Moore: Down 2-1 to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, I’ve Never Liked Boston More
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Jayson Tatum (left) and Kemba Walker.
Heat-Celtics is not what it seems.
Here’s what Heat-Celtics looks like: no matter what the Celtics do, the Heat are just tougher. They pounced on the Celtics’ mistakes in Games 1 and 2 and were the more mentally tough team, led by Jimmy Butler’s pure F-You energy. Miami has the shooting to counter the Celtics defense, and having won two of the first three, they’ll win this series.
Here’s what has actually happened: Boston has won eight of the 12 quarters in this series. Through three games, the Celtics have outscored the Heat by 3 points, despite being down 2-1.
The big key is that when the Celtics have executed their gameplan, they’ve dominated. When they’ve played badly, they have completely fallen apart while at the exact same time the Heat have shot the lights out. The Heat shot 6-of-8 from 3-point range in the second quarter of Game 1, which is tied for the second-most 3s the Heat have made in a single quarter this postseason, and was the highest 3-point percentage they’ve had in a single quarter.
Three times in this series, the Heat have put up a 160-plus offensive rating in a single quarter: in the second quarter in Game 1, fourth quarter in Game 1 and third quarter in Game 2. By comparison, they only outperformed those numbers in a quarter once vs. the Bucks, who they defeated in five games.
This, despite Boston being a much tougher matchup defensively in this series than either Milwaukee or Indiana and Boston holding a 112 defensive rating for the series.
This isn’t fluke shooting, Miami has the best cadre of shooters remaining in the playoffs. The key, however, is the timing. When the Celtics have lost the rope defensively and gotten away from their gameplan, the Heat have played and shot phenomenally exactly in those stretches. If the Celtics played badly for a stretch and the Heat played pretty good during those times? This is probably 2-1 Celtics. If the Celtics played normally quarter-by-quarter and the Heat played great for stretches? Again, probably Celtics 2-1.
It has taken this exact sequence to get us to Heat 2-1.
Now, let’s talk rotations. Without Gordon Hayward, the Celtics were forced to play more questionable members of a thin bench. Semi Ojeleye was -7 in 19 minutes, Robert Williams was -3 in 11 minutes in Game 1. Grant Williams has played well, but is a -8 in 30 minutes across the three games, though he was +9 in Game 2.
But Gordon Hayward came back in Game 3. The box plus-minus says +1 in 31 minutes. No big win. However, the Celtics’ “best five” lineup was crucial:
Sep. 20, 2020: Best Five
Due to various injuries, the Celtics have almost never gotten to use the best lineups they envisioned when signing Gordon Hayward. Last night, one such group won them the game in just seven minutes. https://t.co/TANXkYyFeL pic.twitter.com/VTHN5n6ocG
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) September 20, 2020
Hayward will play better, not worse, most likely. Kemba Walker had an all-time bad game in Game 2.
A big adjustment in Game 3 came from putting Marcus Smart more aggressively on the primary ball-handler. In the first two games, Smart was mostly deployed on Duncan Robinson. That’s largely a waste because Robinson is constantly running off screens, forcing Smart to switch off him in the scheme, and the Heat targeted specific players to switch Smart onto.
In Game 3, the Celtics continued to switch, but Smart aggressively attacked both Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro coming up court, getting the ball out of their hands and then playing ball denial on them. Dragic doesn’t want to attack Smart:
Smart is much better used in this series to cut off the head of the snake. One problem they had when he was used vs. Butler was that the Heat would force the switch to get Walker’s man on him. I’m curious to see if the Celtics start changing up their coverage away from switch-all to try and keep the right defenders attached.
Having Hayward back helps with Boston’s zone as well. On 20 plays logged as zone defense by Synergy Sports in Game 3, the Celtics scored 18 points. A 0.9 points-per-possession mark isn’t anything to write home about, but compare that to the 19 points on 32 possessions from Game 2 (0.59 points per possession) and it looks great. Also notable: the Celtics scored on six of the final seven possessions against the zone in Game 3. They figured some things out.
Miami shot 44% in Game 1 from 3, 33% in Game 2, and just 27% in Game 3 on 44 attempts. Jae Crowder and Tyler Herro combined for 22 of those attempts. Crowder has been red hot in the playoffs, but was also due for some regression.
Miami will likely shoot better in this series than in Game 3. But there are some trends with the Heat offense through three games we should look at.
Miami is good for another hot shooting game in this series. Overall, however, Boston’s pre-series matchup that put them as favorites remain, and they’re starting to figure out Miami more and more game by game.
Right now you can get the Celtics at between +115 and +130 to win the series compared to -130 pre-series.
A hot-shooting Heat game can render this moot. They have the capacity to just light the nets on fire, and going down 3-1 might be the breaking point for Boston. The post-Game 2 locker room argument was seen as a team breaking apart, but they responded in Game 3. Every team has its breaking point, though.
The Heat seem like this team that just has all the intangible advantages, led by Butler’s relentlessness. When we really dive into this series, though, I’m in the same place I was before the series when I took Boston. Hayward’s return nudges this forward and puts even more value on Boston as a series underdog.