8:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Heat -1.5, Over/Under: 216.5
With one half of the NBA Finals set, the other shoe could very well drop tonight, as the surging Miami Heat look to break out the brooms and sweep the Boston Celtics, who are in turn simply trying to keep their playoff run alive in this, Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals from Kaseya Center in Miami, Florida. In the immortal words of Too $hort, “It was all good just a week ago…”, for the Celtics (57-25, 2nd in Eastern Conference) have seen their fortunes COMPLETELY change for the worse in a short amount of time. Indeed, Boston rallied from a 3-2 deficit to eliminate Philadelphia in a seven-game slugfest in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, setting the stage for a rematch of last year’s ECF, though this latest chapter in a growing rivalry has NOT played out like everyone thought it would on paper. Simply put, the shamrocks were MASSIVE favorites in this matchup against the eighth-seeded Heat, who they bested in seven games a year ago, though as we have seen throughout this postseason, anyone can be touched no matter their seeding. So, what in the name of Larry Bird has happened to the Celtics, you ask? Well, if we’re being completely honest, they have been utterly outplayed and outcoached through the first three games of this series. It’s been stunning to watch a team that finished in the top-three in both offensive and defensive rating completely fall apart in both regards, as (Head Coach) Joe Mazzulla’s troops have averaged just 107.7 points per game on 45.7% shooting, while dishing out 23.0 assists in comparison to committing 15.0 turnovers. However, the biggest issue on this end of the hardwood has been their inability to make an impact from the perimeter. In the past, their most consistent barometer for success has been how many three-pointers they’ve netted and attempted, making 17.1 treys on 42.4 attempts (40.3%) and outscoring their opponents by an average margin of 18.6 points in victory opposed to just 13.6 threes on 43.0 attempts (31.6%) for a +0.9 advantage in defeat. Needless to say, that is a wide gulf, ladies in gentlemen. And so, it has played out in this affair with Miami that they have knocked down a miserable 31-of-106 triples (29.2%) and have been outscored by thirty-nine points thus far, equating to a margin of -13.0 points per contest. Part of the issue is that their opponent has done a helluva job of closing out on their shooters and running them off the arc, but they also haven’t been able to make many of the few open looks they’ve had either. (All-NBA First Teamer) Jayson Tatum has authored some huge performances during this playoff run but has not had the most enjoyable of series here, despite averaging 26.0 points,10.0 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. The four-time All-Star Swingman dropped thirty and thirty-four points in Games One and Two but was relegated to a mere fourteen points on 6-of-18 shooting from the field (33.3%) and 1-of-7 from downtown (14.3%) with more turnovers (3) than assists (2) in Game Three’s embarrassing 128-102 defeat on South Beach. Aggressiveness is oftentimes a criticism for the 25-year-old, who went just 2-of-7 overall in the second half of Sunday’s defeat, while he too has struggled mightily from long-range, netting just 5-of-20 attempts (25.0%) overall in this series. With that said, Tatum (pictured above) hasn’t been the only Celtic to have met his match, for (All-NBA Second Teamer) Jaylen Brown and (2021-2022 Defensive Player of the Year) Marcus Smart have hit the proverbial wall against the Heat, with the duo shooting 37.7% and 35.0% respectively and a combined 4-of-30 from three (13.3%). Unfortunately, the bad times don’t stop there, for as offensively challenged as Boston has been in this series, their capitulation on the defensive end of the court has been even more stunning, for this team was ELITE in this regard during their run to the Finals last Spring, which is where Mazzulla is really coming under fire. Serving as (former Head Coach) Ime Udoka’s proverbial offensive coordinator, the 34-year-old was praised for largely advancing his team’s offensive progress without compromising themselves on defense, but his insistence on playing small against the much smaller Heat has backfired spectacularly. Boston has been a sieve against one of the most methodical attacks in the Association, yielding 120.7 points on 51.9% shooting, including 47.8% from three, with 22.7 assists opposed to forcing a meager 10.3 turnovers. Rather than pairing (veteran Forward) Al Horford alongside (young Center) Robert Williams as his predecessor preferred, Mazzulla has opted for more shooting and spacing, with the former receiving many more minutes in this series independent of his teammate. Essentially, Mazzulla has allowed his opponent to dictate to him how he will play, rather than the other way around, which is rather ridiculous when you consider how they performed over the totality of the campaign. And that, folks, is how the Celtics have found themselves on the verge of a sweep, which doesn’t bode well for them tonight and moving forward, for in the long and storied history of their franchise, they have fallen behind 0-3 on six occasions and have been swept four times with the most recent instance being in 2015 at the hands of the Cavaliers. From a betting perspective, the Celtics were certainly one of the better teams in the NBA against the spread, posting a solid 52-41-2 record during the regular season and are only a middling 8-8 in that regard thus far in these playoffs. 4-6 both straight-up and against the spread over their last ten outings regardless of the opponent or the venue, they have been able to flip the script on the road, covering six of their last ten games away from the confines of TD Garden. However, tonight’s matchup marks the first of the series in which Boston has been an underdog, which has certainly been a sweet spot for the Shamrocks, who have covered the number in NINE of their last ten outings when receiving points from the oddsmakers. If the Celtics do in fact meet defeat tonight, this could become yet another crucial offseason for the franchise; a year after parting ways with the aforementioned Udoka due to an embarrassing scandal involving a relationship with member of his staff, there are rumors swirling that Mazzulla’s status could be thrown into question roughly a month after receiving the vote of confidence from ownership, while the future of Brown has become quite the topic of discussion as he enters the final year of his contract, with his All-NBA selection putting him in line for a MAJOR payday that the franchise may or may not want to commit to. Buckle up, Boston, this could be a rocky summer….
