The Eastern Conference feels like a Hollywood studio that has run out of new movie ideas so it just keeps making sequels to the greatest hits.
Like the Miami Heat vs. the Boston Celtics.
For the third time in four years, the Celtics and Heat are meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals. They split the first two, with the Heat advancing to the Finals in the bubble, while the Celtics held on to reach the Finals last season (and led the Warriors 2-1 before things went sideways).
Here are four things worth watching in this series when it tips off Wednesday night, plus some betting advice from Vaughn Dalzell of NBC Sports Edge.
1) Who will be asked to guard Jayson Tatum?
As great as “playoff” Jimmy Butler is, he is just one man and that’s a problem in trying to match up with Jayson Tatum (who is coming off a Game 7 record 51 points). Every choice Erik Spoelstra makes creates a problem elsewhere on the court (which is why he may lean into a zone defense for extended stretches).
Miami’s best defender is Butler and they can put him on Tatum. The problem there — outside of wearing down Butler and risking foul trouble — is it means Max Strus or maybe Caleb Martin on Jaylen Brown, and Brown will feast in that matchup.
Spoelstra could put Butler on Brown, but now Tatum is matched up with Gabe Vincent or Martin and he will put up numbers. And that’s not getting into how Al Horford‘s shooting threat pulls Bam Adebayo out of the paint and limits him as a help defender. Expect Martin — who has size and can defend — to get an increasingly prominent role as this series goes on.
Look for Boston to target Kevin Love in pick-and-rolls, no matter who he guards.
It’s also worth remembering the Heat struggled to stop the Knicks’ Jalen Brunson last round as he got 41 in the closeout game. Brunson didn’t get enough help, but Tatum will.
2) Who will score for the Heat outside Jimmy Butler?
Jimmy Butler is going to get his. Butler is physical, gets to his spots on the floor, and makes tough shots. Last year in the Eastern Conference Finals, Butler averaged 25.6 points per game (and seven rebounds) on a slightly above average 58.2 true shooting percentage. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he puts up similar or better numbers this series, he is averaging 31.1 points a game these playoffs on 52.7% shooting.
But where does the help come from this season?
Last season’s Heat had balance and it paid off against the Celtics: Bam Adebayo had 15 points a game in this series, Victor Oladipo 9.7, Kyle Lowry 9.4, Tyler Herro 9.3, Gabe Vincent 8.7, Max Strus 8.3, Caleb Martin 7.3.
This season Oladipo and Herro are out injured and the Heat have had to lean more heavily on Adebayo, Strus, Vincent, Lowry and Martin (all are averaging more than 10 points a game this playoffs). It will be a lot to ask against a Celtics defense that doesn’t have weak links on the court.
(One bit of strategy to watch — does Mazzulla keep the two-bigs lineup with Al Horford and Robert Williams starting, or does he go back to bringing Williams off the bench and starting Derrick White? Against Miami, White might be the better matchup.)
3) How many wins is Erik Spoelstra worth against Joe Mazzulla
There was a time when Spoelstra was a young head coach learning on the job and looking a little overwhelmed at points. That’s Mazzulla now. Not that he will grow into Spoelstra (that’s a big ask), but Mazzulla has been slow to make adjustments (going with two bigs against Philly), kept timeouts in his pocket and generally has looked like a rookie.
Spoelstra is the best coach in the NBA right now. He has had time to prepare and will throw things at the Celtics they did not expect. He will push the right buttons, make the right adjustment. If the Heat shock the NBA world and win this series, it will be because Spoelstra completely out-coached Mazzulla.
4) Vaughn Dalzell’s Heat vs. Celtics betting tips
Boston is 3-5 in the last eight Game 1’s, plus a miserable 1-4 record in the past five when it’s not the first round of the playoffs. On the other hand, Miami is 5-0 in the previous five Game 1’s, including two-straight Game 1 road wins this postseason. The 76ers beat the Celtics in Boston during Game 1 as +10 point underdogs without Joel Embiid in the previous series. There is value on Miami in Game 1 as +7.5 point underdogs as well as +280 to win outright.
With the Celtics listed as -525 favorites to win the series against the Heat, there isn’t much value on Boston long-term, so look for an opportunity to bet the Celtics series price or the exact number of games for the series if Boston falls into a 0-1 or 1-2 hole versus Miami.
(Check out more from Dalzell and the team at NBC Sports Edge.)
5) How many games will the Celtics give away with a lack of focus?
The Boston Celtics have two of the three best players in this series (rank Butler/Brown/Tatum in whatever order you want) and they have more and better depth than the Heat. On paper, this isn’t much of a series.
However, Boston doesn’t bring its A-game every night. Phrase it however you wish — they play with their food, they lack a killer instinct, whatever — the Celtics often don’t play at their best until their backs are against the wall. Like being down in the fourth quarter of Game 6 in a series they trail 3-2.
The Heat grind and bring it every night. They will play hard, play smart, and be disciplined and relentless.
When Boston flips the switch they are the best team in the NBA. The biggest question in this series may be how often and when will they flip it, and whether will they take so long Miami gets a real chance to steal the series as the No.8 seed.
Prediction: Celtics in five. I may regret picking against a resilient Heat team — or putting my faith in an unfocused Celtics team — but Boston’s talent advantage is too overwhelming. Maybe the Heat will push this six or seven games, but if Boston brings their A-Game they run away with this series.