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The Five Biggest Questions Entering the Celtics-Heat Trilogy

Boston might look like it has all the advantages, but basketball isn’t played on paper. Here are the matchups and story lines that will decide this rivalry clash in the Eastern Conference finals.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the third time in four years, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat will face off in the Eastern Conference finals. It’s an instant-classic rivalry that pretty much picks up where last year’s encounter left off, when Jimmy Butler front-rimmed a go-ahead pull-up 3 in Game 7 that ended Miami’s season and sent Boston to the NBA Finals.

This trilogy is a monument to continuity. Most of the main characters are back: Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Jaylen Brown, Bam Adebayo, and Marcus Smart. But there are also newcomers (Malcolm Brogdon, Kevin Love), altered rotations (has anyone seen Grant Williams?), and one starter who’s currently on vacation (PJ Tucker).

Last year’s series was a war of attrition. For Boston, Smart missed two games, while Al Horford, Rob Williams III, and Derrick White each missed one. For Miami, Tyler Herro missed three games and barely played in the series finale, while Kyle Lowry sat for two. Tatum and Butler both battled through their respective health issues but appeared in all seven games.

This time around, Herro and Victor Oladipo are both injured, giving Boston a health advantage and, on paper, consideration as a significant favorite. It’s a spry no. 2 seed coming off a Finals appearance and led by a pair of All-NBA wings vs. an aging no. 8 seed that nearly lost two play-in games before upsetting the Bucks, who didn’t have a healthy Giannis Antetokounmpo, and dismissing the punchless Knicks.

But basketball isn’t played on paper; Erik Spoelstra and Butler have proved too many people wrong for us to count them out. Miami and Boston enter this series with the exact same defensive rating (111.0) after two rounds of competition and a disciplined, adaptable style of play that goes up a level when Butler channels prime Michael Jordan. This rematch promises to have several twists and turns, adjustments aplenty, and bad blood. Lots of it. Both cores know each other’s tendencies and impulses. The Celtics tend to underachieve. The Heat overachieve in their sleep.

Here are a few questions worth considering before the conference finals tip off.

Can Miami score enough without hemorrhaging on defense?

No team has looked hotter in these playoffs than the Heat did against the Bucks in Round 1. Through five games, their 60.4 effective field goal percentage was 10.3 percent above what they were expected to shoot, according to Second Spectrum. (Both numbers are a 2023 postseason high in any series.) Since they’re coming off a regular season in which they finished 27th in 3-point percentage, it’s OK to call that performance an outlier.

In Round 2, that sizzle fizzled out, as the Heat mustered only 112.6 points per 100 possessions (a mark that would rank 25th in the regular season) against the Knicks defense, which was never very good and didn’t have Immanuel Quickley (who might be New York’s best defender) for the last three games. Miami shot only 30.6 percent from behind the arc in Round 2. The only team worse was … the Knicks, at 29.9 percent.

Now, against the explosive Celtics offense, which will limit whom Spoelstra can lean on, the Heat have several interesting dilemmas on their hands. Knowing they have to put bodies in front of Tatum and Brown, will they stick with their most common starting five (Miami is 7-1 when Butler, Adebayo, Love, Max Strus, and Gabe Vincent start the game) or deny Boston’s All-NBA forwards another mismatch target and roll with Caleb Martin at the 4 instead? Spoelstra might try Love for Game 1, but assuming Butler will stick with Brown (his usual assignment), that unit has no one in it who can stay in front of Tatum.

