8:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Celtics -7, Over/Under: 206.5
What has been nothing short of an unpredictable series appears set for another dramatic turn, as the top-seeded Miami Heat look to press their advantage on the road, as the Boston Celtics in turn look to square this affair at two games apiece, in this pivotal Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final from TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. Like a classic heavyweight fight, this series has certainly held a “punch, counterpunch” aesthetic, which at this point has favored the Heat (53-29, 1st in Eastern Conference), who after getting utterly embarrassed in Game Two’s 127-102 drubbing at FTX Arena, their fourth-largest home loss in the franchise’s playoff history, responded in kind with a 109-103 victory on the road this past Saturday night, reestablishing homecourt advantage in the process. This one was a wild one for both combatants, but for the moment we’ll focus on Miami, who were motivated from the opening tip, unleashing an early 24-7 onslaught en route to owning a commanding 39-18 lead at the end of the first quarter. We’d love to have heard what (Head Coach) Erik Spoelstra told his troops following that debacle on Thursday night, but whatever it was, it clearly resonated; the visitors shot 16-of-25 from the field in the period (64.0%), including 5-of-7 from beyond the arc (71.4%), with seven assists in comparison to committing a pair of turnovers, while in turn relegating the hosts to a miserable 5-of-18 shooting (27.8%) and 1-of-6 from downtown (16.7%), winning the battle of the boards (15-8), and forcing more turnovers (5) than assists permitted (3). After amassing just sixteen points in the first two games combined, (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) erupted for twelve points on 6-of-9 shooting (66.7%) in the quarter alone, though that would prove to be only the beginning for the 24-year-old, who would go on to author his finest performance of the postseason thus far, totaling thirty-one points on an efficient 15-of-22 shooting (68.2%), ten rebounds, six assists, four steals, and a block. The Heat would lead by as many as TWENTY-SIX points in the first half, though their lead would be trimmed down to fifteen at intermission, which is where things really got interesting. Following the break, neither (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) or (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) returned to the hardwood, with knee inflammation striking the former, while the latter was felled by a strained groin. The Celtics would gradually chip away at that lead, as the Spoelstra’s charges struggled like hell to generate much offense in the fourth quarter; following a midrange jumper from Adebayo to open the period, Miami went scoreless for nearly four minutes of action, and after the big fella ended the drought with a furious dunk to push the lead back into double-digits, his side would go without a single point for another four minutes as the hosts closed the gap to 93-92 at the 2:22 mark. At that point, the Southwest Division Champions were a meager 3-of-12 (25.0%) for just SIX points in the quarter, with more turnovers (4) than field goals. Thankfully, they would snap out of that malaise, as the supporting cast came to the rescue down the stretch. (Unheralded Forward) Max Strus (10.6 PTS, 44.1% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 79.2% FT, 3.0 REB, 1.4 AST, 12.7 PER) drained a triple to widen the lead to four, followed immediately by a shot clock violation for the Celtics leading to a difficult midrange jumper from Adebayo, and after yet another turnover from the home side, (veteran Forward) 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) killed it off from the charity stripe with four free-throws over the final minute of play. In the end, the Heat shot 46.7% from the field, including 11-of-33 from three (33.3%), dishing out twenty-two assists opposed to committing just eight turnovers, which was huge considering they were without both Butler and Herro for half of the affair. Adebayo was tremendous, while Tucker and Strus, who combined for thirty-three points on 11-of-22 shooting (50.0%) and 7-of-13 from deep (53.8%), along with eleven rebounds, three assists, three steals, and a pair of blocks. Tucker was particularly effective, invoking his form from last season’s championship run with the Bucks, doing all the dirty work and ensuring that there was a physical presence defending Boston’s Jayson Tatum (more on him shortly) throughout the contest. And then there was (veteran Guard) Kyle Lowry (13.4 PTS, 44.0% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 85.1% FT, 7.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.0 PER), who finally made an appearance in this series after missing eight of the previous nine games with a nagging hamstring strain. The 36-year-old struggled shooting with eleven points on just 4-of-11 shooting (36.4%) and 2-of-7 from the perimeter (28.6%), but was nonetheless a menace defensively with four steals, one of three players to log a quartet of thefts for the visiting side. And that would ultimately be the key to victory for Miami, who logged a franchise postseason record NINETEEN steals. In total, they forced TWENTY-FOUR turnovers that led to THIRTY-THREE points for the Heat, proving to be the most damning disparity of the night between the two teams (+24). Looking forward to tonight’s Game Four, Spoelstra has stated that Butler’s knee wasn’t serious, and the four-time All-NBA selection will be in the starting lineup. However, this bears watching as this series progresses, for Butler missed the closeout Game Five of their conquest of the Hawks in the opening round of these playoffs. Despite totaling just eight points in roughly twenty minutes of action, the veteran has been nothing short of sensational in the postseason thus far, averaging 28.1 points on 53.1% shooting and 34.7% from long range, along with 7.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 2.2 steals. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Herro, who will miss tonight’s affair with that aforementioned groin issue; the young sniper put in just over twenty minutes of work over the weekend before departing with just eight points on a miserable 4-of-15 shooting (26.7%).
