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Five Questions That Will Decide the Rest of Heat-Celtics

After trading blowouts and bruises for four games, the Eastern Conference finals is down to a best of three. In a series that’s been impossible to predict, here are five questions that will help determine who advances to the Finals.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It feels surprising for a series between two of the NBA’s top defenses to be so largely defined by massive scoring runs. Maybe it shouldn’t, though; maybe that sort of volatility comes with the territory when both parties can shut the other’s water off for minutes at a time.

“You know, sometimes when you have two really competitive teams, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a one-point game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters after Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. “It means that it can be flammable either way. Both teams are ignitable.”

After three games swung by spontaneous combustion—Miami’s 22-2 third-quarter surge in Game 1, Boston’s 24-3 haymaker early in Game 2, and the Heat’s 39-18 opening stanza in Game 3—it was the Celtics’ turn to ignite on Monday. Jayson Tatum and Co. came screaming out of the gates in Game 4, knocking the Heat on their heels with an 18-1 run and building a 20-point lead less than 10 minutes into the contest.

Boston would never relinquish its lead, grinding the visitors’ offense to a pulp en route to a 102-82 victory that, frankly, didn’t even feel as close as that lopsided margin. The Celtics led by as many as 32, dominating so summarily that Miami’s starters didn’t see a second of playing time in the fourth quarter as Boston knotted the series up at two games apiece. Though, to be fair, going away from the starters didn’t necessarily constitute Spo waving the white flag on this particular night:

One silver lining on a devastatingly gray evening for the Heat: The breakneck pace of the conference finals schedule—every other day for 13 days or until one contestant crumbles, whichever comes first—leaves little time for wallowing, and provides an immediate opportunity for redemption.

That pacing—and the challenges it forces upon its participants—is worth highlighting as we reset the 2022 Eastern Conference finals by asking a handful of questions that will help determine the winner of what’s now a three-game sprint with a berth in the NBA Finals hanging in the balance.

Which team will be healthier the rest of the way?

It’s not exactly revolutionary analysis, I’ll grant you, but there’s a reason pundits have long leaned on all those clichés about the postseason being a war of attrition. When you need to win four times in seven games near the end of an eight-month, 100-game season, it’s helpful to have your best players upright, ambulatory, and contributing. Certainty over who will do that has been awfully tough to come by in this series, from Al Horford’s surprise entry and exit from health-and-safety protocols, to the fact that every Heat injury report now features somewhere between two and 12 players listed as questionable who will “warm up with the intent to play.” (Spoiler alert: They’re pretty much always all playing.)

Boston point guard and newly minted Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart missed Game 1 with a right foot sprain, exited Game 3 with a right ankle sprain that also cost him Game 4, and “had a noticeable limp when he walked into TD Garden on Monday,” according to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated. Smart’s as tough as nails, but his effectiveness on a balky wheel is anybody’s guess. Ditto for Robert Williams III, the shot-swatting paint protector whose athleticism and versatility helped unlock Boston’s decimating defense; he’s been battling issues in his surgically repaired left knee, missing Game 3 before returning to wreak havoc in Game 4 … and then sitting for the final 19-plus minutes after a collision with Bam Adebayo left him signaling for a sub. Williams said that “the knee felt great” after the game; he also said the Celtics staff will “take a look at it tomorrow and see how it’s feeling, recovery-wise.”


Kyle Lowry, Smart’s counterpart as Miami’s primary table-setter and charge-taking shit-stirrer, missed games 1 and 2 with a lingering hamstring issue; he hasn’t exactly been stellar in the two he’s played, either, shooting 2-for-7 inside the arc and 3-for-10 outside in 50 total minutes, during which the Heat have been outscored by 17 points. Sixth Man of the Year winner Tyler Herro, who’s been Miami’s most reliable half-court shot creator all season long, missed Game 4 with the groin strain that rendered him a spectator for the final minutes of Game 3. Perhaps most important of all for the Heat, though, Jimmy Butler scarcely resembled the force who’s been arguably the best player in this postseason, scoring just six points in Game 4—tied for his second-lowest total of the season and the fourth-lowest of his playoff career—on 3-for-14 shooting with only one assist after hurting his knee in Game 3.

