8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Heat -1.5, Over/Under: 204
After a thoroughly entertaining (and not to mention, surprising) Second Round of the Playoffs, the Conference Finals kicks off on South Beach, as the top-seeded Miami Heat welcome the Boston Celtics for Game One of their series from FTX Arena in Miami, Florida. “We’re not a fluke”. Those were the words of (Head Coach) Ime Udoka following the Celtics (51-31, 2nd in Eastern Conference) emphatic 109-81 conquest of the (reigning NBA Champion) Bucks in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals this past Sunday afternoon. Indeed, Boston is very much a BIG deal, having evolved into arguably the most formidable team in the Association since the turn of the New Year. However, let’s start from the beginning, shall we? Seven months ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone outside of the Northeastern region of this country that believed that this team would advance to this point. After all, they were a mess last season (36-36) before crashing out of the playoffs in the opening round, prompting the franchise to undergo a reboot, as (longtime Team President) Danny Ainge stepped down and was in turn replaced by Brad Stevens, who abdicated his role as Head Coach to ascend to the Front Office. Following a lengthy coaching search, Stevens settled upon Udoka as his successor, with the respected tactician enduring a disappointing start to his tenure in Beantown, as his troops meandered to a 17-19 record by the start of the New Year. However, everything changed at that point, as Boston went on to log the NBA’s best record in this new calendar year (34-12), thanks in large part to some inspired personnel decisions from Stevens, coupled with one helluva coaching job by Udoka. With the additions of (All-Star Forward) Al Horford (10.2 PTS, 46.7% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 84.2% FT, 7.7 REB, 3.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.3 BLK, 16.7 PER), (veteran Guard) Derrick White (11.0 PTS, 40.9% FG, 30.6% 3FG, 85.3% FT, 3.4 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 12.9 PER), and (Backup Center) Daniel Theis (7.9 PTS, 59.8% FG, 35.7% 3FG, 68.8% FT, 4.7 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.7 BLK, 17.0 PER), coupled with the presence of (newly-minted Defensive Player of the Year) Marcus Smart (21.1 PTS, 41.8% FG, 33.1% 3FG, 79.3% FT, 3.8 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.7 STL, 13.6 PER), and the growth of (emerging Center) Robert Williams (10.0 PTS, 73.6% FG, 72.2% FT, 9.6 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 2.2 BLK, 22.1 PER), this is a team that has morphed into a bonafide defensive juggernaut, relegating their opponents to a scant 102.5 points per game on 42.9% shooting from the field, including 33.5% from beyond the arc, and 21.5 assists in comparison to forcing 12.8 turnovers, all the while owning a +3.8 advantage on the glass since January 2nd. This has certainly been evident in these playoffs, where they’ve allowed an NBA-low 103.9 points on 45.2% shooting from the floor, including 35.4% from downtown, along with 20.2 assists in comparison to forcing 12.7 turnovers., all the while testing their mettle against some of the filthiest offensive threats in the NBA (I.E. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the aforementioned Antetokounmpo). And as fate would have it, they find themselves pitted against the Heat, who eliminated them less than two years ago in the penultimate round of the Bubble; perhaps ahead of schedule, the Celtics paid for their youth and inexperience in that affair, losing three of the first four games by a combined TWELVE points, demonstrating an inability to close. This season, they’ve met Miami on three occasions, winning twice, while averaging 105.0 points on 44.5% shooting from the field, including 35.7% from beyond the arc, along with 22.3 assists in comparison to committing 14.3 turnovers, while winning the battle on the boards (+3.0). All eyes will be upon (All-Star Swingmen) Jayson Tatum (26.9 PTS, 45.3% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 85.3% FT, 8.0 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.6 BLK, 21.8 PER), who has continued the meteoric start turn that ironically began back in the Bubble. Though he’s long been a serious scoring threat, the 24-year-old has become a complete player in this, his fifth season in the Association. He’s posted career-highs in a slew of categories, including points (26.9), threes (230), two-point percentage (52.4%), free-throws (400), rebounds (8.0), assists (4.4), and PER (21.8), while leading the league in Defensive Wins Shares (4.6), which is something that’s rather rare for someone at his position. That growth has continued into the playoffs, where he’s averaging 28.3 points on 43.8% shooting overall, and 38.6% from the perimeter, along with 5.6 rebounds, and further flashing his growing playmaking nous with 6.1 assists thus far. From kicking the postseason off with the game-winning layup in the opener against the Nets, to his virtuoso 46-point performance in an elimination Game Six in Milwaukee, Tatum is proving to be every bit the player who was voted sixth in this year’s MVP balloting. With that said, he’ll be looking for vengeance against the Heat, who in winning the season series, was forced to work tirelessly for everything he earned, posting 17.7 points on 42.2% shooting, including 29.4% from downtown, along with 8.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists in those three meetings. With that in mind, the supporting cast will need to provide help when needed; in Game Four in Milwaukee, Horford put his team on his back with playoff career-high THIRTY points on an efficient 11-of-14 shooting (78.6%), including 5-of-7 from downtown (71.4%), eight rebounds and three assists, while (Backup Forward) Grant Williams (7.8 PTS, 47.5% FG, 41.1% 3FG, 90.5% FT, 3.6 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.7 BLK, 11.2 PER) erupted off the bench for twenty-one points in Game Two and a career-high twenty-seven in the decisive Game Seven. Coming into this Eastern Conference Final, Udoka’s troops are no doubt fatigued from such a grueling battle with the Bucks, and will in all likelihood be a bit shorthanded at the beginning of this encounter; Robert Williams missed each of the last four contests due to soreness in the same knee that cost him roughly the final month of the regular season, while the aforementioned Smart is officially listed as Questionable with a sprained foot.