6:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Celtics -3.5, Over/Under: 220
A pair of teams vying for positioning within the Eastern Conference Standings meet in a crucial matchup, as the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat battle from ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. Sitting third in the East are the Celtics (44-32, 3rd in Eastern Conference), who with six seeding games to play have apparently risen as high as they can in the hierarchy of the conference. Trailing the torrid Toronto Raptors by four games, Boston is pretty much locked into the No. 3 Seed, particularly if they can hand Miami a loss tonight, whom they lead by 2.5 games. Since the return to action, Brad Stevens’ charges have split their first two outings, featuring a 112-119 to the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks, and most recently a narrow 128-124 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. In the former, it was clear that there was a good degree of rust that still needed to be shed, as they shot just 40.7% from the field, including a particularly dreadful 11-of-37 from downtown (29.7%), while committing nearly as many Turnovers (15) as Assists (18). Fortunately, their performance changed for the better in a major way in the latter, where the Celtics shot a blistering 54.5% from the floor, including a much-improved 18-of-30 from beyond the arc (60.0%), all the while taking much better care of the basketball, with Twenty-Four Assists in comparison to Fourteen Turnovers. In both games, they managed to take residence at the charity stripe, where they’ve knocked down a combined 53-of-68 Free-Throws (77.9%).
That was particularly key in the triumph over the Blazers, for the Celtics outscored their opponent by Eleven Points from the Free-Throw Line, with Swingmen, Jayson Tatum (23.4 PTS, 44.4% FG, 39.8% 3FG, 7.0 REB, 3.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.9 BLK, 20.2 PER) and Gordon Hayward (17.4 PTS, 50.2% FG, 39.6% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 4.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 18.2 PER), accounting for Thirteen of the team’s Twenty-Six Free-Throws. Coupled with Jaylen Brown (20.7 PTS, 48.9% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 17.3 PER), the triumvirate combined for a total of Eighty-Six Points on 54.0% shooting, including 15-of-21 from long-range (71.4%), along with Eighteen Rebounds, Twelve Assists, and Five Steals. Veteran Point Guard, Kemba Walker (21.0 PTS, 42.5% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 4.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 20.4 PER), who has been on a minutes restriction since returning to play following a knee injury that kept him out for nine of thirteen games before the league ultimately went on hiatus due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, was efficient in his limited time, scoring Fourteen Points on 5-of-6 shooting (83.3%), with a Rebound and a pair of Assists. With all that said, the worrying concern is that despite their prowess on the offensive end of the court, Boston has been far from formidable on the defensive end since the return, with both Milwaukee and Portland having their way within the paint and outside it as well. Against the Bucks, they saw their counterpart get to the Free-Throw Line just as frequently as they did themselves (28-of-34), while in the case of the Blazers, it was the money ball that kept the affair close, with Portland drilling 19-of-42 Attempts (45.2%). Curiously, this runs counter to how good this team has been defensively this season; in 2019-2020, Stevens’ troops have allowed the third-fewest Points in the league (107.3), and rank in the Top-10 in a slew of other categories including Field Goal Percentage (44.3%), Two-Point Percentage (50.9%), and Three-Point Percentage (34.3%), and Assists Allowed (22.4), along with Steals (8.3), Blocks (5.6), and Turnovers Forced (15.3).
Arguably the biggest story for the Celtics thus far and moving forward, is the continued ascension of the aforementioned Tatum. Much was made of the disfunction that infected the team last year with the presence of All-Star Point Guard, Kyrie Irving, who would part ways with the franchise during the Offseason in Free Agency. Though Boston netted Walker as his positional replacement, many believed that they would in fact struggle to replace the mercurial Guard’s production. In the face of Walker’s injury concerns, the faithful in Beantown have to be absolutely elated with the performance of Tatum thus far, for the 21-Year Old is knocking on the door of stardom, having improved his all-around game immeasurably in his third season with the club. He’s posted career-highs in Minutes (34.7), Points (23.4), Rebounds (7.0), Assists (3.0), Steals (1.4), Blocks (0.9), and PER (20.2), while taking control of the offense in the absence of Walker, averaging 28.1 Points on 46.0% shooting, including 46.4% from downtown, along with 7.4 Rebounds, 3.5 Assists, 1.6 Steals, and 1.1 Blocks since the beginning of February. Boston has met Miami on two occasions this season, both of which were victories for the Celtics, though Tatum only featured in one, and struggled to find any rhythm, totaling Nineteen Points on just 6-of-19 shooting from the floor (31.6%), including 2-of-12 from distance (16.7%).
