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Celtics-Heat: Key Questions for Eastern Conference Finals

Here's a couple questions to ponder before Game 1 tips off between Miami and Boston.

The Heat and Celtics finished the regular season as the Eastern Conference’s top two seeds. When they face off it’ll be like they’re looking in the mirror. Both are mentally and physically tough, with malleable, talented, egoless rosters that are far deeper than most realize.

It feels right for them to meet in the conference finals, a rematch two years removed from their margin-free, six-game battle inside the bubble. As two of the past decade’s most prideful organizations (the only team in the East with more wins since 2013 is Toronto), how their defenses deal with each other’s best player may very well decide who advances to the Finals. Here are a couple key questions to ponder before Game 1 tips off tonight. Each will be relevant all series long.

How will the Celtics guard Jimmy Butler?

Butler has dominated the playoffs, with a 31.3 PER that’s second only to Nikola Jokic (Luka Dončić’s is 30.2). He’s averaging 28.7 points with a 61.8 true shooting percentage. To boot: 54 assists, 17 turnovers and 21 steals. It’s natural to compare this stretch to what Butler did in the bubble, but that feels trite. This is merely the late-stage oeuvre of a first-ballot Hall of Famer whose work ethic and focus are pretty much second to none.

Still, for Butler to see his best basketball a few months shy of his 33rd birthday, after spending 5.5 seasons under Tom Thibodeau, burning the candle at both ends with an intensity few are able to reach, let alone sustain, is remarkable. Over the past few weeks, he’s found another level. Some of that is thanks to his startling predilection for the three-ball (after only accounting for 6.6% of his points during the regular season, threes are 16.7% of Butler’s points in the playoffs) and some is because of a few favorable matchups.

Both the Hawks and Sixers were short on stout, long wings who could keep Butler from getting pretty much any shot he wanted. Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter was a worthy obstacle as his primary defender in the first round, but without a healthy Clint Capela or John Collins along the backline, Butler feasted in the paint, going 25-for-32 in four games (the man had 12 dunks and 15 layups). He hunted Trae Young, and with Bogdan Bogdanovic as Atlanta’s only option whenever Hunter found himself in foul trouble, Atlanta had no backup plan.

The Sixers were picked apart in similar fashion. They threw Tobias Harris (over me?!) on Butler and then tried out James Harden (lol). Neither was appropriate. Without Joel Embiid as his Defensive Player of the Year-caliber self, Butler’s pick and rolls with Bam Adebayo were a bucket pretty much whenever the Heat wanted/needed one—especially when opponents switched.

Life will be different against the best defense in the league, with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Grant Williams and Marcus Smart all built to wrestle Butler in the halfcourt. Boston made the immortal Kevin Durant look meek before it held Giannis Antetokounmpo to 45.7% shooting and instigated his 36 turnovers. If they can make Butler’s life a nightmare as they did those two, they should win.

The Heat are at their best when the rock hops from side to side and their slew of dynamic ball-handlers is putting opponents in rotation. They cut and screen with precision, making it so hard to rest on the weakside.

But Boston will take that stuff away. They switch on and off the ball better than any other unit, always with five defenders who can stay between their man and the basket. Butler is ruggedly direct with his scoring and finished this season as the sixth-most efficient isolation player in the league (minimum 100 plays initiated). Only Steph Curry, Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMar DeRozan, Luka Dončić and Jrue Holiday finished ahead of him, according to Synergy Sports.

Boston has the option of switching most ball screens, steadying the game’s pace and mucking Miami’s inconsistent half-court offense up by inducing as much isolation basketball as it can.

Brown has been Butler’s primary defender when these two teams have met over the past few years, but Grant Williams should see a ton of time on him right now, possibly from the jump. (The last time these two teams met, Ime Udoka put Williams on Butler for lengthy stretches and the Heat barely tested it.)

Williams can not only keep Butler on the perimeter without fouling, but switch onto Bam Adebayo without offering Miami’s center any advantage. Of course, that switch lets Butler go at whoever was on Adebayo—be it Al Horford,Rob Williams III or Daniel Theis—which is why the Celtics mostly guarded that action in a drop during the regular season, with help defenders shrinking the floor to force a kick-out pass or pull-up two. If the Celtics can guard it with three defenders and not be punished, Miami is in trouble.

