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Takeaways From a Weird and Wild Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals

Boston is going to the NBA Finals and Miami is left to rue what could have been. How did we get here?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Sunday night, the Boston Celtics beat the Miami Heat on the road in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, capping off a physical, back-and-forth series. The Celts are packing their bags for the Bay Area and a date with the Golden State Warriors in the Finals, but before we head out west, here are some takeaways from a strange, occasionally thrilling winner-take-all clash.

There Are 82-Game Players and 16-Game Players

Jimmy Butler targeted Derrick White on defense in Game 7, which was notable since White is generally a great perimeter defender. But Butler has a size advantage on White, and that’s all it took for the Heat to position Boston’s midseason addition as the defensive weak link. Hunting lesser defenders is something we’ve seen all postseason long, whether it was the Celtics going after Grayson Allen, the Mavs attacking Chris Paul, or the Jazz, Suns, and Warriors all attacking Luka Doncic. With defenses switching on ball screens at an increasing rate, offenses will do what they can to find and expose a liability.

And this is precisely why the Heat couldn’t really play Duncan Robinson in this series. The Celtics brought Robinson into the pick-and-roll 31 times during the series and scored 1.13 points per chance when he hedged on the pick-and-roll, according to Second Spectrum. Sometimes he switched, and that wasn’t good either. Robinson defended five isolations that led to a scoring chance and allowed 10 points. Erik Spoelstra had to bench him.

The Heat could’ve used Robinson as a shooting threat, but he was replaced by a stronger, sturdier defender in Max Strus. Spoelstra couldn’t afford to compromise his defense, especially given that stops leading to transition or early offense were Miami’s only way of generating offense, considering the team’s half-court struggles.

Teams are targeting weaker defenders even more now than they were two years ago, when Robinson was an integral piece of Miami’s Finals run in the bubble. Has the gap between “82-game players” and “16-game players” grown even wider? I wonder now if teams will think twice about giving big contracts to players who will likely receive this type of playoff treatment.

Playmaking Jayson Tatum

In the second half, Miami sent late double-teams at Tatum. This initially disrupted his offensive flow, but the star forward adjusted to make quick decisions that resulted in open shots for the Celtics. When Boston ran the pick-and-roll, the Heat hedged and forced him to become a playmaker, and Tatum answered the call.

Expect more of the same in the Finals against Golden State. The Celtics will go after Steph Curry as a defender, just like the Mavericks did. Second Spectrum says the Mavs targeted Curry 29 times per game, far more than anyone else on the Warriors. As a response, Steph frequently showed pressure on Luka Doncic in the pick-and-roll before recovering to his assignment.

When Curry would get brought into a pick-and-roll as the screen defender, the Warriors didn’t want him switching many screens, so they’d have him hedge or even blitz. He did so on 40 percent of pick-and-rolls. By responding with an attack, it worked to resist a switch and force the ball out of Luka’s hands.

Doncic is elite at dissecting a defense and generating chances for teammates even when doubled, but Tatum is a good playmaker with a supporting cast capable of also attacking a hedge. Boston will take a similar approach as an attempt at wearing down Curry, while also creating quality shot opportunities. We saw the Celtics utilize Marcus Smart, White, and Grant Williams on short rolls, where they would have a man advantage to attack for floaters or layups, or find teammates with kickouts for 3s. No matter where Curry starts on defense, the Celtics will try to locate him.

It’ll be a greater challenge for the Warriors to contain the Celtics’ supporting cast than the Mavericks’. Jaylen Brown is a better second option than Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie combined. And while the Celtics are streaky behind the arc like the Mavericks, Tatum, Brown, and Smart aren’t as great at creating open shots as Doncic is. How well they hunt mismatches and make plays for teammates is a key to the series.

The Young Heat Couldn’t Help the Old Heat

P.J. Tucker couldn’t finish. Tyler Herro was limited. Kyle Lowry played like Raymond Felton. The Heat are a better team than they showed in Game 7. But they are old. Tucker is 37. Lowry is 36. Butler will turn 33 next season. Joel Embiid tweeted during the series that Miami needs another star, and he’s right, even if he was (maybe?) joking. Lowry is a shell of his former self, and Butler can’t be the sole source of offense.

Even Herro underwhelmed throughout the playoffs. After he shined in the bubble, the Heat were hopeful he’d blossom and in some respects he has. Herro just won Sixth Man of the Year, and should have been the unanimous choice. But this is now his second postseason in a row struggling to generate open shots against elite defenses.

Herro, like Robinson, was also targeted on defense. And the Heat have a big decision coming up, with him eligible for a rookie extension. Will Herro wait to test restricted free agency (if he’s not offered the max), effectively turning 2022-23 into a prove-it year? Or is Herro a piece meant to be traded? Most teams that would target a superstar in a trade would offer picks. The Heat can offer a 22-year-old in Herro, short-term salaries, and assorted draft assets. Anyone out there wanna live in Miami and compete for a championship with Jimmy Butler?

The Celtics Look Drained

On May 3, the Celtics beat the Bucks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. That was a Tuesday. We had to wait until Saturday for Game 3, a frustratingly long time between games but a much needed rest for Boston. Since then, the Celtics have played 12 games in 23 days, and they sure look tired. They were dragging to the finish line to get by Miami. Grant Williams had dead legs. Al Horford’s shot has begun to fail him too. Robert Williams III can barely move out there while he deals with knee soreness.

And now they’ll all have to compete with Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jordan Poole for 48 minutes while those Warriors guards race around screens, cut to the rim, and sprint up the floor on the break. This seems bad for the Celtics, but we also haven’t seen them play with rest for weeks. What happens behind closed doors for Boston on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday could determine what happens starting Thursday for Game 1. The Celtics better be physically ready for the Warriors playing their best basketball.

Boston Needs a New End-of-Game Strategy

I’m baffled by how the Celtics finished these last few games. They tiptoed the ball up the floor, pranced around, and didn’t run sets. While there is some logic to running the clock out, and it is harder to utilize normal actions in end-game situations, the Celtics would often not even have a screen set until there was 12 or 13 seconds left on the clock. That leaves so little time for drive-and-kick opportunities, the fuel to Boston’s half-court offense. Way too many Boston fourth-quarter possessions ended with Smart shooting from distance—something Miami was just fine with. The Warriors will be too.