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Heat Draw Celtics in Conference Finals… Again

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Jimmy Butler, Erik Spoelstra and Max Strus | Photo Credit: www.twitter.com/MiamiHEAT

The last time the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics matched up, it was January and not much was on the line then. Fast forward almost four months later and the two teams are once again competing for one of two spots at the pinnacle of the basketball world. For the second consecutive season in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat and Celtics will compete and the winner gets a shot at a championship in the NBA Finals.

For the Heat, it’s an opportunity of redemption against the Celtics after almost booking their ticket to the NBA Finals last season. Many NBA critics would question after the fact, if Jimmy Butler should have even attempted the three-point shot that could have potentially sent Miami to their second NBA Finals appearance in three seasons around this time last year.

Jimmy Butler was named to the 2022-23 Kia All-NBA Second Team this year, despite not being selected to an All-Star team in the middle of the regular season. The theme of the Heat not receiving enough credit seems to be an on-going trend.

While hypothetical questions could always be brought up to no end about that shot Jimmy took against Boston, this Heat team has proven that they are still a threat in the postseason, while Jimmy Butler silences his critics. They made quick work of the NBA’s best team and the East’s top-seed Milwaukee Bucks in the first round through five games, no team or moment is too big for them.

Boston on the other hand, they understand to not underestimate this Heat team despite their regular season woes. The Celtics have now matched up with the Heat in the postseason three times in the last four seasons since Jimmy Butler’s arrival in South Beach, both teams trading series blows on their way to the NBA Finals in 2020 (Heat) and 2022 (Celtics), respectively.

While Boston did make an NBA Finals appearance last season, they faced a Golden State Warriors team with vastly more championship experience than a young Boston squad, ultimately leading to a 4-2 series defeat. This time around, the Celtics are banking on another year of maturity and level of preparation.

Both teams split their regular season series 2-2, with Miami getting the two most recent victories; and while it is a rematch of the conference finals, what happened last year doesn’t matter according to Boston Celtics star Jaylen Brown.

“Nothing about last year matters, I don’t think Miami is thinking about last year. I think they’re coming out and ready to play basketball. If anything, atone for last year. So, we’ve just got to come out with a great fresh mind and execute,” said Jaylen Brown.

Ever since the Heat upset the Giannis Antetokounmpo led Bucks, NBA analysts have appeared to choose the Celtics as the favorite to win the entirety of the Eastern Conference bracket. Miami has other plans on their mind, they are looking to make history as they are only the second team to reach a conference final round as an eighth-seed in NBA history.

They ironically just beat the only other franchise to accomplish that feat, the New York Knicks in 1999; that Knicks team advanced to the NBA Finals too, could the Heat do the same this year?

“It is really freaking hard to get to the Eastern Conference finals. We’ve had our normal, big, audacious goals for this season, but when you get to one step like this, there’s great gratitude because there’s a lot of teams that would love to be in this position,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.

Keys To The Matchup

By-The-Numbers – During the playoffs, the Miami Heat have outscored their opponents by 16.8 points per 100 possessions in 194 minutes when Duncan Robinson has checked into the game from the bench. That stat line from Robinson, it is ranked first out of 138 players eligible who have averaged a minimum of 10 minutes per game in the postseason.

It’s an impressive mark when you consider the fact that Robinson did not play much during the final stretch of the regular season nor even at all in Miami’s two Play-in-Tournament games. What paved the way for Robinson’s return to the floor, it was Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo’s injuries in the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks. Robinson is as efficient as ever during Miami’s postseason run, shooting 26-for-61 (42.6%) from three-point range.

Robinson’s success on the floor, well it’s not the only thing going right for Miami off the bench. While Jimmy Butler has led the Heat with heroic performances, the Heat’s bench as a whole has been phenomenal. They are producing a plus-14.7 average per 100 possessions when Butler has been on the bench. A lot of credit has to go to coach Erik Spoelstra making the executive decision to have Kyle Lowry come off the bench, which has allowed Lowry to lead the second group with stout defense and critical shot-making.