Meanwhile, if you think that the Heat are dealing with a lot of injuries, then we would like to introduce you to the Celtics (51-31, 2nd in Eastern Conference), who appeared to be dropping like flies throughout the events of Game Three’s 109-103 defeat. Then again, this has been a persistent issue for Boston in these playoffs, for it’s been rare that they’ve enjoyed a clean bill of health for more than a few games at a time. Coming into the postseason, (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) had missed the final three weeks of the regular season and would go on to miss the entirety of their first-round sweep of the Nets, with a sprained MCL. In the Eastern Semifinals against the Bucks, he would be used sparingly (3 games), while (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) was sidelined for Game Two with a bruised thigh. Then, coming into this Eastern Conference Final versus the Heat, both Smart and (veteran 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) were inactive, with the former suffering from an ailing foot and the latter falling into the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols. After falling in Game One (118-107), everyone returned for duty in Game Two, and the results were simply stunning as (Head Coach) Ime Udoka’s troops thrashed Miami in a 127-102 beatdown at FTX Arena, with Smart, Horford, and Williams combining for thirty-nine points, sixteen rebounds, and fifteen assists. However, Saturday night’s affair would once put the training staff to work. After getting torched in the first quarter, the hosts slowly started clawing their way back into the game, cutting a 26-point deficit to fifteen at halftime. Not long after the aforementioned Butler exited the affair with swelling in his knee, Smart came down on his ankle in a BAD way, though returned shortly to bury a three-pointer to trim that lead to ten points midway through the third quarter. The hosts would continue to overwhelm their shorthanded opponent, particularly in the final stanza where they kicked things off with a torrid 20-6 run to make it 93-92 with only 2:40 left to play. And that would be as close as the Celtics would get for it all unraveled from there, as their inability to take care of the basketball proved to be their undoing; back-to-back giveaways, including a shot clock violation, saw Miami’s lead inflate back up to eight points, while another turnover followed by a technical foul courtesy of Smart sealed their fate. In the end, Boston managed to shoot a healthy 48.6% from the field, including 12-of-32 from beyond the arc (37.5%), ad 23-of-30 from the charity stripe (76.7%), while battering the Heat on the glass (44-34), but the overriding factor was those TWENTY-FOUR turnovers, which completely swung the direction of the contest. Simply put, this was nothing short of a meltdown for the home side, who saw those mistakes manufactured into THIRTY-THREE points for their opponent, who in turn committed just nine turnovers for nine points. Miami also attempted TWENTY-TWO more field goals, which is a direct reflection of those turnovers, and helps explain how a team that struggles so frequently to create for themselves in the halfcourt managed to pull off the victory without the presence of arguably their two biggest scoring threats in the second half. Despite leading the way with a game-high FORTY points on 14-of-20 shooting from the field (70.0%) and 9-of-12 from the stripe (75.0%), (All-Star Swingman) Jaylen Brown (23.6 PTS, 47.3% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 75.8% FT, 6.1 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.9 PER) accounted for seven of those turnovers, while (fellow All-Star) 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) suffered a nightmare performance with ten points on 3-of-14 shooting (21.4%), including 1-of-7 from downtown (14.3%), and six turnovers. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the ascending superstar appeared to suffer some kind of malady to his neck late in Saturday’s action, departing from the court before eventually returning to watch from the sidelines. Smart finished with sixteen points on an efficient 6-of-11 shooting (54.5%), four rebounds, and seven assists despite the ankle sprain, though he also contributed to their turnover woes with four giveaways. In addition to that flood of mistakes, this was the first game in this series in which they didn’t enjoy a significant advantage on three-pointers (-3), while continuing to get battered in the paint where they were outscored by fourteen points. Moving forward to tonight’s contest, it will be interesting to see who Udoka will be able to count upon in this crucial Game Four. Williams was once again a scratch over the weekend with that ailing knee, while both Smart and Tatum are listed as day-to-day with their ailments. However, we’d like to remind everyone that this series has played out almost identically as its predecessor; after losing the opener of the Eastern Semifinals to Milwaukee (101-89), Boston roared back in Game Two (109-86) thanks in large part to an avalanche of three-pointers, nailing 20-of-43 attempts from beyond the arc (46.5%) for a seismic 51-point advantage, before meeting defeat in a tense Game Three (103-101). Of course, they would go on to even the series in Game Four (116-108) due to the heroics of Tatum and Horford (30 points apiece), before eventually capturing the series in seven games. Will history repeat itself? We’ll have to wait and see how tonight’s encounter plays out.