butler has been integral to Miami’s success, averaging 28.7 points and 5.4 assists. The Heat have outscored teams by 118 points in the 374 minutes he’s been on the floor and been outscored by 12 in his 154 minutes on the bench. Only Max Strus has a greater point differential for the Heat this postseason, which is a testament to his two-way play and hustle on defense. Plus, he’s such a strong shooting threat he took Robinson’s starting spot.
But we’ve seen how defenses can take away what worked for the Heat in the regular season. Strus popped on 82 percent of the screens he set during the season, scoring 0.96 points per chance. That’s down to 62 percent and 0.62 points per chance during the playoffs, according to Second Spectrum. With teams switching more screens and handoffs, the chances to get easy points while strolling behind the 3-point line just aren’t there as often.
The Heat faced a subpar Hawks team in the first round and the Sixers have a worse defense than the Celtics, who have speedy bigs in both Williamses, a positional master like Horford, and a bunch of hard-nosed, long-armed wing defenders. Meanwhile, the Celtics had to get through Kevin Durant and the Nets in the first round and Giannis Antetokounmpo and the reigning champs in the second.
Against the Nets, the Celtics defenders stuck like glue to Durant, denying him the ball when he tried to get open while helping off non-shooters like Bruce Brown and Andre Drummond. Durant shot under 40 percent from the field for the first time in a playoff series since 2016. Brooklyn got swept. Next round, Boston was fine with leaving Brook Lopez and other teammates open outside as long as it meant preventing Giannis from getting easy drives into the paint. Giannis averaged 33.9 points, but they came on 45.5 percent shooting, his worst field goal percentage since the Raptors built a wall against him in 2018-19 on their way to a championship.
Butler, Herro, and Kyle Lowry (if he’s able to return) are in for a new challenge. Expect P.J. Tucker and Gabe Vincent to receive a similar lack of attention as the Bucks’ role players did. The Celtics will instead prioritize preventing Butler from getting to his spots, and when he, Herro, or another ball handler has possession they will gladly help off to deter drives inside.
Maybe the Heat will dust off Robinson to add shooting on the floor, but that would present the same issue we saw the Celtics exploit last round against the Bucks when they attacked Grayson Allen. Robinson is an even bigger liability on defense and Boston would endlessly hunt him, even if Miami is far better at countering with blitzes than Milwaukee.
Still, the Heat boast the best defense the Celtics have faced so far in the playoffs. They are also a switch-heavy team, but they blitz with more regularity. They’ll provide a lot more challenges than either the Bucks or Nets. Neither of those teams have as many on-ball nuisances as the Heat, who have Butler, Victor Oladipo, and P.J. Tucker, who has hounded Tatum and Brown throughout their careers.
If Erik Spoelstra wants to, he can lean on defense-oriented lineups that still provide shooting. Consider something such as Adebayo, Tucker, Butler, Strus, and Herro, a lineup that would mix shot creation with the versatility on defense to play different styles. Or Oladipo could replace Herro. So could Vincent. What’s made Miami great all season long is its adaptability. The Heat can play different groups and different styles, and still win.
Much like the Celtics, they switch on a ton of screens to muck up offenses, and prevent the type of drive-and-kick chances Boston prefers to find. By switching, they force isos. The Heat allowed only 0.9 points per isolation run by the opponent during the playoffs, ranking behind only the Celtics, according to Second Spectrum. Boston was able to exploit Milwaukee’s drop coverages, but Miami will switch a ton and force the Celtics into isos, on which they’ve scored at an average rate during both the season and playoffs.
To take something away, defenses usually have to give something up as well. We just watched the Celtics launch a parade of 3s against the Bucks, who allowed the second-highest total in the league during the season. The leader? That would be the Heat, who allowed 41.9 percent of shots from 3, per Cleaning the Glass. Live by the 3, die by the 3 could be the Celtics’ mantra again this round, but perhaps to an even greater extreme. Tatum, Brown, Smart, and others won’t have as juicy a set of matchups to pick on all series. But their teammates will still be getting open shots.
Whichever team can better take advantage of switches could come out the winner. My prediction is Celtics in six.