Butler wouldn’t entertain the prospect of an injury contributing to his poor performance on Monday and said that he’d be better in Game 5. In such a physical and grueling series, though—one in which Celtics coach Ime Udoka’s been running out seven players pretty much every night, and in which Spoelstra’s bankable options appear to be dwindling with every passing game—every bump and bruise, every hard fall and hitch in the giddy-up delivers a fresh cartload of anxiety.

“Injuries is a part of this. It’s a part of playoffs,” Adebayo said after the game. “You learn to adapt. We’re one of those teams—we’ve had so many injuries throughout the season that you know we’ve learned how to win. Guys being out, guys playing half, guys playing 20 minutes in the game, just depends. You’ve just got to find a way to win.”

Speaking of Adebayo …

Does Miami have an answer for Time Lord?

After a pair of quiet offensive performances to open the conference finals, Bam ran rampant in Game 3, exploding for 31 points on 15-for-22 shooting to go with 10 rebounds, six assists, four steals, and a block. Game 3, we remind you, is also the game that Robert Williams missed. He played in Game 4, and Bam … kind of didn’t.

Adebayo’s struggles Monday—just nine points on 3-for-5 shooting with six rebounds and more turnovers (three) than assists (two) in 28 minutes—weren’t solely, or even necessarily primarily, about Time Lord’s presence. A lot of it had to do with Horford seemingly taking Bam’s breakout performance personally, recommitting himself to making sure Miami’s All-Star big man felt his physicality on every possession, whether he was pushing Adebayo from the elbow all the way out to the 3-point arc before he could catch an entry pass or recovering to the rim to block a would-be layup. (Horford took only two shots, and had by far his best performance of the series.)

Some of it, though, did have to do with the looming specter of one of the league’s most imposing rim protectors lurking behind Big Al. It’s hard to ignore how much Adebayo’s aggression and production have tended to wax and wane depending on whether Williams is on the floor:

Bam vs. Time Lord

Bam's Production Points per 36 FGM per 36 FGA per 36 Rebounds per 36 Assists per 36 Turnovers per 36 Plus-Minus
Bam's Production Points per 36 FGM per 36 FGA per 36 Rebounds per 36 Assists per 36 Turnovers per 36 Plus-Minus
Time Lord Off (75 min.) 17.7 8.6 13.4 8.1 4.3 1.9 18
Time Lord On (60 min.) 11.4 3.6 5.4 7.2 1.2 1.8 -27
Data via NBA Advanced Stats.

Bam’s not the only one who feels the impact of Williams patrolling the paint. In the early going of Game 4, every Heat player was leery about trying to take the ball all the way to the rim with Time Lord waiting. In the first half, Miami attempted just four shots at the basket, compared to 24 from midrange. That lack of dribble penetration also short-circuited Miami’s drive-and-kick game, which is why the Heat, who led the league in generating corner 3-pointers during the regular season and ranked fourth in the playoffs before this series, managed only five attempts from the corner before garbage time in Game 4. And with Williams dropping back to shut down the paint and erase any mistakes at the rim, Boston’s perimeter defenders were free to be more aggressive at the point of attack, including in driving over the top of screens to blow up pet actions like dribble handoffs for Max Strus; the undrafted swingman turned starter and #HeatCulture folk hero went from shooting 9-for-22 from long range through three ECF games to going scoreless on seven shots in 15 minutes, prompting Spoelstra to exhume Duncan Robinson for his most extended run of this postseason.

