It’s 2012 all over again. After enduring the painful rebuilding cycles associated with older contenders, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics have made it back to the same stage where they famously battled it out for a spot in the NBA Finals eight years ago, but with very different names. LeBron James and Paul Pierce are gone, replaced by Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler. On both rosters, only Udonis Haslem remains, and that sets the tone for this series.
As much history as these organizations share, this is a matchup neither knows particularly well nor could possibly be prepared for. After all, assuming that the No. 3 and No. 5 seeds would reach the Eastern Conference finals would be somewhat foolhardy under normal circumstances. But Boston and Miami defied the odds, and now we have not only one of the most surprising final four matchups in NBA history, but one of the most exciting. Here’s everything you need to know about the Eastern Conference finals.
(3) Celtics vs. (5) Heat
All times Eastern
Game 1: Tuesday, Sept. 15, 6:30 p.m. I ESPNGame 2: Thursday, Sept. 17, TBD | ESPNGame 3: Saturday, Sept. 19, 8:30 p.m. | ESPNGame 4: Monday, Sept. 21, TBD | TBDGame 5*: Wednesday, Sept. 23, TBD | TBDGame 6*: Friday, Sept. 25, TBD | TBDGame 7*: Sunday, Sept. 27 TBD | TBD*
1. The connections between these teams run deep
Forget about the recent rivalry between these teams during the LeBron years. The two rosters share far more commonalities than you’d think upon first glance.
The history between Pat Riley and Danny Ainge is testy, to say the least. Brian Windhorst explored it in depth here, but here’s how it can be summed up in a single moment. In 2018, reports claimed that Riley called Tom Thibodeau a “motherf—er” during trade negotiations. Riley denied the allegations, but in an official team statement, singles out Ainge specifically as someone he would admit to describing with expletives. Trade rumors linked Jimmy Butler to Boston for years, but by all accounts, the Celtics only ever made low-ball offers for him before he landed with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Most players would forget that. Butler will not. Tyler Herro reportedly “blew away” the Celtics during his pre-draft workout last summer, and Boston was seriously interested in picking him at No. 14. Miami took him one slot earlier at No. 13. This is far from the only time Miami has pulled something like this on Boston. In 2015, the Celtics offered an enormous haul of draft picks to the Charlotte Hornets at No. 9, trying to jump up for Justise Winslow. The Hornets declined, preferring to simply take Frank Kaminsky. When Ainge called Riley at No. 10 hoping to make a similar offer, Riley laughed and hung up according to Bill Simmons. The Heat took Winslow. Duncan Robinson grew up in New England attending Celtics games. Gordon Hayward visited the Heat during his 2017 free agency tour before settling on the Celtics. In order to create the cap space to sign him, Boston renounced their restricted free agent rights to Kelly Olynyk, who turned around and signed with the Heat. Jae Crowder made his name playing for the Celtics. One of the reasons he was even attainable to Miami was the incredibly team-friendly five-year, $35 million contract Ainge signed him to in 2015.
The conference finals are always (pun intended) heated, but this series is going to be personal in ways these matchups often aren’t. These are not two juggernauts so predestined for a postseason matchup that they spend the season learning to be civil with one another like, say, the Lakers and Clippers. Nerves will be struck. Composure will matter.
2. Hayward’s decision
The Celtics always expected to lose Hayward for some length of time during the postseason. His wife is pregnant with their fourth child and is due in late September. Hayward made it clear that he planned to leave the bubble to be with his family. And then he sprained his ankle in Game 1 of Boston’s first-round victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, and things got a whole lot more complicated.
Hayward was given a four-week recovery timeline, and left the bubble to rehab with his family in Indiana. Those four weeks have now passed, and Hayward has returned to the bubble. He cleared quarantine Friday and sat on the sideline for Boston’s Game 7 victory over Toronto. His coach was optimistic but uncertain about his status. “I think he’ll be back at some point in that series, but I don’t know when,” Brad Stevens told reporters Friday.
This is where things become more complicated. Hayward has given no indication that his plans have changed. But if his return is still a ways off and he just plans to leave the bubble again towards the end of the month anyway, why return at all? Obviously playing even a single game is better than missing out entirely, but the idea of multiple exits and quarantines doesn’t seem like a great recovery environment for an injured player.