Meanwhile, the resurgence of the Miami Heat (42-25, 4th in Eastern Conference) has been one of the better stories of the 2019-2020 campaign, as the team has succeeded in developing a number of their younger talents, while at the same time finally adding that long-sought after star in the Offseason, in the form of Jimmy Butler (20.2 PTS, 45.6% FG, 24.8% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.7 STL, 23. PER). Since the departures of the famed Big Three that brought the club four consecutive NBA Finals appearances, including a pair of Larry O’Brien Trophies, this has been franchise that has been absolutely starved of star power, often fielding a motley crew of veterans and young prospects, offering middling results in the end. So it’s with that said that Pat Riley and the rest of the brain trust down on South Beach went out and acquired Butler, who despite burning some bridges in both Chicago and Minnesota, has proven to be everything that the Heat could have asked for an more. The no-nonsense Swingman has been a perfect fit within Erick Spoelstra’s system, exhibiting the two-way prowess that has made him a five-time All-Star and four-time All-Defensive selection, taking over the offense when necessary and deferring to the younger supporting cast when necessary. Who really cares if he’s in the midst of statistically his poorest three-point shooting season since he was a rookie? He’s also averaged career-highs in both Free-Throws (7.6) and Attempts (9.1), along with Rebounds (6.6) and Assists (6.1), proving to be a indispensable component of Miami’s success thus far.
Butler’s exploits aside, the development of the supporting cast has been equally as important this season, and it’s actually been rather telling that this has managed to happen in the presence of the 30-Year Old. As we stated earlier, many of his beefs in previous stops have been with younger players, particularly in Minnesota, and the fact that he has helped facilitate the growth of those around him hints at a newfound patience for the Shooting Guard. Rookies, Kendrick Nunn (15.4 PTS, 44.7% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 3.3 AST, 13.3 PER) and Tyler Herro (12.7 PTS, 41.5% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 2.0 AST, 11.4 PER), have thrived in their respective roles, alongside Sophomore sharpshooter, Duncan Robinson (13.2 PTS, 46.6% FG, 44.6% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 12.7 PER), and bruising big man, Bam Adebayo (16.2 PTS, 56.8% FG, 10.4 REB, 5.1 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.3 BLK, 20.6 PER), with all four players 25-Years Old or younger. The mergence of this quartet has allowed Spoelstra to bring more seasoned veterans such as Goran Dragic (16.2 PTS, 44.0% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 5.1 AST, 16.2 PER), Jae Crowder (12.0 PTS, 44.7% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 5.9 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.5 STL, 15.7 PER), and Andre Iguodala (4.1 PTS, 46.6% FG, 34.5% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.0 BLK, 9.7 PER), off the Bench, ensuring that there is a wealth of experience to be called upon, particularly Iguodala, who arrived in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies for former First Round Pick, Justice Winslow (11.3 PTS, 38.8% FG, 22.2% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 4.0 AST, 8.6 PER). After enjoying an unbelievably successful stretch with the Golden State Warriors, the 36-Year Old was dealt to Memphis where he essentially refused to play in an attempt to force a buyout which never came. Now on South Beach, he’s become a valuable performer and leader off the Bench. Of all the youngsters, Adebayo’s improvement has been the most significant, with the third-year big man earning his first All-Star Selection this season on the strength of his versatility within Spoelstra’s system, where he has become such a surprising fixture as a playmaker, ranking second on the team behind Butler in Assists (5.1).
Like their opponent tonight, Miami has split their two opening contests since the restart, though after looking absolutely dominant in their 125-105 drubbing of the Denver Nuggets, they came up short in a spirited battle with the reigning NBA Champions, the Toronto Raptors. Against Denver, the Heat were white-hot offensively, shooting an impressive 55.6% from the field, including 13-of-29 from downtown (44.8%), while absolutely planting their flag at the charity stripe, where they knocked down 32-of-37 Free-Throws (86.5%), outscoring their opponent by Thirteen Points. They also assisted on Twenty-Nine of their Forty Field Goals, with three different players scoring Twenty or more Points, led by Butler and Adebayo with twenty-Two apiece. However, Toronto was a different story altogether, as Spoelstra’s troops were held to just 42.5% shooting overall, including 14-of-45 from beyond the arc (31.1%), while attempting just Sixteen Free-Throws, netting Fifteen of them. With that said, the scoring was still balanced with six different players finishing the night in double-figures, while the ball-movement was still excellent, matching their total of Assists from the previous contest (29). They’ll look to get back on track against Boston, whom they will be in search of their first victory over this season; the Celtics have outscored them by an average margin of 13.5 Points in their two earlier meetings, with Miami struggling to crack their defense, shooting just 40.3% from the floor, including 30.7% from three, getting hammered on the glass (Minus-4.5), and dishing out barely more Assists (17.5) than Turnovers committed (14.0). Despite those struggles overall, the aforementioned Butler was a machine in those two affairs, averaging 28.5 Points on 53.1% shooting, along with 6.0 Rebounds, and 3.0 Assists.