The Heat have scored just 97 points per 100 possessions with Time Lord on the court in this series, according to NBA Advanced Stats—miles below what even the worst offenses in the league managed during the regular season—compared to 111 points-per-100 when he’s been off it. In the time he’s shared the court with Horford in this series, a vanishingly small sample of just 23 minutes, Miami’s mewled up a measly 84.4 points-per-100. Add in the value Williams provides as a lob threat and an offensive rebounding menace, and Williams seems like the wild card that Spoelstra just doesn’t have a match for. The Celtics have now outscored Miami by 33 points in Williams’s 67 minutes, and the Heat are plus-five in the 125 minutes he’s been on the bench.

Boston has to hope that Time Lord’s knee responds to treatment ahead of Game 5. The Heat have to hope that they can find ways to move him out of the paint to open up more driving lanes, that they can get to the cup before he can, and that they can do real damage in the half of the game (or so) when he’s not on the court.

How can Miami crack this Boston defense if Jimmy and Herro are limited?

While Jimmy certainly wouldn’t concede the point that he is limited, he would grant that the Heat en masse had a devil of a time beating Boston’s sweltering coverage in Game 4. He’d also submit that the best path forward is to avoid the urge to overcomplicate matters.

“Move the ball. Get it from one side to the other. Keep the game extremely simple,” Butler said after Game 4. “Whenever we tend to do that, we tend to play well. When anybody tries to hit a home run and do it by themselves, we kind of get in trouble. Ball sticks. We turn the ball over. We take a bad shot. We just need to do everything together like we’ve been doing all year long. It will be on myself, on Kyle, on Bam to make sure that we make that happen.”

Adebayo responding to Horford’s show of force with his own would help, too. As I noted before the start of the series, given Lowry’s injuries and Herro’s physical disadvantages against Boston’s big wing defenders, the sort of aggressive Bam we saw in Game 3 represented Miami’s best chance of finding a consistent second scorer alongside Butler.

Boston did well to limit some of Adebayo’s bread-and-butter paths to points in Game 4, moving from switching the picks he sets to more drop coverage, keeping Bam’s defender between him and the rim on the catch. If Bam could counter by popping to the perimeter to take and make 3s, the drop coverage would be untenable; considering he’s attempted all of 53 3-pointers in 386 career regular- and postseason games, though, I don’t expect that adjustment to come in time for Game 4. Whatever else Spoelstra’s got up his sleeve to get Bam unstuck, though, this would be a good time for it; the five field goal attempts and 2.3 free throws he’s averaged in games 1, 2, and 4 just won’t cut it.

Herro’s absence opened the door to more minutes and opportunities for Victor Oladipo. The former All-Star made the most of them, scoring a team-high 23 points on 7-for-16 shooting to go with six assists and four rebounds in 30 minutes off the Miami bench:

Even if Herro’s able to go, you’d imagine that the juice Oladipo showed as a north-south driver capable of drawing fouls, combined with the activity he’s shown as a defender, would convince Spoelstra to give him an even longer look in Game 5. Playing them together in the backcourt represents a risk—Boston has torched lineups featuring the Herro-Oladipo pairing by 31 points in 38 minutes in this series, thanks largely to ice-cold shooting for Miami in those minutes—but it might be one worth taking, considering how difficult the Celtics’ size, physicality, and attention to detail have made it on Miami to score against Boston’s set defense.

The Heat have scored 90.9 points per 100 plays in the half court in this series, according to Cleaning the Glass, which would’ve been a bottom-five mark during the regular season. Since their excellent Game 1 performance against a Celtics side missing both Smart and Horford, they’re scoring just 87 points-per-100 in the half court; that would’ve been dead last in the league this season. And on Monday, they scored a dismal 65.7 points-per-100 before garbage time; that would’ve been the worst mark in the 19 seasons in CtG’s database.

“None of us are happy about what happened tonight,” Spoelstra said after the loss. “This is part of the playoffs—there are these extreme highs and lows, particularly when you have two teams that are pretty closely, evenly matched. But we’ve proven that we can find solutions offensively in a lot of different ways.”

This was the concern about Miami dating back to its pursuit of Lowry and P.J. Tucker in free agency: the possibility that, when the Heat ran into elite defenses in the playoffs, they just wouldn’t be able to generate enough good looks to win four times in seven games. Now, with a shot at a championship on the line, can they do it two times in three?

