The Boston Celtics’ chances against the Miami Heat hinge on getting Marcus Smart and Al Horford back

The Boston Celtics’ chances against the Miami Heat hinge on getting Marcus Smart and Al Horford back post thumbnail image

The Miami Heat turned an eight-point halftime deficit into an 11-point Game 1 victory over the Boston Celtics to take an early lead in the 2022 Eastern Conference finals, and look to take a commanding two-game lead Thursday at home in Game 2 (8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN).

The lessons from Game 1 are simple: If the Celtics continue to be short-handed, Jimmy Butler and the top-seeded Heat are the favorites in the series (which wasn’t the case three days ago according to the bookmakers in Las Vegas). With Al Horford and Marcus Smart, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, missing from Boston’s rotation, Miami has the best defense in this series, and Boston’s thinned-out and fatigued rotation could be its fatal flaw.

Early in Game 1, things were looking good for Boston, but the game took a drastic turn in the third quarter. In the first half it looked like Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams could get any shot they wanted, but by the final buzzer, Bam Adebayo and Miami’s defense had flipped the script and reestablished the Heat’s defensive pride.

If there’s one stat that captures just how drastically Game 1 changed course, it’s this one: Boston scored 42 points in the paint in the first half, and just six after halftime. That 36-point drop-off is tied for the largest in any NBA game, regular season or playoff, over the past 25 seasons. After making 21 of 28 paint shots in the first half, the Celtics managed just 3-of-12 shooting in the lane in the second.

What happened? Miami’s elite defense woke up, Boston’s fatigue from its grueling seven-game series win over Milwaukee set in, and the Celtics simply could not match the Heat’s intensity down the stretch. By the end of the game, the Heat had blocked 12 shots, tying their franchise playoff record, and reminding all of us that the Adebayo-Butler industrial complex is capable of reducing any offense in the NBA into a bumbling mess.

On the superstar front, Game 1 was defined by Butler outshining Tatum when it mattered most. With both starting groups in the game at the beginning of the third quarter, Butler and Miami outscored Boston 23-2 and reached a level of intensity and competence on both ends of the floor that Tatum and his teammates simply could not match.

Butler stole the ball from Tatum three times in Game 1, held him to 2-of-6 shooting as his primary defender, and his exquisite two-way playmaking sparked the vicious third-quarter run that turned Boston’s modest halftime lead into a statement win for the Heat. If Butler can win this matchup consistently in this series, that bodes well for Miami going forward, especially if the Celtics are short-handed.

Tatum had 21 points in the first half, including 16 in the paint. But, in the second half, he shot just 1-for-7 and had zero paint points. He also had six turnovers in the second half as Butler stole the show, once again saving his best work for the biggest moments on the league’s biggest stages.

Playoff Butler is a different player. Consider these two stats:

  • During the regular season, Butler had zero 40-point games. But during the 2022 playoffs, he already has had three in his 11 games, including Game 1 of this series.

  • Butler has a plus-13.0 plus-minus per game this postseason. That is the highest by any player in this year’s playoffs and the fifth-highest in a single postseason over the past 25 years (minimum five games).

In Game 1’s 11-point victory, Miami outscored Boston by 25 points in Butler’s 41 minutes — Boston outscored Miami by 14 in the seven minutes he rested.

Butler is the single-most important player in this series going forward. If he’s able to do what he did in Game 1, the Heat will win the series. If the Celtics can slow him down like they did to Kevin Durant in Round 1, they can win it.

Boston was unable to keep Butler away from the rim and sent him to the line 18 times. That can’t continue if the Celtics want to win here. But without Horford and Smart, it’s fair to ask if slowing Butler is even possible at this point.

The Celtics entered the halftime locker room in good shape, but by the time they returned after the game, the good vibes were gone, and a cruel reality had set in: their depleted roster had a key weakness, the Heat found it down the stretch and exploited it over and over again.

With Smart out, Erik Spoelstra’s pick-and-roll offense relentlessly hunted, attacked and exposed Payton Pritchard‘s inability to defend the red-hot Butler in the fourth quarter. Normally, Pritchard wouldn’t be on the floor in crunch time, but with Smart out, he was and he became a juicy target for Butler.

Pritchard was the screener defender for 13 on-ball screens in the fourth quarter (11 of which Butler was the ball handler), the most of any Celtics player in a quarter this postseason. Per Second Spectrum tracking, the Celtics allowed 2.0 points per direct pick on these plays, which is a ridiculously high efficiency for any half-court action, and also proof that Smart’s return is vital for Boston going forward in this series.

Coach Ime Udoka has to find better defensive options against Butler and find ways to make other members of the Heat offense make plays instead.

The Celtics would not be in the East finals without Smart and Horford, so it’s unreasonable to expect them to win this series without them. Injuries are a fact of life in the postseason, but they’re also often the cause of defeat too. These Pritchard stats demonstrate that.

Smart and Horford fuel Boston’s top-ranked defense, and while Butler’s numbers deserve respect no matter what, it’s impossible not to wonder how they might have looked against a fully stocked Celts defense.

Could he have toyed with Smart in the second half the same way he cooked Pritchard? Of course not, but the point remains: Miami will likely win this series if Boston cannot slow Butler’s roll, and the Celtics can’t do that with their reserves.

If there are two stats to watch in the coming games, it’s a simple pair of numbers: how many minutes will Smart and Horford be able to play? The answer could not only determine Butler’s effectiveness in this series, but also who will hoist the NBA’s first Bob Cousy Eastern Conference Championship Trophy next week.

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