The series that will determine who represents the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals is arguably the most even on-paper matchup we’ve had in the NBA Playoffs so far. The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat were unlikely to see each other in the postseason given their respective spots in the standings throughout the regular season. That’s typically the case when there’s not much difference between two teams. The standings are meant to pit good against worse in the first round of the playoffs.
But Miami threw a wrench in that structure, upsetting the undisputed best team in the league by virtue of win total and night-to-night performance in the Milwaukee Bucks during the second round. As surprising as it was to see Milwaukee fall, how it happened made sense – Miami took advantage of the Bucks inability to adjust defensively by bombing threes while stopping Giannis Antentokounmpo in his tracks.
What’s more surprising is what that series leaves behind. Either the Celtics or Heat are going to make the NBA Finals. That wasn’t something anyone foresaw being a legitimate scenario not only before the season, but perhaps even before the league’s shutdown.
Miami and Boston play extremely similar styles and have almost identical personnel. Both teams are heavy on wings, have one real big in their rotation, can switch everything defensively (and usually do) and have battle-tested crunch-time scorers.
Few advantages are found. Miami’s so deep that just by pure volume they likely possess more firepower. Jae Crowder’s ability to actually hit shots has added him to a three-point caravan that includes Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Kelly Olynyk and Goran Dragic. Marcus Smart has had a Crowder-like breakout, improving from just average beyond the arc to someone who can get hot and hit six threes on any given night. His emergence pairs him with Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward as firepower options– practically Boston’s entire starting lineup from the regular season.
Miami’s bench is just deeper. It’s a team that can play ten guys if it wants to. Boston’s rotations have been shrinking – as expected – throughout the playoffs. Gordon Hayward’s eventual return will help, but even then, Boston is looking at Smart, Robert Williams and potentially Grant Williams (More on him next) as bench players. Only one of those guys is providing substantial offense.
The Heat also have Bam Adebayo, who’s the type of player Boston is most ill-equipped to defend. Toronto partially exposed the Celtics problems defending bigs last series – Serge Ibaka continually stretched Daniel Theis out to the three point line and sunk shots from there. One of the Raptors biggest mistakes was not going to him more, though pulling Pascal Siakam late in Game 7 for Ibaka is something Nick Nurse just couldn’t do given Siakam’s importance to the team.
Adebayo doesn’t have the stretchiness Ibaka does but he can make Boston pay even more. In ways, Ibaka’s role as a shooter helped Boston defensively. He didn’t have the ability to create his own shot off the dribble or put the ball on the deck and get to the rim. This forced Theis to only step up and close out on jumpers, rather than shuffle his feet and stay in front of someone driving
What makes Adebayo so unique isn’t just the defense he brings or his passing, but his ability to create for himself like a guard. Putting the ball on the deck and driving to the rim is a common trick of his, and if he misses the layup, his second bounce is so quick that he’s able to get the tip-in.
Theis has zero chance against that. Few of Boston’s bigs do. Their only option out of the bigs is Grant Williams, who played in crunch-time of Game 7 and survived as a rookie.
Williams’ biggest asset out of Tennessee was his defense. His ability to switch at the NBA level was questionable, but it’s certainly been proven throughout his first season. Because of the athleticism and quick feet, he’s Boston’s best bet against Adebayo on the defensive side. Offensively, it presents challenges though. The Celtics are likely playing four-on-five with Grant Williams on the court. His shooting – though better than predicted based on his draft prospectus – hasn’t came along and his lack of general size (6’6, 236 pounds) doesn’t make him a viable lob or quick and easy basket threat. If he plays, Boston probably has him hide far in the corner. It could drag Adebayo out there, clearing the lane for rim attackers and making the star center’s life helping much harder. Miami probably counters by hiding their worst defender on him – likely Herro in crunch-time, and then it’s four on four.
The Celtics can survive offensively with Williams on the court. The reasons why are their biggest advantage in the series.
While the Heat have more firepower, Boston has the best player in the series. They also likely have the third and fourth-best as well.
The ceiling of what Jayson Tatum can do on a given night is higher than Jimmy Butler. Tatum was better this season, earning a spot on the All-NBA second team and establishing himself as a true star. Kemba Walker is a top 25 player in the league at his best. Jaylen Brown approaches the top 30 when he’s on.
Boston has more creators and more guys with higher ceilings – more guys who can get their own shot and beat defenders one-on-one. Miami beat Milwaukee because they took advantage of what was given to them: open threes and the opposition’s best player refusing to be aggressive and do what he does best. He also never had the ability to create one-on-one. That’s not to say Miami was lucky – the job they did initially against Antentokounmpo’s drives bulled him into not attempting them later in the series, pre-injury. But the likely MVP never offered any other counter because there’s nothing else in his arsenal. With Boston, almost every guy on the floor has more than one weapon, and they have the nuke with Tatum.
Prediction: Celtics in 6
Now for some quick hits on Tuesday’s Game 7 between the Clippers and Nuggets:
- It’s really amazing – and also quite pathetic – that we’re here with the Clippers. Milwaukee was the best team in the league but the Clippers always should have been title favorites, because questions about the Bucks viability in the playoffs remained and were obviously answered.
- For the most part, it is an effort problem that’s resulted in Los Angeles staring down their playoffs lives. The defense has just not been there the past two games, enabling Denver to come back from a 3-1 hole. The offense hasn’t been moving the ball, and is taking bad shots out of isolations from guys that shouldn’t be isolating instead.
- It’s the type of laziness that Golden State displayed from 2015-2019 at times. The difference is that 1) we knew Golden State were champions and they had that to fall back on (This Clippers team does not) and 2) the Warriors displayed historic offensive production and could get as hot as we’ve ever seen from three point land at any time, making no deficit insurmountable. The Clippers have not shown us either of those things throughout this regular season and playoffs.
- Which is why them playing like they have that ability in their back pocket isn’t just disappointing but nonsensical. While they should win the title, they aren’t as good as they perceive themselves to be, and it’s landed them in an elimination game.
- Some props need to be given to Denver. They haven’t just gotten lucky thanks to the Clippers porous defense. Nikola Jokic has been a legitimate star for the Nuggets, and has torched Los Angeles. The Clippers have tried everything against him – Montrezl Harrell is too small and is still getting back into form after missing significant time. Ivica Zubac can’t defend Jokic’s pops out to the three point line. Kawhi Leonard has been busy stifling Jamal Murray.
- Paul George is a great defender but he’s not strong enough to possibly help stop Jokic. That takes Leonard-like strength as a wing.
- Jokic has won Denver the past two games. But that was in addition to bad defense against other Nuggets and inefficient offense from the Clippers.
- Denver needs Jokic to go off again and one other player to pop in order to win Tuesday. Michael Porter Jr. is certainly a candidate – he’s killed the Clippers in the series, but their effort to defend him has been weak. If he can elevate to his potential, then a good defensive effort from Los Angeles may not matter.
- It still seems as if Denver doesn’t have enough. But that’s only if the Clippers aren’t locked in. You would hope they are tonight.