Herro is no longer a target, but Strus will be. In the 2022 conference finals, Boston had his man set 97 ball screens, which was more than anybody else on the team. It wasn’t the most efficient strategy, but when you watch the film, it’s easy to see why Boston kept going back to it over and over again. The action repeatedly created advantages for a muddy, turnover-prone offense that was in perpetual need of any edge it could find:

Strus will play big minutes in this series regardless because Spoelstra needs his 3-point shooting and has no other door to open. Duncan Robinson, on the other hand, may be a different story. As one of the best movement shooters in basketball, Robinson has drilled 42.6 percent of his 3s in these playoffs. More notably, he’s appeared in every game after slipping in and out of Spo’s rotation the past couple of years. Miami is plus-16.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court versus minus-1.4 when he sits. The Heat’s offense goes up a notch with Robinson, and their defense with him, in a 194-minute sample size, has been surprisingly solid.

Miami’s second-most-used lineup in the playoffs is Lowry, Butler, Adebayo, Martin, and Robinson, a group that’s pounded the competition in 36 minutes. But the Giannis-less Bucks or the clenched Knicks offense leaves you much less vulnerable than a Celtics roster that can go at Robinson with Tatum, Brown, Brogdon, Smart, or White.

Adebayo is one of the best help defenders in basketball, but the Heat have a particularly difficult time when an opponent forces him to the perimeter and out of position. Boston can make that happen by running an initial ball screen with his man, then a second one that targets Robinson. Here’s what that looks like, as executed in Round 2 by New York:

If Spoelstra can’t stomach playing Robinson, we might see some units that feature Haywood Highsmith (a competent defender) or extended minutes from a seven-man rotation that may already be running on fumes. Scoring points won’t be easy in this series. And if 3s don’t fall, it may be a quick one.

How deep will Joe Mazzulla go in his rotation?

Grant Williams played 213 minutes (30.1 per game) in last year’s conference finals. That’s 97 more than he’s logged through the first two rounds in these playoffs. Williams was critical in that matchup, stonewalling his high school rival Adebayo, switching onto Butler, and knocking down 39 percent of his 3s. His role in this series under Mazzulla, a first-year head coach who clearly doesn’t value Grant quite like Ime Udoka did, will be something to watch.

Sam Hauser didn’t factor into last year’s series but saw the floor in Round 1 and the first couple of games of Round 2. Will Mazzulla take advantage of his outside shot when Butler is on the bench (and unable to hunt him in isolation)? Boston’s depth can be a gift and a curse for its head coach. Unlike Spoelstra, who has only so many viable options, Mazzulla will be pressed to choose his wisely.

Is Jimmy Butler anywhere close to 100 percent?

After Butler missed Game 2 of the second round with a sprained ankle, his play has still been mostly great, abetted by subtle shot fakes and crafty footwork that gets him to the free throw line. But sometimes the lift hasn’t been there. Relative to the extinction-level event that turned Milwaukee into a crater, Butler has been inefficient and, at times, tentative. He took only one jump shot in Game 5, and in Game 6, short of one baseline drive when he shook Quentin Grimes out of his socks on his way to a two-handed dunk, he struggled to finish once he got into the paint:

It goes without saying that Butler will need to be at his very best if Miami is going to pull off this upset against the Celtics defense, which might have more capable bodies to throw at him than any other team in the league. Smart, Brown, and Tatum are all guaranteed to spend time on him. Horford will switch and contest shots in a drop. White, who just made an All-Defensive team, will be targeted as a favorable matchup (which speaks to how absurd Boston’s personnel really is) due to his lack of strength compared to everybody else.

But no matter who has the assignment, Butler will need to hit late-clock jumpers in isolation and bail out Miami’s offense when it’s stuck in the mud, much like this:

You know Butler is feeling well when he’s forcing the defense to exert maximum energy until the play is over, rebounding his own misses, eluding box outs, and cutting along the baseline with the hope that whoever’s guarding him will fall asleep for the split second he needs to make them pay.

On the other end, over the past two years Butler has spent most of his time guarding Brown, an on-demand fireworks display coming off the best season of his career. Will the Heat, knowing Butler’s offensive responsibilities are gargantuan, keep that matchup, or hide him on Smart, Horford, or Rob Williams III?

On that note …

Will Boston’s big starting five stay successful?

