After a wild conference semifinals in which all four series went at least six games, the NBA’s final four is set.
In the East, it is the top two seeds who will square off in the conference finals, as the Miami Heat dispatched of the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers, while the Boston Celtics sent the Brooklyn Nets and reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks packing. Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum have been two of the best individual players throughout the postseason, averaging 28.7 and 28.3 points per game, respectively — the fourth and fifth most of all players these playoffs — while also providing elite wing defense for their teams.
Around them are strong and versatile defensive rosters that figure to make life extremely difficult for both teams in the halfcourt, which means both Butler and Tatum will have to manufacture tough buckets, something they are each very good at.
Those two stars will, undoubtedly, have their fingerprints on this series and the outcome, but we also can expect fairly consistent contributions from them. The questions lie elsewhere on Miami and Boston’s rosters, and the answers to those will likely determine which team represents the East in the NBA Finals.
Which Team Can Consistently Push The Ball In Transition?
This is maybe the place where Kyle Lowry’s absence is the biggest concern for the Heat. Few point guards are better at pushing off a miss than Lowry and the Heat play much faster when he’s on the floor because of it. Against a Boston team that is absolute hell to deal with in the halfcourt, transition opportunities are the best way to get easy looks. The Heat are going to need to have their eyes up off of rebounds, particularly Bam Adebayo, who has the ability to put the ball on the floor and push the tempo after pulling down a rebound. He and Butler are their best chances to get a board and go when Lowry’s out, and even if it’s not a fastbreak, getting into your offense before the Celtics have set their defense is vital to creating good looks offensively.
The same can be said on the other side, as Miami’s defense has locked down on the Hawks and Sixers, and there just aren’t a lot of favorable matchups for the Celtics to attack. Miami will present a very different approach defensively from the Bucks, with far more switching and far less drop coverage for the Celtics’ bigs to exploit on pick-and-pops and just generally spacing out to the three-point line. That’s a unique challenge for Boston to prepare for, but finding opportunities to get cross-matches by pushing the ball off misses and turnovers will be their best chance to poke holes in what is usually an airtight defensive unit.
So much of the time the conversation about transition opportunities is off of turnovers, which is always important, but for two teams with elite halfcourt defenses, if one team can push the tempo off misses and get into early action more than the other, it might just be the difference in a game or two.
Which “Others” Shoot It Best?
The truth of the modern NBA is that shooting variance is the most important factor in playoff success, barring a complete no-show from a team’s stars (cough, Phoenix, cough). The Celtics just got done beating the Bucks in a series in which they set a record for outscoring an opponent from the three-point line, headlined by a Game 5 in which Al Horford seemingly could not miss and a Game 7 performance in which Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard buried 11 combined triples. Miami likewise knows the importance of role player shooting, with Max Strus becoming vital to their offense and supplanting Duncan Robinson in the rotation for the entirety of the second round. The team that can give the most perimeter shooting support to their star in this series is going to have a leg up, as a timely hot hand from an unexpected source can flip a game (or series) on its head.
Can Tyler Herro Get On Track?
Somewhat in line with the shooting question is whether Tyler Herro can find the form that earned him Sixth Man of the Year this season, or if his issues with inefficiency will continue into the conference finals. With Lowry’s status so up in the air, the Heat don’t really have another perimeter player who can create their own shot other than Herro. We just saw the Bucks get knocked out by Boston in part because Jrue Holiday was unable to provide the needed secondary support for Giannis.
Of the two secondary stars in this series, you have to trust that Jaylen Brown is going to show up and provide that lift for Tatum in most of the games, even if sometimes that’s just one hot shooting quarter that allows Tatum to take a breather. Butler needs the same from Herro, but to this point, the 6MOY is averaging just 13.8 points on 42/27.3/91.3 shooting splits in the postseason. That hasn’t bitten them yet, but against a Celtics team that is better than their opponents thus far, the Heat will not want to bank on that trend continuing. Herro has to be a threat that shifts some attention away from Butler, or the margin for error becomes effectively nil for Miami’s others.