Miami’s best answer, of course, is probably to do whatever it has to do to avoid starting possessions by taking the ball out of the basket. The Heat are scoring 1.07 points per possession after an opponent’s made shot this postseason, according to Inpredictable; that goes up to 1.24 points per possession off a defensive rebound, and 1.26 points per possession off a turnover.

Who will win the possession game?

Some story lines of note:

Game 1: Miami commits fewer turnovers, grabs more offensive rebounds, attempts more field goals and free throws, and wins.

Game 2: Boston commits fewer turnovers, takes more free throws, and wins.

Game 3: Miami commits way fewer turnovers, takes 22 more shots, and wins.

Game 4: Boston’s even on turnovers, grabs more offensive rebounds, takes 24 more free throws, and wins.

An awful lot can be attributed to this series’ massive swings—shifts in available personnel, tweaks in scheme, differing levels of execution—but at the risk of stating the obvious, when you’re facing excellent defenses, you can’t afford to squander your own possessions and give the other guys more of them. Whoever takes care of the ball best and controls the glass stands a great chance of finishing this off and advancing to take on Almost Definitely the Warriors whoever comes out of the West.

In theory, that sort of on-the-margins play should skew toward the Celtics, who finished ahead of the Heat in turnover rate and opponent free throw rate, and neck-and-neck with Miami in offensive rebounding rate. In the specific context of a series in which everyone seems to be exhausted and hurt, though, who knows?

Which brings us to …

Can Jayson Tatum take the Celtics home?

Tatum was one of many players to come away from Game 3 wounded, suffering what was termed a right shoulder stinger during a collision with Oladipo. Before Game 4, though, Udoka proclaimed his All-NBA workhouse “good to go” … and, sure enough, he was:

Tatum scored 24 of his game-high 31 points in the first half, staking Boston to the mammoth lead it would carry through the night. He worked over Miami’s smallest and most vulnerable defenders—Lowry, Strus, Gabe Vincent, Duncan Robinson—to either shoot over the top or force help that opened up a passing lane. With his 3-point jumper offline—he missed his first six, and didn’t look particularly close on most of them—he ran the floor hard in transition, attacked Miami’s pressing perimeter defenders with hard drives, and hunted contact off the bounce and in the lane, finding his rhythm at the foul line. Tatum took 16 free throws in Game 4—tied for the second most he’s ever taken in an NBA game, and two more than the entire Heat team.

It was a professional response to a disappointing Game 3 that saw him score just 10 points on 3-for-14 shooting—the same shooting line that Butler put up in Game 4. Butler got the best of Tatum in Game 1, but the 24-year-old has had the better of the run of play since; rather than letting his rocky Game 3 shake his confidence, he turned in one of his finest games of the postseason.

“I think I do a really good job of, after I sleep it off, regardless if I have 10 points or 46 points, the next day is the next day, and whatever happened happened,” he told reporters after the game. “I’m a big believer in, ‘You can’t change what happened.’ … I was ready to get back to play, but I didn’t doubt myself. I know how to play basketball.”

That knowledge—and the strength and endurance that’s allowed him to continue pouring in points, making timely passes, and playing his part in Boston’s hellacious defense—helped Boston even the series. And now that he’s edged the Celtics’ season off the brink … all he has to do is go into Miami and do it again, two more times, to earn the first Finals appearance of his career.

Spoelstra, for his part, doesn’t sound overly willing to punch the young fella’s ticket.

“We’ve proven that we can do it,” he said. “The margin for error for either team, you know— whatever they have done to us, we can do to them. … We can be much better than we were tonight, even against a very good defense, and I know for a fact we can be better defensively. Overall, our collective competitive will, we can do some things that can make the other team look a little sideways, as well.”

Which might mean we’ve got even more volatile, flammable, ignitable, and unpredictable ball coming our way once the series shifts back to South Florida on Wednesday.