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a reason as to why securing the No. One Seed is so important, then look no further than the Heat (53-29, 1st in Eastern Conference), who received a far less arduous path to this Eastern Conference Final. Whereas Boston ran the gauntlet of both Brooklyn in Milwaukee in succession, Miami on the other hand disposed of Atlanta with ease, before eventually toppling a Philadelphia side racked with injuries. Indeed, (Head Coach) Erik Spoelstra’s troops may have played the same number of games as their opponent tonight has, but those contests were NOT created equally. Then again, that’s the reward for spending the majority of the campaign at the top of the East, which the Heat did after retooling in a major way this past offseason. Much like the Celtics, this was a team that fell well short of expectations last year, following their surprise trip to the NBA Finals with an uneven 40-32 campaign that was marred by fatigue, injuries, and COVID, before ending with a whimper via First-Round sweep at the hands of the Bucks. However, (Team President) Pat Riley and (Head Coach) Erik Spoelstra went to work reinforcing the roster, adding a mix of grizzled veterans, including the likes of Kyle Lowry (13.4 PTS, 44.0% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 85.1% FT, 7.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.0 PER), P.J. Tucker (7.6 PTS, 48.4% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 73.8% FT, 5.5 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.3 PER), and Markieff Morris (76 PTS, 47.4% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 88.9% FT, 2.6 REB, 1.4 AST, 10.9 PER), with each having played sizable roles in each of the three previous NBA Champions. Coupled with (All-Star Swingman) Jimmy Butler (21.4 PTS, 48.0% FG, 23.3% 3FG, 87.0% FT, 5.9 REB, 5.7 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 23.6 PER) and the continued development of a number of young talents, the Heat have now returned to the Eastern Conference Finals for the ninth time in franchise history, and the second time in the last three years. Another thing that this team has in common with their opponent, is the heroics of a prolific swingman, and in this case, it is Butler. Arguably no better marriage between star and franchise, the 32-year-old has been nothing short of dominant in this postseason, averaging 28.7 points on a healthy 52.5% shooting from the field, including 36.4% from beyond the arc, along with 7.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.1 steals, despite missing a game against the Hawks with soreness in his right knee. Just like he did during the Bubble, the four-time All-NBA selection is doing it all for Miami, evidenced by his box plus/minus (which estimates a player’s contribution to his team when he is on the court) of 12.9. Featuring in two of those three regular season meetings with Boston, Butler averaged 22.0 points on 48.6% shooting, along with 3.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.0 steal. One of the finest two-way players in the Association, look for him to play a major role on both ends of the hardwood for Spoelstra, particularly when it comes to defending the aforementioned Tatum. However, the biggest concern for the Heat coming into this series is finding reliable help for Butler, for there were points in the previous series in which the supporting cast simply weren’t up to par. Lowry has been a serious question mark due to a lingering hamstring strain, that cost him two games against the Hawks before relegating him to only a pair against the Sixers. When healthy, the 35-year-old has a wealth of postseason experience, but simply hasn’t been fit enough to contribute in these playoffs of late. Of course, this is where that wealth of internal development needs to pay dividends; (newly-minted Sixth Man of the Year) Tyler Herro (20.7 PTS, 44.7% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 86.8% FT, 5.0 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.7 STL, 16.2 PER) has had some huge performances in the playoffs, while (unheralded duo) Max Strus (10.6 PTS, 44.1% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 79.2% FT, 3.0 REB, 1.4 AST, 12.7 PER) and Gabe Vincent (8.7 PTS, 41.7% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 81.5% FT, 1.9 REB, 3.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 10.6 PER). Strus is certainly a player to watch, for after starting every game since the end of March, he’s shot 39.8% from three, while logging double-doubles in Games Five and Six against Philly. His ability to stretch the floor is paramount due to Spoelstra’s reluctance to play (Young sharpshooter) Duncan Robinson (10.9 PTS, 39.9% FG, 37.2% 3FG, 83.6% FT, 2.6 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.5 STL, 10.6 PER) much at all in these playoffs; after erupting for TWENTY-SEVEN points in Game One against Atlanta, the 28-year-old has played a grand total of 60:54, including just eighteen minutes in the Eastern Semifinals, failing to see action in half of those contests. Granted, his defense is a liability, but he is a career 40.6% shooter from deep, so there may be a place for him in a series against an opponent that is so lethal in that regard. Don’t be surprised if Spoelstra continues to give more minutes to (oft-injured Guard) Victor Oladipo (12.4 PTS, 47.9% FG, 41.7% 3FG, 73.7% FT, 2.9 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 16.8 PER), who prior to missing most of the campaign rehabbing from knee surgery was a two-time All-Star. The 30-year-old has gradually seen more time as the playoffs have progressed, logging 24.3 minutes per game against the 76ers en route to amassing 10.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists. Oh, and did we forget to mention (All-Star Forward) Bam Adebayo (19.1 PTS, 55.7% FG, 75.3% FT, 10.1 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.8 BLK, 21.8 PER)? The big fella figures to play a prominent role in this battle with Boston, for after all, it was his block of Tatum in Game Two of the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals that served as the lasting image of that series.