The Boston Celtics squeaked by the Toronto Raptors in seven games to make it to the Eastern Conference finals, while the Miami Heat needed only five to take out the Milwaukee Bucks. Both teams are stingy and switchable defensively, and both get offense from a variety of sources. The third-seeded Celtics are widely considered the favorites, but the Heat are anything but a typical No. 5 seed. Here are 10 questions to preview the series, which begins on Tuesday:
1. Can the Celtics handle Miami’s zone?
Boston didn’t get past the Raptors on the strength of its offense, which looked particularly out of sorts against zone coverage. The box-and-one made it difficult for Kemba Walker to find his rhythm running pick-and-rolls and for Boston to generate shots that the same ways they usually do. Miami knows this, and it played more zone than any other team in the NBA this season.
Maybe the second round prepared the Celtics for what’s coming. They were in problem-solving mode the entire time, and their coaching staff will make sure they won’t be surprised if the Heat start Game 1 in a 2-3 zone. It is also possible, though, that zoning up is simply an effective way to combat the best thing Boston does when it has possession of the ball: giving it to Walker and setting screens for him.
One thing that might make a zone less tenable is having another playmaker and shooter in the lineup, which brings us to…
2. What’s up with Hayward?
Gordon Hayward went through a small group workout after practice on Monday and “looked good when he was going through it,” coach Brad Stevens said, “but there’s a big difference between doing that and actually getting into a game.” He won’t play in the opener, but if he is available after that and can approximate his play in the regular season, he can change the feel of the Celtics’ offense.
Hayward had a usage rate of only 20.6 percent this season, but that drastically undersells his skills and how important he can be in a series like this. What makes Boston unique is that, at full strength, it can create matchup problems with four perimeter players, making it difficult for defenses to zero in on any of them or hide a weak defender. Hayward is equally comfortable creating plays for others as he is for himself, which cannot be said about Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, so his presence naturally gives the offense more pop.
3. How will the Celtics match up defensively?
The luxury of starting four multipositional defenders is that Stevens has all sorts of options. I’m most interested in who’s on Goran Dragic and who’s on Bam Adebayo at the beginning of Game 1.
First Team All-Defense guard Marcus Smart is the obvious choice to slow down Dragic, who was one of the league’s best reserves in the regular season and has been a phenomenal starter in the playoffs, an enormous driver of Miami’s success on offense. Tatum is an intriguing alternative, though, and might be able to disrupt Dragic’s rhythm with his length — he and Brown both spent a lot of time guarding Raptors guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet in the second round (and will presumably both draw Jimmy Butler duty).
Daniel Theis seems like the default matchup for Adebayo, but I’ll bet Boston gets creative at some point in the series. If Stevens experiments with Brown or even Smart on him, you can expect Adebayo to try to bully his way to the rim and get to the free throw line. In that scenario, though, the big man is often the one who gets called for the foul. Which brings us to…
4. Can the Celtics deal with the Bam stuff?
The Heat get an amazing amount of mileage out of Adebayo doing stuff that opposing teams don’t see too often. On offense he is a total weirdo, sort of a hybrid of Draymond Green and Domantas Sabonis, unconventional All-Stars in their own right, but with much more foot speed and explosiveness than either of them.
Adebayo will push the ball off of defensive rebounds and find the Heat easy buckets off of dribble-handoffs. When he has the ball at the elbow, Miami confuses defenses the same way the Golden State Warriors did, with screens and cuts that often end with Adebayo earning an assist — and if he senses you’re playing him for the pass, he will happily attack the basket himself. Boston knows all about his chemistry with Duncan Robinson, and if it decides to hide Theis elsewhere, it is probably for the purposes of switching when the two of them are involved in an action.
5. Is matchup-hunting the answer against the Heat?
The Celtics’ offensive approach might be completely different than it was in the second round. “Isolation is not the answer,” Stevens said two weeks ago, but it might be now. While the Heat can be a devastating defensive team, they have a few weak individual defenders in their rotation. The Indiana Pacers were at their best in the first round when they attacked Dragic, Robinson and Tyler Herro one-on-one. Miami can counter this by giving more minutes to Andre Iguodala and Derrick Jones Jr., but that would mean sacrificing spacing on the other end.
