Skip to main content

The series between the Celtics and Heat figures to be a defensive slugfest featuring two of the NBA's top-five defenses.

Boston finished the regular season yielding the fewest points per 100 possessions and went through Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Durant averaged 26.4 points per game, his lowest output in the playoffs since his first time participating in 2009-2010, per basketball-reference.com.

As incredible as Antetokounmpo was against the Celtics, the combination of not having Khris Middleton, Boston forcing him to go through them to score, and keeping him involved in actions when he was on defense led to him being exhausted by the end of the series. In Game 7, after generating at least 40 points in three of the previous four matchups, Antetokounmpo scored 25 and took six free throws.

USATSI_18278377

On the other side of this Eastern Conference Finals matchup is a Miami team that held Trae Young to 15.4 points per game in the first round, advancing in five.

The amount of credit you give the Heat for limiting Joel Embiid to 19.8 points in four games as he fought through orbital and wrist injuries is up to you. But even if you think that had a lot more to do with Embiid than how Miami guarded him, the point stands, the Heat are one of the better defenses you'll find in the NBA.

And when it comes to this series, Miami has multiple options Erik Spoelstra can feel good about putting on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown; most notably, Jimmy Butler and P.J. Tucker.

The Heat will also do everything possible to make Boston's role players beat them. That means supporting cast members like Grant Williams, who went 7/18 from beyond the arc, scoring a game-high and career-best 27 points in the Celtics' Game 7 win against the Bucks, need to capitalize on the clean looks afforded to them. It's one of the primary indicators of which team will reach the Finals.

USATSI_18278295

The Celtics also know they'll have to prove themselves against the Heat's zone defense, another method geared towards making them prove they can shoot well enough to win this series.

After struggling against zone defenses earlier in the season, Ime Udoka said on Monday, "I thought we found our groove later and did really well against it." Their improvement against zone coverages stems from Tatum's growth as a facilitator and Boston's reshaped roster leading to quicker decisions and better ball movement.

The key is attacking defenders and getting through the gaps to produce in-rhythm shots. A lack of ball movement and aggression leads to a stagnant offense where attempts come after one pass and may force someone to do more self-creating than you would want.

Scroll to Continue

RECOMMENDED ARTICLES

USATSI_17993393

No matter the coverage, it's paramount the Celtics take care of the ball. While that's true in any game, it's vital against a team like Miami, whose half-court offense isn't as good as Boston's previous two opponents. But one way the Heat offset that is by applying enough physicality and on-ball pressure to produce a high volume of turnovers. They're forcing 15.6 turnovers per game in the playoffs, the third-most, per NBA.com. And Miami's translating that into 19.7 points, the second-most off turnovers, per the same source.

USATSI_14993423

In the bubble in Orland in 2020, against this same opponent, the Celtics found out the hard way that being the more talented team doesn't mean they'll advance to the Finals. The Heat will again challenge their mental toughness and ability to maintain focus in the face of pressure.

USATSI_18278292 (1)

But this is a more mature group. A new culture's gotten cultivated under first-year head coach Ime Udoka. Their defense is significantly improved compared to 2020 when opponents targeted Kemba Walker, and Bam Adebayo had his way with Daniel Theis. And the Celtics now respond better to adversity, as evidenced by Jayson Tatum outdueling Antetokounmpo in Game 6 in Milwaukee, delivering a 46-point performance this author considers the best of Tatum's career when accounting for the stakes and opponent.

As good as Butler is, Tatum's the best player in this series. Compared to two years ago, he's stronger, better at finishing through contact, and a vastly improved facilitator than when he flashed his potential in that role in the bubble in 2020. Now, it's time for him to lead his team to the Finals.

Further Reading

Robert Williams Available Without Minutes Restriction for Celtics-Heat Eastern Conference Finals

Marcus Smart Questionable for Game 1 vs. Heat Due to Mid-Foot Sprain

Celtics Discuss Bouncing Back From 3-2 Deficit to Get by Bucks: 'I think it will boost our confidence going forward'

Celtics, Grant Williams, Discuss His Epic Game 7-Performance: 'Let it fly; They're disrespecting you more tonight than earlier in the series'

What Stood Out from Game 7: Celtics Pick Ideal Time for Their Best Game of the Playoffs

[Film Room] What Led to Jayson Tatum's Struggles in Game 3 and How the Celtics Get Him Going in Game 4