We have seen this movie — two years ago in the 2020 bubble Eastern Conference Finals. Once again it is the Celtics vs. the Heat, and both teams are returning many of the same core players from that showdown in Orlando.
However, both teams also have evolved since then. Don’t expect this Celtics team to blow multiple fourth quarter leads; this is a more mature and mentally tougher team. Miami has added an All-Star and an NBA champion in Kyle Lowry — if he is healthy enough to play.
It’s a showdown between two teams with elite defenses on one end and multiple playmakers on the other. There are similarities in how the Celtics and Heat are built, but the differences will make the series, which starts Tuesday night in Miami (8:30 p.m. on ESPN).
Here are three keys that could decide the series.
1) Can Jimmy Butler match Jayson Tatum for best player in series?
Jayson Tatum made the leap into the NBA’s elite this postseason, going toe-to-toe with the best player on the planet in Giannis Antetokounmpo and outdueling him at times. Tatum looked like a top-five player, an MVP candidate and an unstoppable force against the Bucks.
But Jimmy Butler has outscored Tatum this postseason.
It’s close, 28.7 points per game for Butler to 28.3 for Tatum. With Lowry missing time (and not himself when he has played due to his hamstring injury), more weight has fallen on Butler’s shoulders — against the Sixers he led the Heat in points, assists, steals, and was tied for the team lead in rebounds.
Butler has always been able to crank up his game under pressure, and this postseason has been no different. However, he struggled (relatively) against Boston in the regular season, averaging 19 points a game. Bottom line, the Celtics believe they have the best player in this series with Tatum — if they don’t, if Butler can hang, Miami’s chances to advance go way up.
Miami also is not a one-man show, and that’s where Lowry comes in. As of this writing he is listed as out for Game 1, but he is expected to play at some point in this series. Miami will need Lowry’s passing, toughness, and shot creation against a stingy Celtics defense. Plus, Lowry could change the momentum of a game by drawing a charge on Tatum or Jaylen Brown in a key moment.
Tied into all of that…
2) Can Miami score in the halfcourt? Heck, can anyone score in this series?
Just bet the under.
In the regular season, the Celtics had the best defense in the NBA and the Heat were fourth. In the playoffs, they are second and third, respectively. These are two physical, smart, long and challenging defensive teams with scheme versatility. Points are going to be at a premium throughout this series.
However, the biggest test will be when the Heat have the ball in the halfcourt. Miami was a pedestrian halfcourt offense this season, 13th in the league, and the Celtics were the best halfcourt defense. Especially with Lowry out for at least the start of the series, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Butler — and Herro as the secondary creator — to make things happen in the halfcourt.
To thrive on offense, Miami has to get stops, force turnovers, and get some easy buckets in transition — which is exactly what Milwaukee wanted to do but struggled to execute consistently last series. This is another place the Heat miss Lowry, who is their guy to push the ball ahead fast off misses.
3) Can the Heat chase Celtics off 3-point arc?
It wasn’t just Grant Williams raining 3s on the Bucks in Game 7, the Celtics were bombs away all series — Boston made 53 more 3-pointers than Milwaukee in the series. That fits a pattern, the Bucks gave up the second-highest percentage of opponent shots from 3 all season (44.8%).
The team that gave up the highest percentage of opponent shots from 3? The Miami Heat.
The Celtics beat the Heat two-out-of-three meetings this season and in those games they knocked down their threes at an almost 40% clip, but in the one Heat win the Celtics shot 30% from deep. Boston showed last series, that they can win if you let their role players fire away.
Miami has been better about chasing teams off the arc in the playoffs (sixth among playoff teams), but this is the big test. Miami has to make life difficult for the Celtics and not let Williams — or Marcus Smart, or Al Horford, or whomever — just set their feet and fire away. Do that and Miami will be on vacation before June.
Prediction: Celtics in six. Miami is capable of winning this series but they have little margin for error.