Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Celtics/Heat

In the season that has lasted forever, we are finally to the Eastern Conference Finals.  Oddly, the teams playing are the three seed (Boston) and the five seed (Miami).  As an initial note, it looks like Boston is the slight favorite, even though the Heat is 8-1 in the playoffs, and convincingly beaten the best team in the NBA last round.   Shouldn’t Miami’s excellent play in the bubble mean something more?  Maybe.  I thought we could breakdown the series and see what we could expect.  Instead of doing a traditional position-by-position breakdown, we look at some of the key factors to consider:

-Head-to-Head:  Boston leads the season series 2-1.  Here’s how each game went down…

Game 1, Boston wins 112-93:  Back in December, Boston beat down the Heat by 19 in the TD Garden.   The Heat were quite good at the time (15-6) and had most of the pieces they have now, except they played Kendrick Nunn much more, Justise Winslow was still in town, and Goran Dragic was out with an injury.  Boston didn’t stop Jimmy Butler (37 pts on 18 shots) but the rest of the roster had trouble.  Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker killed Miami and the game was essentially over at halftime (Gordon Hayward did not play for the Celts).

Game 2, Boston wins 109-101:  In late January, Boston came into Miami and won a tough game, without Jayson Tatum.  The Celts led pretty much wire-to-wire.  This time, Walker shot poorly but Brown was, again, on fire (25 points).  The Boston defense did a nice job on Butler, Duncan Robinson, and Tyler Herro.  Miami’s most effective players were Bam Adebayo and Dragic.

Game 3, Miami wins 112-106:  Boston’s two wins, though convincing, were pre-Pandemic.   They did play in the bubble and Miami won a close game.   Brad Stevens played all his guys, though they limited Kemba to 27 minutes.  On the other side, Jimmy Butler did not play and Bam, Dragic, and Robinson carried the offensive load.  There is an argument that Boston was cruising since they were pretty locked into the three slot but viewpoint buries the lead that Miami has been really good of late.

-Trends from the head-to-head:  The most consistent performer for Boston has been Brown, who was great in all three games.  On Miami, Dragic and Bam have given Boston trouble too.

-Team Stats/Matchups:  Boston had a much better season overall.  They had four more wins than Miami for the season and a much better SRS (5.83 to 2.59 for the Heat).   The Heat don’t have any huge weaknesses but Boston must stop the three-point shooting.  If Jae Crowder shoots so well again (22-51 from three), Boston could be screwed.  Another potential matchup play is Kemba, who Toronto worked hard to focus on attacking in the half court and that was pretty effective.  Walker worked hard but is vulnerable to bigger guards.  Dragic isn’t as good as Kyle Lowry but he can probably give Walker some problems too.

Boston usually defends the three-point line better than Milwaukee did last round.  Moreover, the Celts have a number of versatile swing players who can stick with Miami’s wings and they will probably not leave Crowder or Robinson open that much.  In that sense, they will need to keep Marcus Smart on Dragic or Butler most of the time, if possible.  The Celtics will also need Daniel Theis to try to slow down Bam, who has been a wrecking ball on both sides of the floor.  Theis was fairly impressive against Toronto (he gave the bigger Raptors issues) but Adebayo is a different type of player.

-Low Seeded Finals:  On a historical note, we haven’t had too many Conference Finals without, at least a two seed.  It’s only happened twice since 1984-84.  The last time was 2010-11, when the three seed Mavs beat the four seed OKC Thunder 4-1.  The only other time this happened since the NBA went to the 16-team format was 2006-07.  That year, the three seed Spurs (58-24) beat the five seed Jazz (51-31) and then swept the Cavs in the Finals (note we are not counting a few times when the three-seed actually had a better record than the two-seed but had the lower seed because the two-seed won its division).  The interesting kind of trend is that both three seeds won their Conference Finals matchups and would go on to win the NBA Finals.  The 2010-11 Mavs famously upset LeBron’s first Heat team.  The 2006-07 Spurs swept LeBron’s weak squad.  This isn’t a meaningful trend but it sort of bodes well for Boston.  If LeBron gets to the Finals again this season, maybe he can snap this streak. 

-Miami v. Boston, A Playoff History:  It’s not exactly Celtics-76ers in terms of playoff rivalries but Miami and Boston have a history.  They met three times before in the playoffs and, in fact, those matchups occurred three years in a row from 2009-10 through 2011-12.  Miami leads the matchup 2-1.  Let’s work backwards and review how those historical matchups played out.  Working backwards, they last met in 2011-12, when LeBron & Co. narrowly beat the last gasp of the Garnett/Pierce Celtics.  I had forgotten the details but Miami went up 2-0 (including a close Game 2 where Rajon Rondo somehow scored 44 points).  Boston held serve and stole Game 5 in Miami before getting trounced in Boston in Game 6 and again in the clincher.  It was strange because they met the year before when Boston was closer to its peak and Miami dispatched the Celts easily in a 4-1 thumping.  Finally, in first meeting in 2009-10, Miami lost to them in the first round 4-1.  Boston only had a few more wins but was clearly the better team than the Dwyane Wade Heat before the signed LBJ and Chris Bosh.

-Coaching:  When we first looked back at the bubble preview, we noted that good coaching made a difference in the last weird season in 1998-99.  This has borne out pretty well in the bubble too, with both Brad Stevens and Erik Spoelstra doing great jobs overall and in the playoffs.  I don’t see a significant coaching edge between.  Spo is slightly more seasoned but I see no apparent advantage on this front.

-In the end:  A look at the history and the teams shows that Boston has a real, if not sizable, advantage over Miami.  Boston has greater depth and the ability to handle the wings that Milwaukee did not.   I expect Jaylen Brown to continue his great play on both sides of the court and the Heat’s nice run to end.  After the season, Miami is set up to potentially sign or trade for another star and they could be scary good again.  Maybe, LBJ will be available?  Prediction: Celtics win 4-2.