For now, the assumption should be that Hayward is moving towards a full recovery, but that he still plans to leave the Celtics when his wife is ready to give birth. But Hayward’s return to the bubble should at least raise some eyebrows. If he planned to leave again so soon, it’s worth wondering why he returned at all. He also made that declaration before the playoffs started. Now, his Celtics are not only in the Eastern Conference finals (a stage of the postseason he has never personally participated in) but are favored in that series with the top two seeds now out of the picture. The vague idea of leaving a playoff run is one thing. The reality of abandoning a possible championship opportunity when it’s staring you in the face may be another.
3. Age before beauty
Only three post-merger players have ever led an NBA Finalist in scoring in their first three seasons. Boston knows Larry Bird quite well. The Heat can say the same of Shaquille O’Neal. Tim Duncan’s final Finals appearance came at Miami’s expense. If the Celtics have their way, Jayson Tatum’s first will as well, and if this turns into a one-on-one duel with Miami’s more seasoned Jimmy Butler, there is no obvious favorite. Despite Butler’s wealth of experience, their career postseason numbers are nearly identical.
Points per game
Field goal percentage
True shooting percentage
Effective field goal percentage
Butler could of course argue that his averages are skewed by his early years as a reserve, but he’s also had an entire prime to accumulate numbers. Tatum, still in only his third year, has carried a heavier overall workload in these playoffs.
Points per game
Field goal percentage
True shooting percentage
Effective field goal percentage
Butler’s major edge has come in the clutch, where he’s scored 22 points on 55.9 percent shooting this postseason. Tatum, on the other hand, is shooting only 33.3 percent in clutch situations, but these samples are small and clutch numbers, outside of a few exceptions, are notoriously random. Tatum had an enormous regular-season clutch edge, for instance, as Butler made only 27.4 percent of his attempts in such situations before the playoffs. Nobody would suggest that Butler is a bad clutch scorer based on those numbers.
But his excellence this postseason conveys a truth that has been obvious for years. Butler lives for the spotlight. He craves big shots, and for all that Tatum has accomplished in his three short seasons, his track record just isn’t as extensive. Butler just walloped Giannis Antetokounmpo, the same MVP that bulldozed the Celtics in the 2019 postseason. He went toe-to-toe with Kawhi Leonard a year ago and has beaten LeBron James on his home floor on multiple occasions.
Tatum, by most objective measures, is the more talented player. But Butler has made a career out of beating more talented players. Just ask the Bucks what happens when you underestimate him.
4. Will the Heat ever cool down?
If you just started watching Jae Crowder in February, you’d think he was the Eastern Conference equivalent of Klay Thompson. A 34 percent career 3-point shooter, Crowder made 44.5 percent of his regular-season attempts once he joined the Heat and has kept that up by hitting 40 percent of his playoff attempts. This isn’t just a small sample size either. Crowder has taken 203 3-pointers with the Heat. He’s averaging over eight per game in the postseason. The Heat, as a team, are shooting 44 percent on wide-open 3’s during the postseason. That’s almost four percentage points higher than their regular-season average.
Now, there is something of a “when it rains, it pours” effect with 3-point shooting. The Heat made 37.9 percent of their 3-pointers during the regular season, the second-best figure in the league, and covering that much shooting strains defenses. Crowder’s shots are easier than ever in Miami. But that still doesn’t make Crowder an elite shooter. He’s probably going to cool off eventually. Probably. Regression and variance aren’t exact sciences. Just ask Marcus Smart.
Smart shot 39 percent from behind the arc against Toronto, but 39 percent can mean a lot of things. It can mean going 3-for-7 most nights. Or you might get the feast-or-famine split that Smart produces. Against Toronto, he had two separate games in which he shot 6-of-11 on 3’s and another in which he went 5-of-9. He also had games of 2-of-9, 2-of-10 and 1-of-6. He’s been either Klay Thompson or Tristan Thompson on a given night with little in between.
