1. We’ve Got a Game 7!: While these payoffs have had some fun moments, we haven’t really had any epic series. The two Game 7s we have had (Boston/Milwaukee and Dallas/Phoenix) were blow outs. I’m moderately hopeful that tonight’s Boston/Miami Game 7 could get us the epic Game 7 we all want a la Milwaukee/Brooklyn last year.
What should we expect from a Game 7 here? Well, the series has been a defensive war most of the time. Miami has shrunk its rotation to about six or seven players (depending on Kyle Lowry’s health) and is relying Jimmy Butler to go crazy in isolation (yes, they won Game 3 with Butler missing the second half but they barely hung on). The intriguing question is whether Butler’s cumulative minutes will make it too hard for him to go to the well in Game 7. He has played 40 and 46 minutes the last two games and that’s tough to do again. Still, if you are a Heat fan, you can note that Butler had some excellent games after heavy minutes in the Philly series.
It is incumbent on Miami to get some perimeter help. The 3-point shooting has been pretty bad as a team outside of PJ Tucker. Erik Spoelstra, though, wants defenders he can trust and we are seeing a lot of Victor Oladipo and Gabe Vincent as a result. We are also seeing Max Strus over Duncan Robinson because Strus is physically a lot stronger. It’s easy to understand Miami’s thinking when we see so many isolations called for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and how important it is to make them work hard for shots. Still, Miami will need a few easy buckets or knock down threes to win. It’s a difficult balance but it may be tilted slightly too far to the defense side. Perhaps a little more Robinson in the first half or third quarter could help.
As for Boston, I’m pretty optimistic about its chances even though it is coming off of a crushing loss in Game 6 and has to play Game 7 on the road. Boston is the deeper team and they have two great scorers in Brown and Tatum. Ime Udoka has shortened the rotation too but his key players are mostly much younger. Lastly, the Celtics have outscored Miami handily for the series (+5.5 ppg). Yes, this is a small sample size and past results don’t totally matter in a one game winner-take-all. Nevertheless, Boston has been the best team in the East all year by SRS and most measures. They are not resounding favorites but Boston has a slight edge.
2. Conference Finals Game 7s, A History: For fun, we went through all the Conference Finals Game 7s that have been played since the three-point rule came into effect in 1979-80. The data is not great for Boston but there are some nuggets of hope. First the list of games:
1981 ECF: 76ers at Celtics, Celtics win 91-90
1982 ECF: Celtics at 76ers, Celtics win 120-106 (*Road Win)
1987 ECF: Pistons at Celtics, Celtics win 117-114
1988 WCF: Mavericks at Lakers, Lakers win 117-102
1990 ECF: Bulls at Pistons, Pistons win 93-74
1993 WCF: Sonics at Suns, Suns win 123-110
1994 ECF: Pacers at Knicks, Knicks win 94-90
1995 ECF: Pacers at Magic, Magic win 105-81
1996 WCF: Jazz at Sonics, Sonics win 90-86
1998 ECF: Pacers at Bulls, Bulls win 88-83
2000 WCF: Blazers at Lakers, Lakers win 89-84
2001 ECF: Bucks at 76ers, 76ers win 108-91
2002 WCF: Lakers at King, Lakers win 112-106 (*Road Win)
2005 ECF: Pistons at Heat, Pistons win 88-82 (*Road Win)
2012 ECF: Celtics at Heat, Heat win 101-88
2013 ECF: Pacers at Heat, Heat win 99-76
2016 WCF: Thunder at Warriors, Warriors win 96-88
2018 ECF: Cavs at Celtics, Cavs win 87-79 (*Road Win)
2018 WCF: Warriors at Rockets, Warriors win 101-92 (*Road Win)
There is a bit to unpack here but here are some takeaways:
-Road teams are 5-14 in Conference Finals Game 7s.
-Despite the overall trend, the last two Conference Finals have been won by the road team, both in 2018 (which feels like 20 years ago). The Rockets’ loss gets an asterisk because Chris Paul was injured. The Cavs win also defies trends because they had peak(ish) LeBron James who has negated home court many times.
-Zooming out slightly, road teams are 4-3 in the last seven Conference Finals Game 7s. Dwyane Wade was playing hurt in 2005 but the Pistons legitimately were a deeper team. The 2002 Lakers/Kings series was an epic but, in the end, the Kings played tight while Shaq/Kobe did not.
-The closest Conference Finals Game 7 was the Celtics’ win over Philadelphia back in 1981. Philly did pay them back the next year in Boston.
-The 1990s had the most close Conference Finals Game 7s. The 1998 Bulls-Pacers and 1994 Knicks-Pacers have gotten a lot of attention in retrospectives the last few years but the Sonics win over the Jazz in 1996 deserves some props. That was a crazy series with Payton/Kemp versus Stockton/Malone going to the wire. Alas, Malone did miss a couple of key free throws near the end of that series.
-The 2012 ECF shares some similar facts to the 2022 ECF. The same teams played and Miami pulled out a Game 6 in Boston before clinching Game 7 in Miami. But those superficial similarities don’t hold up on further scrutiny. Miami was a younger team with more talent. I don’t think most fans expected Boston to hang so tough or to win the series. That Boston forced a Game 7 was a tribute to its aging but feisty core of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
-Finally, history tells us we get four or five Conference Finals per decade so enjoy the first of the 2020s!