Less than a week after Jayson Tatum‘s 51-point Game 7 triumph thrust the Boston Celtics into the 2023 Eastern Conference finals, Boston’s season is suddenly on the brink.

Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat arrived in New England as massive underdogs earlier this week, but are headed back to South Florida with a stunning chance to win this series in four games. Entering the conference finals, the Heat had longer odds to win the NBA title (16-1) than they did when odds first opened last June (12-1), according to Caesars Sportsbook.

There’s a lot at stake for both the Heat and Celtics in Game 3.

Miami is looking to become the first No. 8 seed to make the NBA Finals since the New York Knicks in 1999. The Celtics, who were the title favorites just a few days ago, now must win on the road to save their season and stave off a shocking elimination.

Let’s explore four key factors that will determine the outcome of Sunday’s Game 3 (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

Matchup between Tatum and Butler

Tatum’s Game 7 masterpiece just six days ago against the Philadelphia 76ers in the East semifinals was among the greatest individual playoff performances in recent NBA history. In a must-win game against reigning MVP Joel Embiid, Tatum looked like the best player on the planet. However, against Butler and Miami, that exact kind of clutch play from the 6-foot-8 forward has been invisible.

Meanwhile, in the final six minutes and 30 seconds of Game 2, as the Heat converted a nine-point deficit into a six-point win, it was Butler who was magnificent. He made 4-of-7 shots for 9 points in that time frame.

Tatum wilted in that same sliver of time, taking only two shots and missing both. Tatum has yet to make a field goal in the fourth quarter of this series.

So far, Butler is the main character of this saga, and if Boston wants to flip the script, its superstar has to take control — just like he did last Sunday in Game 7.

That’s easier said than done. Butler is serving as Tatum’s primary defender, and he’s ferocious. Tatum has only tried eight shots this series when Butler has been the closest defender, and he has made three of them. It’s fair to expect Miami to continue to throw Butler at Tatum in Game 3, but perhaps the biggest question of this series is whether Tatum can score on the baddest man on the planet at a higher clip.

Along with Tatum, Brown gives the Celtics a pair of scorers who can go out and win a game on the league’s biggest stages. But so far in this series, Brown hasn’t played up to his own standards. He is averaging 19 points per game, but his shooting numbers are down across the board.

Brown has converted just four of his 20 jump shots, including only one of his seven catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts. In Friday’s Game 2, Brown shot 7-for-23 from the field, tied for his sixth worst field goal percentage (30.4) in any game of his career — including the postseason — with at least 20 shots (out of 124 games), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

In a world in which Butler is putting the clamps on Tatum, Brown’s scoring becomes one of the biggest factors for Boston’s offense. Brown must take advantage of his relatively favorable matchup against Gabe Vincent, but that has not happened yet; he’s made just 4-of-12 shots when Vincent has been the closest defender.



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Boston’s 3-point shooting

Under first-year coach Joe Mazzulla, Boston leaned into a foundation of 3-point shooting. This season, the Celtics ranked second in the NBA in 3-pointers per game (16.0) and sixth in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (37.7).

When those 3s aren’t falling, the Celtics’ offense looks meek, which is exactly what has happened in these first two East finals games. Miami is dominating the battle behind the arc, and that can’t happen if Boston wants to win Game 3 and keep this series alive.

The Celtics are 8-2 when they make at least 12 3-pointers this postseason and 0-5 when they don’t.

Tatum and Brown are the team’s most important 3-point shooters, but their combined 6-for-26 (23.1%) in two games from beyond the arc is a losing number for Boston. The duo combined to make 39.4% of 94 3s in the series win against the 76ers.

Boston has made 10 3s in each game so far and has converted only 31.3% of their 64 attempts from downtown.

If Boston can get back to its foundation and score from beyond the arc in Game 3, it can still right the ship. If the Celtics can’t, their ship will sink in the port of Miami.

Emergence of key role players

On paper, the Celtics are the deeper team, but a reason the Heat won both games is because their role players have stepped up. Miami’s rotation features a quartet of undrafted players who have helped this team win 10 of their first 13 playoff games.

Caleb Martin has emerged as perhaps the series’ most important role player. His 25-point breakout in Game 2 sparked Miami’s win. The fact Martin is outscoring Brown so far is an eye-popping reality that can’t persist if Boston wants to win this series.

Less than two years ago, Martin was waived by the Charlotte Hornets, but now he’s thriving on a 2022-23 title contender.

This Heat playoff run is remarkable no matter what, but when you factor in the absences of the injured Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo, it’s downright wild to comprehend.

The “next-man-up” element of Heat Culture has worked wonders, and that has everything to do with Miami’s fleet of unheralded role players. Along with Vincent, who had a big-time clutch jumper in Game 2, Max Strus and Duncan Robinson, Martin is a contributing member of one of the most unlikely and most uplifting stories of the postseason.

From Boston’s perspective, its brand name depth has to be better. After playing brilliantly against Embiid in the last round, Al Horford has been ineffective in this series. He has made just 1 of 8 3-point shots.

Mazzulla also has to figure out his rotations in Game 3. He has started the “double-big” lineup, with Horford and Robert Williams III in both games so far but has yet to find a closing lineup that can match Miami’s late-game intensity.

It took Mazzulla until Game 6 against Philadelphia to find the lineup that saved Boston in that series, but if he doesn’t figure out something for the Celtics in Game 3, this series won’t see a sixth game.

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