But switching Horford onto Butler isn’t a crisis. And the Celtics can also stick Tatum, Brown or even Smart (if he’s healthy enough) on Adebayo when they’re small, which eliminates that pick-and-roll combination but may open other doors for Miami’s offense.

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Nothing will be static. Boston will mix coverages throughout the series. They’ll throw Tatum, Brown, Smart and Grant Williams on Butler. They’ll downsize and be confident in Derrick White’s ability to hold his own. Generating good looks in the half-court isn’t a dependable reality against the Celtics; if the Heat can’t force turnovers, wreak havoc in the open floor and run off missed shots and/or pound the offensive glass, Butler will have to do what Durant and Giannis could not against a defense that’s holding opponents to 87.4 points per 100 half-court possessions. Tyler Herro may lighten the load, but Miami will sputter through this entire series if Butler can’t look like a 1A bucket-collective superstar.

That means hitting contested shots over great on-ball defenders. Some matchups are better than others, but there’s no Kemba Walker this time around.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) dribbles the ball around Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler.

How will the Heat guard Jayson Tatum?

Heading into both of their previous series, the Heat’s fundamental gameplan (against a pair of wounded offenses) was to cut the head off the snake. Trae Young and James Harden were hounded the length of the floor as Miami routinely put two on the ball, wagering a smart bet on their teammates’ inability to do damage.

Tatum has learned how to dissect that type of aggression. He gets off the ball decisively and trusts those around him to hit open shots or drive gaps that are widened by all the attention he draws. Overhelping against him is a mistake, which puts Miami in a tough spot, particularly when it’s time to hunt.

Boston’s franchise player is now one of the three best players remaining in the 2021-22 postseason, a perennial MVP candidate who bounced back from a couple curiously inefficient outings in Round 2 with a historic, season-saving 46-point effort in Game 6. He routinely picked on matchups that, on paper, he should dominate.

Against Miami, Tatum’s primary defender in the regular season was Kyle Lowry. Not having him at 100 percent in this series would be a serious blow when you consider how thin the margins are for any defense that has to wrap their arms around all of Boston’s individual weapons. Assuming Butler guards Brown and Lowry can’t go in Game 1, Tatum will likely be checked by PJ Tucker.

The Heat can gradually game who guards who to take away some favorable pick-and-roll combinations—most notably by putting Adebayo on Smart and Max Strus on Horford—but there’s always going to be an agreeable target, be it Gabe Vincent, Herro, Dewayne Dedmon, Victor Oladipo or Duncan Robinson, who may be benched for the second straight series due to his glaring limitations.

And there are different ways for Tatum to find those advantages, particularly when White is on the floor to trigger the action. Boston had some success against Milwaukee running a stack pick-and-roll. It’s especially hard to slow down when Tatum screens the screener and then pops out behind the three-point line. Here’s how it looked against Miami the last time these teams met:

Tatum will exploit mismatches because he’s a generational offensive talent. But Miami’s defense is awesome for a reason. They know their weaknesses and have smart, engaged help defenders who know how/when to stunt and recover. If Adebayo’s assignment can’t space the floor he’s a fly swatter at the rim. Herro, Vincent, Oladipo and whoever else gets drawn into the play can, more often than their size disparity suggests, offer resistance. They can fight, get into the ball and trust what’s behind them.

At the end of the day, staying out of rotation and forcing Tatum (or Brown) to win in isolation is not necessarily a loss for Miami, and the general adjustment from Milwaukee’s drop scheme to whatever it is Erik Spoelstra has cooking (switches, zone, a full-court press, random double teams, etc.) won’t be simple.

As Tatum goes, so do the Celtics. And the amount of energy and force Miami chooses to deploy making him fight on each possession will be a significant factor in dictating which team walks out of every game with the upper hand. Neither defense wants to see the offense’s complementary pieces go off, but the key difference—as seen with how they stifled the Bucks—is Boston has been constructed to have its cake and eat it too.

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