The Celtics might not be here if it weren’t for Mazzulla’s decision to shake up Boston’s starting lineup in Game 6 against the 76ers. Out went White, in came Williams III. The move went against Boston’s season-long identity as a high-volume, eruptable 3-point shooting offense with plenty of space to attack the basket.

But going big gives the Celtics a different dimension with a rim-running lob threat who, at his best, is also one of the most intimidating paint protectors in the league. Last season, the lineup annihilated everything in its path. But in the playoffs against Miami, Boston’s dominant starting five was limited to a porous minus-15.3 net rating in just 29 minutes. As these conference finals progress, it’ll be interesting to see how Mazzulla plays it since the the shift in Philadelphia was primarily made to slow down a Goliath who just won MVP.

In 432 minutes this season, Smart, White, Brown, Tatum, and Horford generated 124.0 points per 100 possessions—nearly six higher than the top-ranked Sacramento Kings. Almost 45 percent of their field goal attempts were launched behind the arc, as opposed to just 29.3 percent for the quintet with Williams III at center.

Now that we know Mazzulla won’t go back to his preferred starting five from the regular season, Miami may have some advantages when it’s on defense (like creating more places for Butler to “rest,” as mentioned earlier), but it will also limit shots at the rim, turn Heat possessions into make-or-miss propositions, and potentially open up some second-chance opportunities (Williams III is excellent on back taps).

Nothing is static, though. The lineups could vary drastically in this series, with cross matches galore. Let’s assume the bulk of this series sees Martin as the starting 4. One option for Boston is putting Williams III on Martin, Horford on Adebayo, Smart on Butler, Brown on Strus, and Tatum on Vincent. Miami can put Butler on Brown, Martin on Tatum, Strus on Horford, Vincent on Smart, and Adebayo on Williams III. The possibilities are endless under the direction of these two coaching staffs (especially Miami’s), and neither should hesitate to evolve as the series goes on. There’s also an almost definite chance that, given Miami’s disadvantage guarding man-to-man, we’ll see plenty of zone sewn into the action, too.

But can Miami’s zone defense work?

The Heat deploy several below-average individual defenders every game. It’s a big reason they use more zone than any other team: for a regular-season-high 16.7 possessions per game, followed by a playoff-high 9.4 possessions per game.

In the four games the Celtics and Heat played during the regular season, all before the trade deadline, Boston generated 1.09 points per possession against Miami’s zone. The Heat will be thrilled if they can squeeze the Celtics like that again, as they did down the stretch of a close win when they last met back in January.

Brown, Horford, Smart, and Brogdon did not play in that game, though, and much of the sample there includes several names (Luke Kornet, Hauser, Payton Pritchard) who aren’t likely to participate in this series. But throwing different looks at Boston can’t hurt. The Heat will try everything when their back is against the wall, which will be their approach on every possession. They’ll full-court press and then drop into a 2-3 alignment. They’ll go box-and-one. They’ll dust off an athlete like Highsmith, thrust him up top, and hope to disrupt Boston’s rhythm in a 1-3-1 zone.

The Knicks handled all the different looks pretty well (i.e., they made some tough shots), but the Bucks were brought to their knees. Meanwhile, the Celtics have enough size, intelligence, passing, and shooting to potentially render most of this useless. They’re big enough to attack the offensive glass. They’ve spent this entire season driving through gaps, reading the help, then whipping it over to an open teammate. But the Heat will do their best to destabilize an offense that would rather mismatch hunt, run their wings off flares and wide pindowns, force help, and flow from there.

If the Heat get enough stops with shooters like Robinson and Love standing strong on one end while creating space and knocking down 3s on the other, it’ll be a real body blow for the Celtics. Potentially one powerful enough to manufacture another memorable clash between two battle-tested organizations that enter every season believing they can win it all.

There’s no reason to doubt either one right now, but Boston’s talent and depth will ultimately be too much for Miami to deal with.

Prediction: Celtics in six