Meanwhile, standing just one game away from their seventh NBA Finals appearance in franchise history, the Heat (44-38, 8th in Eastern Conference) are authoring one of the most improbable postseason runs that the NBA has ever seen. A year after coming a missed three-pointer away from reaching that grand stage, Miami struggled throughout what was a frustratingly inconsistent campaign, qualifying for the playoffs via the play-in tournament where they came dangerously close to falling out of the competition altogether. In hindsight, it appears that that brush with sporting death has awakened something within this team, who has completely transformed themselves into arguably the biggest pain in the ass in the league, upsetting the top-seeded Bucks in a gentlemen’s sweep before eliminating the upstart Knicks with relative ease in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Considerable underdogs heading into this ECF rematch with the Celtics, (Head Coach) Erik Spoelstra’s troops have muscled their way to a commanding 3-0 advantage, all but assuring them of their second trip to the Finals in four years. So, how in the hell have they managed to do this, you ask? Well, Boston didn’t wake up and decide that they were going to get punked, ladies and gentlemen, for Miami has been the aggressor from the word go, completely taking the Celtics out of their comfort zone and forcing them to play a different brand of basketball. At the forefront has been (six-time All-Star) Jimmy Butler, who has once again reached another level in the playoffs; the 33-year-old has erupted for 29.9 points per game on 51.1% shooting from the field, including 35.7% from beyond the arc, along with 6.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 2.2 steals in this postseason, while torching Boston for 26.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and a whopping 3.7 steals thus far. However, Butler (pictured above) is far from alone, for the supporting cast has been a HUGE component to their success in this series. You’ve probably heard a lot about Heat Culture over the last few weeks, referring to the unique atmosphere around the franchise, which has long been ahead of their contemporaries in developing unheralded and oftentimes undrafted talent. This is where Spoelstra and his staff have earned their plaudits, for the veteran skipper has pushed the right buttons over and over again; whether it’s been Caleb Martin, Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, or Duncan Robinson, the Heat have received timely performances from a number of proverbial no-names, while the move to bring (veteran Point Guard) Kyle Lowry off the bench has proven to be a stroke of genius. Seriously, this is a team that ranked dead-last in points per game (109.5), twenty-fifth in offensive rating (113.0), twenty-sixth in field goal percentage (46.0%), and twenty-seventh in three-point percentage (34.4%), all the while operating at the second-slowest pace in the NBA at 96.3 possessions per forty-eight minutes. In these playoffs against what should be much stiffer competition, they’ve ascended to 114.9 points on a far healthier 48.0% shooting and 38.8% from downtown, playing slightly faster along the way (97.1 possessions per 48 minutes). Against Boston, those figures have continued to rise, with Miami rattling off a whopping 120.7 points per game on 51.9% shooting and 47.8% from the perimeter. Apart from Butler, five other players have logged at least 12.0 points per game, with that quartet of Strus, Martin, Vincent, and Robinson combining for 61.3 points on 58.4% shooting and 35-of-72 shooting from long-range (48.6%). Game Three’s 128-102 onslaught saw that foursome account for seventy-nine points, ten rebounds, and twelve assists, while shooting 28-of-45 from the field (62.2%) and 17-of-31 from three (54.8%). To put that into perspective, those four outscored the Celtics as a whole by EIGHTEEN points from the perimeter. Simply put, Spoelstra has performed a masterful job in getting the most out of this group, with their versatility on both ends of the hardwood cracking the code and sending Boston into veritable crisis mode. Keep in mind that the Heat have been doing this without the services of (2021-2022 Sixth Man of the Year) Tyler Herro, who has missed virtually this entire playoff run due to a broken hand. Interestingly enough, this has proven to be a blessing in disguise for Miami, who without him on the court have nobody for their opponents to hunt for mismatches on defense, while his offensive firepower has been compensated for with solid performances courtesy of Vincent and Martin. From a betting perspective, the Heat went a subpar 40-53-2 against the spread during the regular season, though have been far superior in these playoffs, covering ELEVEN of their last fourteen games. 8-2 both straight-up and against the spread over their last ten outings regardless of the opponent or venue, they have won nine of their last ten games at Kaseya Center outright and covered eight of them along the way. However, we’ll have to see how they perform as a favorite tonight, for they’re just 5-5 against the spread when laying points over their last ten such outings. As far as this particular matchup goes, Spoelstra’s charges have won and covered FIVE straight encounters with the Celtics dating back to the regular season. Over the course of their postseason history, the Heat have raced out to a 3-0 lead on eight occasions and have gone on to sweep said series five times, with their last such triumph coming back in the Bubble when they swept the Pacers in the first round of the 2020 Playoffs. With a win tonight, they will become just the SECOND eighth seed to advance to the NBA Finals, ironically joining the 1999 Knicks who famously upset them in the first round.