The Celtics have an offensive weapon of their own coming off the bench and he’s been a big part of their postseason success. When Malcolm Brogdon has come off the bench, the Celtics have outscored their opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions in his 361 playoff minutes. His shooting is actually slightly better than the Heat’s Duncan Robinson, shooting 30-for-69 (43.5%) from three-point range.

Both teams have their two stars, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo for the Heat, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for the Celtics; but the management of each team’s bench minutes could ultimately decide the series winner.

Miami’s Defense – Jayson Tatum had a historic scoring performance in Game 7 to lift the Celtics over the Philadelphia 76ers with 51 points, which set the record for the most points scored by an individual player in a game seven in NBA history. The Heat tend to stay true to their roots on defense and don’t hammer down on just one offensive threat on the floor.

Boston has two high-level scorers in Tatum and Jaylen Brown, expect to see Bam Adebayo matched up on Tatum and Jimmy Butler on Jaylen Brown throughout the series. On the topic of defense, Kyle Lowry’s defensive performances in the postseason have been nothing short of remarkable. Lowry could create difficulties for Celtics’ guard Malcolm Brogdon off the bench and stagger his three-point shooting. The same goes for Boston Celtic, Marcus Smart, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year can create a wide range of difficulties for Miami on the perimeter.

Who Else Will Step Up For Miami? – While Miami will have to fend off Tatum and Brown, Boston will have to handle Butler, who lives for a big stage and rises to the occasion in the most clutch moments. He has averaged 31.1 points on 53% shooting, grabbing 6.6 boards, dishing 5.4 assists and swiping 1.7 steals per-game during the playoffs. Butler didn’t turn in the same numbers as he did in round one against the Bucks (56 and 42-point performances) against the Knicks, but he didn’t have to. He got it done by creating opportunities for his team by drawing numerous double teams from the Knicks defense in the semi-finals on offense, and impressive perimeter defense despite nursing an ankle injury.

The next Heat option, Bam Adebayo, is the one Miami will have turn to when it’s not Jimmy. Adebayo is averaging 18.1 point-per-game in the playoffs after he posted 25.0 per-game in the four regular-season matchups with the Celtics. Tyler Herro is still a couple weeks away from returning to the court since fracturing his right hand in the opening round against Milwaukee. Duncan Robinson’s return to form couldn’t have come at a better time, he shot only 32.8% from the arc during the season but shocked the NBA with 42.6% (26-for-61) through two playoff rounds. Both Caleb Martin and Kevin Love have had their key moments for Miami from the ‘four’ spot during this postseason run and the Heat will need it once again. Boston will attempt to throw numerous defenders at Jimmy Butler between Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Derrick White.

Postseason Coaching Experience Miami coach Erik Spoelstra is ranked fifth in all-time playoff wins with 104 entering this series. Spoelstra has won two NBA Championships and appeared in five total. Joe Mazzulla, 34 years old, is currently in his first season and first playoffs appearance as a head coach. While he did take down one of the NBA’s most accomplished head coaches in Doc Rivers in seven games against the 76ers, now he is matched up with the best in the NBA today in Spoelstra.

Prediction

Miami has totally flipped the script on the NBA since the playoffs began, their hustle and grit has been unmatched, and that’s not going to change… it’s Heat basketball. Their defense has been stifling, Kyle Lowry is almost heaven-sent for Miami off the bench, Jimmy Butler has completely taken over games or even deferred to his teammates with incredible facilitation, Bam Adebayo’s perimeter and post defense with his ability to cover all five spots on the floor has posed numerous offensive challenges for teams. Anything more at this point is gravy for the Heat, considering how their regular season went but yet they have a determination within them to prove it was all part of the process.

Miami had their fair share of injuries or not even having their complete starting lineup for most of the regular season, you could even include the playoffs after they lost Herro early on. What matters is they are playing their best basketball now and the playoffs are an entirely different beast, experience matters, and they have proven that method to be true.

All of the pressure is on Boston, Miami was not even supposed to be here according to the critics. The expectation for Boston is to return to the NBA Finals, the expectation for Miami was an early exit. Everyone loves an underdog story but are the Heat really an underdog or did they suffer from unfortunate events throughout the season, just to get back to where they should have been considered from the start, among the best in the NBA? Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra is the difference in this series, Heat in 7.

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