Chris Mannix and Howard Beck break down an ugly Eastern Conference finals that has been back and forth, and why Jayson Tatum is the key to the Celtics winning the series.
Chris Mannix: All right, so let’s talk about the Eastern Conference playoffs, which is really the only series with any kind of drama at the moment. Tied up at two, going into Game 5 on Wednesday. I wrote about this over at SI.com on Tuesday, Howard. This series has been wildly unpredictable. You’ve had teams, I believe in each one of the first four games with 20-point leads. And you just haven’t been able to tell what you’re going to get every single game.
Injuries have taken a toll on the series. Tyler Herro is out now with Miami. Jimmy Butler is clearly limited with a knee injury in Miami. Marcus Smart, he did not play in Game 4 for the Celtics. Robert Williams, just at the end of Game 4, dragging that left leg around—courtesy of a lot of minutes playing on that recently surgically repaired knee. So you don’t know what you’re gonna get in this series.
But I was at Game 4 in Boston and my biggest takeaway, Howard, is that the Celtics are just better. Like they’re the better team in this series. This series is tied largely because of what the Celtics have failed to do. And that is protect the ball in Game 3. They committed 24 turnovers in Game 3, that led to 33 points from Miami. They had the ball deflected 29 times, I think it was a playoff high for this year by Miami. They did it to themselves in Game 3.
What was it Game 1? Where in the third quarter it was like a 39–14 run by Miami. The Celtics are just shooting themselves in the foot in the games that they’ve lost in this series. When they play like they played in Game 4, which is sturdy defensively, which they’ve been for most of the second half of the season, relatively turnover-free, got three turnovers in the first half—11 overall. They’re the better team; they just are. So, you know, it’s 2–2 going down to Miami, the Heat have home court advantage going into Game 5. I think the Celtics are fully capable of winning the next two. In fact, I would predict them to win the next two games of the series, if they are healthy-ish. And if they keep the turnovers low.
Howard Beck: I used to use as a reference point, when I try to explain to people and remind myself, Chris, that the playoffs are really unpredictable sometimes, and that no single game is necessarily indicative of a series. We always overreact; we’re always prisoners of the moment. The second a team wins by 20-something we think it’s over. They figured it out, the other team ain’t coming back. And I always used as an example, the 2013 NBA Finals between the Spurs and Heat, which just pinged back and forth between blowouts. It was Game 2, 19-point win by the Heat, and then the next time it was the Spurs with a 36-point win, which then swung back to a 16-point Heat win. Like, it was crazy. I’m now going to substitute in as my reference point, this Celtics-Heat series for just sheer unpredictability and the lesson for why we can never actually pretend we know what’s going to go on in a playoff series.
And injuries are part of it, Chris, I think there’s other factors. These are obviously two elite defensive teams that really get after it, and that will do everything possible to shut off everything you’re trying to do. But I think it’s exacerbated by the fact that the Miami Heat just weren’t a great offensive team to begin with. And the real outlier of the final four in these playoffs … I was looking this up, so Jimmy Butler, you and I both know, and he’s hurt right now, he’s dragging a little bit. At his best, if Jimmy wants to fill up the box score, he can; it’s not who he’s been throughout the course of his career. He’s never been a high-volume shooter or a high-volume scorer. He can bring it when needed, right? And what he’s best at is, scoring a little, assisting, playmaking, ballhandling, rebounding and a lot of defense and a lot of leadership and a lot of just keeping guys accountable, right? Like, I love the Jimmy Butler experience, but he’s not your typical leading man in this league where massive scorers, incredibly talented scorers usually rule the day.
So I looked this up because I was curious: Jimmy averaged 21.4 points a game in the regular season. So forget about the playoff totals, which I know are higher, ’cause that’s indicative that he can score, that he can score big, but it’s not naturally his role. He usually averages 21, 22 points a game in his career. 21.4 points per game in the regular season. I wanted to know when’s the last time somebody averaged that few points and led a team to the championship—it’s been a while. So last year, Giannis, 28 points a game in the regular season. The year before you had both Anthony Davis and LeBron [James] for the Lakers averaging over 25. The year before that Kawhi [Leonard] for the Raptors averaged 26. The two years before that you had the [Kevin] Durant–[Stephen] Curry combination, both those guys average 25-plus. Before that, LeBron leading the Cavs at 25-plus. Before that Steph Curry at 24. You have to go back to 2014, in another one of those Heat-Spurs Finals where Kawhi Leonard averaged 12.8 points per game in the regular season and only 14 in the playoffs. But Kawhi Leonard was playing with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker. With all due respect to Bam [Adebayo], Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro, not the same. Before that you got a couple of LeBron–[Dwyane] Wade years where they’re both obviously big-time scorers. Dirk [Nowitzki] had only 23 points a game in the 2010–2011 season, so that’s a little lower, but still not as low as Jimmy Butler, and then before that Kobe Bryant.
So point being, the Heat, it’s to their credit that they’ve made it this far. And if they somehow win this series, which is still on the table, it will be an incredible achievement. They are not built like your typical contender because they don’t have “that guy” offensively. And it is the one thing as you know, Chris, ’cause we talked about it in the weeks and months leading to the postseason, it was the one concern I had with the Heat. I admire the heck out of what they’re doing, but I don’t know if a team without an elite scorer can make it all the way in this league. But it’s still possible as you and I record this.
CM: Yeah, look, the Celtics could go down to Miami, and they could play Game 5 without Robert Williams and without Marcus Smart. Like, that would be a game-changer. Derrick White by the way, great story in Game 4. He comes out, has 10 points in the first quarter, plays all 12 minutes, plays a lot of minutes in the first half. Chips in with the assists, steals, took a charge played great defense against Jimmy Butler. That Heat starting lineup had what, 18 points total in that game? 6-for-36 from the floor. I mean, that was just elite-level defense. That defense though, that would take a big hit if Smart and Williams are both out. That’s the Defensive Player of the Year and second-team All-Defensive big man.
So Miami is very much in it; but if Boston has all their guys, I just don’t see the Heat beating them. I don’t think they can score enough and I don’t think their defense is as good as Boston’s. As good as Miami’s defense is, Boston’s is just a little bit better. And I think that will play out over the rest of this series. So yeah, I think the Celtics win the next two. I think they close the series out in six at home on Friday.