The math suggests that Miami’s shooters are going to get worse. They might not. It suggests Boston’s shooters are going to get more consistent. They might not. Who does that favor? Probably Boston, slightly, because they’re less reliant on 3-point shooting. They can weather Smart’s bad shooting games. They won one of them (Game 7) against Toronto. But Miami’s ability to endure a prolonged slump is less clear because they haven’t exactly had one.
5. The chess match
Miami had something of a numbers problem for most of the season when it came to this specific matchup. The Celtics have three high-scoring forwards. The Heat, prior to the trade deadline, had only one elite perimeter defender consistently in their rotation, Butler, who needs to preserve a good chunk of his energy for offense. That meant some failed experimentation. Jaylen Brown was the primary beneficiary. In the two pre-deadline games, Bam Adebayo was his primary defender. Brown shot 50 percent again him and averaged 28 total points in that game.
Adebayo is an excellent defensive player and can hang on the perimeter as well as any big man, but chasing Brown around the court isn’t exactly the best use of his talents. Brown is too fast for Bam over the course of an entire possession.
While Adebayo got some reps in against Brown in Round 3, the trade deadline juiced Miami’s rotation with two new wing defenders: Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. Brown shot 9-of-23 in that game, and that bodes well for Miami in the Eastern Conference finals. When its roster was built for the regular season, it wasn’t equipped to defend Boston. Now, it has the horses to do so.
The Heat had a regular-season roster in those early matchups, and the Celtics had a regular-season mindset. It would not be an exaggeration to call the Duncan Robinson dribble hand-off one of the most dangerous plays in all of basketball. The Heat scored an ungodly 1.38 points per possessions on that play during the regular season. Yet when Boston faced it this season, they continuously committed one of the cardinal sins of covering a shooter: they were forced to duck under the screen.
This isn’t bad coaching. It’s regular-season coaching. Brad Stevens would have surely preferred any number of defensive alternatives, but the Celtics don’t spend the entire regular season scouting the Heat. They don’t have the intricacies of their every action drilled into their heads. That changes in the playoffs. The Robinson DHO has produced only 0.89 points per possessions in the playoffs so far. That’s not an accident. The Bucks, with several games of experience and hours of film study under their belts, knew what to expect and forced the issue when it came to chasing Robinson over the screens. That isn’t as simple as Mike Budenholzer telling his defenders to go over. It’s the result of playoff-caliber preparation. Notice the angles Milwaukee’s defenders take, anticipating a screen that they know they have to squeeze through.
Playoff series are won and lost on these adjustments, and they get far more complex than this. The Heat haven’t needed to get too crazy yet. The Bucks are notoriously slow in adjusting. But the Celtics just escaped Nick Nurse’s laboratory, and that experience against his unorthodox box-and-one and triangle-and-two schemes is going to prove invaluable against a Miami defense that uses more zone than anyone. Stevens has seen it all. In his years guiding the Heat, so has Spoelstra. You won’t see many better coaching matchups than this one.
Boston has to change gears quickly to survive the early onslaught here. Miami plays a different brand of basketball than Toronto. Whereas the Raptors live in transition, the Heat almost never run. Toronto’s clunky late-game offense relied on an egalitarian structure that tends not to work in the playoffs. Miami gives the ball to Butler and lets him go to work.
But Boston is fairly well-equipped to handle that. Butler is going to get very well acquainted with Marcus Smart over the next two weeks, and as badly as the Heat are going to want to get their superstar switched onto Kemba Walker, Smart is not one to accept an unfavorable switch. Even if they find ways to exploit Walker’s defensive issues, they don’t exactly have an answer for him on the other end. Their guards are tilted undeniably towards offense.
That’s a big problem for a Boston offense that is far better than it looked against the Raptors. Toronto had the best half-court defense in the NBA this season at 88.8 points allowed per 100 plays, per Cleaning the Glass. Miami is 12th at 94.1. Not bad under normal circumstances, but Boston is going to enjoy the extra breathing room Miami grants.
That’s what gives Boston such an edge in this series. The Raptors threw every gimmick in the book at the Celtics and actually had the personnel to pull most of them off. They still lost. The Heat have too many weak links defensively to get as extreme as the Raptors did, and if their shooting cools off, their offensive repertoire isn’t as diversified as Boston’s. Butler can make this a series, but the Celtics are the better team and should advance to the NBA Finals.