The Miami Heat only needed nine games to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, sweeping the Indiana Pacers in four games and knocking off the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in five. Now they face a stiff test in the Boston Celtics, a team that entered the season with defensive questions, particularly in the frontcourt, but have more than proven their capabilities on that end during their playoff run.
Boston suffocated the Sixers in the opening round and continued to be salty on defense against the Toronto Raptors in a seven-game slugfest. Facing the Heat, though, will present a wholly different challenge than anything they’ve seen in this postseason. Miami has been the best offensive team in the Eastern Conference playoffs thus far, despite facing two teams with strong defensive identities. Their varied dynamic, with an ability to score efficiently inside and out, makes them a stern test for this Boston defense.
Where Toronto’s offense often became a slog in the halfcourt, the Heat are far more comfortable and effective thanks to their floor balance. Goran Dragic and Jimmy Butler take much of the on-ball responsibility, attacking favorable 1-on-1 matchups and taking advantage of having an elite screen man in Bam Adebayo, who is great at creating enough space for them to drive to the rim and make decisions from there with the defense collapsing around them. The Celtics were very good at keeping the Raptors guards out of the paint, but Adebayo presents an entirely different dynamic as a roll man compared to Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol (who were often popping to the perimeter). The Celtics will have plenty to think about defensively, from staying in front of Dragic and Butler to staying attached to Miami’s various shooters.
The first question for the Celtics is how they will decide on matchups for this Miami team — and maybe more importantly, how they shift those assignments as the game wears on. Boston has a ton of versatile perimeter/wing defenders, but how they deploy those players and picking their spots for who to get the most grueling matchups (and thus expend the most energy) will be important.
Dragic has been sensational for Miami this postseason, averaging 21.1 points per game and providing Miami with a much-needed creator capable of breaking down defenses to get to the rim, making scoring opportunities for himself and collapsing defenses to open up the Heat’s bevy of shooters. The point guard matchup in this series, with Dragic against Kemba Walker, could very well be a deciding factor, but a luxury Boston has is sending different looks at Dragic rather than having Walker take that responsibility all to himself.
Butler has been the unquestioned closer for the Heat this postseason, dominating key fourth quarters and elevating himself to the title of “best player on the floor” no matter the opponent. He’s averaging 7.4 points per fourth quarter this postseason, hitting 58.6 percent of his shots (and 50 percent of his threes) on a robust 31.7 percent usage rate. The Heat are outscoring their opponent by 30 points per 100 fourth quarter possessions with Butler out there. Butler’s been great all postseason, averaging 21.8 points per game on a 25.5 percent usage, but those numbers also illustrate how much more aggressive and assertive he is in the final quarter.
Early in the game, Butler seems far happier to let Dragic initiate and let the Miami offense play with its egalitarian flow, as the ball pops around the perimeter in search of the open man. In the fourth quarter, though, it shifts far more to Butler being on the ball, creating for himself and others (his assist percentage also jumps from 19.8 overall to 25 in the final quarter). That means a defense must adapt too, and that’s among the key challenges for Boston’s defense.
Expect Marcus Smart to be the player that draws the assignment of Jimmy Butler in the fourth quarter, but the question is whether Brad Stevens will be willing to deploy Smart on Dragic early in the game to apply ball pressure. Milwaukee found its greatest defensive success in the Miami series when they had Eric Bledsoe press up on Dragic and try to make him uncomfortable, compared to when they sagged off and played soft on Dragic to wall off driving lanes. The same could be said in the Toronto series for Boston against Kyle Lowry, but Stevens wasn’t always quick to send Smart after the Raptors lead guard early in the game. Jaylen Brown also figures to get some time on Dragic and Butler, as the Celtics will look to show both some different looks throughout the game.
Beyond the deployment of Smart, there’s the question of how they choose matchups on the Miami shooters, namely who draws the assignment of chasing Duncan Robinson around the court. Defending Robinson is, in effect, a full-time job and can be physically draining due to the fact that he never stops moving and work off of screens to try and create enough space for a catch-and-shoot look or a dribble-handoff opportunity with Bam Adebayo. Those Robinson minutes might be when Stevens deploys some of his bench wings, letting someone like Semi Ojeleye expend their energy chasing the sharpshooter around the floor rather than tiring out his offensive stars like Brown or Jayson Tatum.
Tyler Herro likewise requires constant attention, but isn’t quite as consistent a mover as Robinson, although he is a far greater on-ball threat. I’d expect him to see an awful lot of Brown and Tatum, particularly because any time they can get Herro on one of those two in transition or semi-transition, that’s going to be a major win for Boston on the offensive end. When Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala are on the floor, Walker will likely pivot to one of those two given they are the least concerning offensive threats for the Heat, with Smart or Brown taking on the Dragic assignment.
In the frontcourt, Stevens has shown a willingness to roll with whomever has the hot hand in a matchup, as he’s bounced from Daniel Theis to Robert Williams to even playing Grant Williams at the five down the stretch in Game 7 against Toronto. Adebayo should have a significant advantage over any of those, but Stevens finding the right matchup who can at least keep Adebayo off the offensive glass, where he’s dominated this postseason (OREB% of 9.5 in the playoffs, fifth among players averaging 20 minutes per game). Theis will get first crack at Adebayo, but the more athletic Williams might see extended burn in this series as well in an effort to come closer to matching Adebayo’s burst and athleticism.
The Heat present such a different level of stress for a defense compared to the Raptors, and Boston will have to match their energy and effort across the board. However, while Milwaukee had a stubborn attachment to their scheme and system, Boston is far more adaptive as a group. Stevens isn’t afraid to go to different matchups and try different things in a series, and the coaching matchup in this one — much like Celtics-Raptors — figures to be excellent. Erik Spoelstra has to find balance between putting his best offensive lineups on the floor and having enough wing defenders to keep Boston’s offense in check. Stevens’ task is more about deployment of his usual rotation and trying to find opportunities to take Walker and Tatum off of Miami’s toughest assignments in order to get the most out of them on offense.
That chess match begins on Tuesday, but expect adjustments and counters from both teams on a nightly basis in this series.