NBA playoffs 2022 – How the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat can take control of the East finals

NBA playoffs 2022 – How the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat can take control of the East finals post thumbnail image

What will be key as the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat each try to take control of a series tied 1-1 entering Saturday’s Game 3 in Boston (8:30 p.m. ET on ABC)?

The first two games of the Eastern Conference finals in Miami couldn’t have gone much differently. Playing without starters Al Horford and Marcus Smart in Game 1, the Celtics led at halftime but collapsed under a hail of turnovers in the third quarter of a double-digit loss dominated by Jimmy Butler‘s performance.

With both Horford and Smart back in the lineup for Game 2, Boston got off to a slow start but surged after going to smaller lineups with Grant Williams at power forward. Powered by relentless shot-making from long distance, the Celtics blew out the Heat to steal home-court advantage.

As we’ve seen so far this postseason, there are plenty more twists and turns to come in the series after the first two games. Let’s take a closer look at some of the strategic elements to watch in Game 3 and beyond as Boston and Miami try to reach the NBA Finals.

Can the Heat get Butler more help?

Butler has been easily the best player in the playoffs thus far, averaging nearly 30 points per game while shooting an effective 58% from the field after accounting for the added value of his (surprisingly frequent) 3-point makes. He was as good as ever Thursday, scoring 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting, but no other Miami player scored more than 14 points. Four Boston players topped that mark.

More generally, the Heat have had difficulty scoring in the half-court offense when it’s not Butler creating shots for himself or others. Their 94.2 offensive rating in half-court situations ranks 13th among the 16 playoff teams, according to Cleaning the Glass, far and away worst of those that advanced to the conference finals. (The Celtics rank seventh at 97.1.) Miami has been able to survive that thanks to extreme efficiency on putbacks and the second-most opportunities in transition.

Both those sources of easy points dried up in Game 2, when the Heat shot 5-of-12 on second-chance opportunities and were outscored 12-8 by Boston in fast-break points. Add in a rough 3-point shooting night (10-of-29) and the Miami offense was stuck in mud for much of the game.

One particular challenge: the Heat faced a switch-heavy defense for the first time this postseason. Miami’s first two playoff opponents (Atlanta and Philadelphia) rarely switched, while the Celtics were less willing to do so in Game 1 with Smart and Horford — two of their most versatile defenders — out of the lineup. Per Second Spectrum tracking, the 36 on-ball screens switched by Boston in Game 2 were 13 more than any other game this postseason.

When opponents did switch through Game 1 of this series, the Heat were able to find favorable matchups, particularly for Butler. Their 1.08 points per chance on plays involving a switch ranked second among the 12 teams that faced at least 100 of them in the playoffs. On Thursday, that dropped to a dismal 0.75 points per chance.

We saw one possible adjustment from Miami coach Erik Spoelstra in the second half, when wing Duncan Robinson returned to the Heat’s rotation after a DNP-CD in Game 1. Robinson’s playing time has fluctuated in the playoffs due to his defensive limitations, but the floor spacing he provides outweighs that if Miami can’t get anything else going offensively.

Can the Heat prevent Boston’s 3-point attempts?

For all the handwringing over the Celtics’ 50 3-point attempts during their Game 1 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in the last round, the number of 3s they’ve taken has generally been a bellwether during the playoffs. In their five games with 40-plus attempts, Boston has gone 4-1 with three of the four wins by at least 23 points. By contrast, the Celtics have gone 2-3 when they’ve attempted fewer than 35 3s in a postseason game, with both of the wins by narrow margins (a combined eight points).

After beating Milwaukee, which allowed the second-highest percentage of opponent shots from beyond the arc during the regular season (45%), Boston is now facing the only team that gave them up more frequently (Miami was at 46%).

In Game 1 of this series, the Heat were able to limit the Celtics to 34 3-point attempts. (Boston turning the ball over 16 times and attempting just 79 total shots didn’t hurt this cause.) On Thursday, with more aggressive 3-point shooters Smart and Horford replacing Derrick White and Daniel Theis in the rotation, that bumped up to 40 attempts.

Certainly, the Celtics aren’t likely to shoot as well going forward as they did in Game 2, making an even half of their 3-point attempts. Nonetheless, Boston continues to win the math game by simply getting up more shots from 3 than opponents. Over the course of the playoffs, the Celtics are averaging 9.8 more 3-point attempts per game than their opponent, the second-highest mark behind the Dallas Mavericks (plus-12.4 attempts).

Will the Heat go smaller?

The obvious adjustment for Miami in this series has been benching backup center Dewayne Dedmon, producing more switchable lineups with better floor spacing. Given the Heat were outscored by 27 points in Dedmon’s 13 minutes of action Thursday, we’d expect to see that … except that P.J. Tucker‘s status is in question after he left Game 2 with a left knee contusion.

The 6-foot-5 Tucker, who started at center for the Houston Rockets during the 2020 playoffs, saw sparing action at the position during this regular season in Miami (145 minutes, according to my analysis of lineup data from NBA Advanced Stats). Come the playoffs, that’s jumped to 47 minutes in just 13 games.

If Tucker is unavailable or even limited, the Heat might consider turning to veteran Markieff Morris, who has played just 3:28 so far in the playoffs, seeing action when both Tucker and starting center Bam Adebayo were in foul trouble during Game 3 against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Miami could also benefit from Kyle Lowry‘s return at some point in this series. A full-strength Lowry would help the Heat get into transition more frequently, helping on offense, and offers another playoff-tested defender capable of switching. Miami hasn’t really missed Lowry much thus far, winning the first seven games he missed during the playoffs prior to Game 2, but against more challenging competition from Boston, he might be needed now.

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