Boston seems uniquely suited to exploit the Heat here, particularly when they are switching ball screens. In these playoffs the Celtics have been much more of a pick-and-roll team and have had little success in isolation, but championship contenders need to be able to play different ways against different opponents. This matchup makes me think of their second-round series two years ago, in which they repeatedly targeted the Philadelphia 76ers’ J.J. Redick, Dario Saric, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova.
6. Will the Heat stay this hot from deep?
Miami changed in a fundamental way when it replaced Meyers Leonard with Jae Crowder and got Herro back from injury. Before Crowder’s debut on Feb. 9, Miami was ninth in 3-point frequency and second in accuracy, per Cleaning The Glass. In the seeding games, with Herro healthy, only the Houston Rockets shot 3s more often, but its percentage fell to 35 percent, which is around league average. In the playoffs, the Heat have had the best of both worlds: 41.9 percent of their shots have been 3s and they have made 38.5 percent of them. Both marks rank fourth.
Miami will be tough to stop if Crowder, a former Celtic, continues shooting 40 percent on 8.3 attempts per game. Boston’s opponents typically take a lot of 3s but make a low percentage of them; in the second round, Toronto shot 30 percent or worse in all four of its losses.
7. Can Herro keep this up?
Herro has made 40 percent of his 3s in the playoffs, but that doesn’t tell the story. He is making them in crunch time, he is making them off the dribble and, more importantly, he has earned coach Erik Spoesltra’s trust as a playmaker. In a seeding game against the Phoenix Suns, he had 25 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds; in the clincher against the Bucks, he had 14 points, six assists and eight rebounds.
The Celtics, with their army of wing defenders, are Herro’s biggest challenge yet. I could see them trying to take him out by putting Smart on him.
8. Can Boston defend without fouling?
Butler got to the line nine times a game in the regular season, and that number has climbed to 10.7 in the playoffs. Dragic and Adebayo can wreak havoc this way, too, and the Heat led the league in free throw rate in the regular season (and are second in the playoffs). This is something to watch, especially because the Celtics were 24th in free throw rate defensively and are physical both on the perimeter and in the paint.
When Boston is foul-prone, the culprit is often Theis. Grant Williams, who closed out Game 7 against Toronto at center, also tends to pick up fouls on the inside. Which brings us to…
9. What is the Celtics’ frontcourt rotation?
When Adebayo has been off the court, Miami has either had Kelly Olynyk in his place or gone without a big man. In this respect, Boston is less predictable — if Stevens wants vertical spacing and shot-blocking, he can call on Robert Williams; if he wants switchability and sound rotations, he can go with Grant Williams; if he wants offensive rebounding and post-up scoring, he can try Enes Kanter. I wouldn’t even be shocked to see Semi Ojeleye get some minutes at the 5 against Adebayo.
Theis typically plays 25-30 minutes per game, but he got 47 in double-overtime in Game 6. If Stevens is looking for some offensive punch, he could go with Robert Williams or Kanter when Theis goes to the bench. They both leave Boston vulnerable against Miami’s pick-and-rolls, though, so I suspect there will be an opportunity here for Grant Williams or Ojeleye, both of whom are officially listed at 6-foot-6, to play “center.”
10. How will Miami match up defensively?
If the Heat elect not to use a ton of zone, there are several smaller questions here:
If Hayward is starting, where do Dragic and Robinson hide?How will they use Adebayo?How much switching will they do?Who guards Tatum?
Boston might bring Hayward off the bench, at least at first, but if he starts (and is effective) then Miami might have to consider taking Robinson or Dragic out of the starting lineup for Iguodala. It makes sense to put Adebayo on Theis because he can switch Walker’s ball screens and otherwise roam around as a help defender, but if Tatum gets going, Spoelstra could throw Adebayo on him.
After guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, Crowder could draw the Tatum assignment. Butler, however, might be more suited for it. These matchups might not matter all that much, though, should Spoelstra decide to switch everything.