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Heat vs. Celtics Series Odds & Betting Preview: Finding Value in the Eastern Conference Finals

Heat vs. Celtics Series Odds & Betting Preview: Finding Value in the Eastern Conference Finals article feature image
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Via Michael Reaves/Getty Images. Pictured: Bam Adebayo #13 and Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat look on against the Atlanta Hawks during the fourth quarter in Game Two of the Eastern Conference First Round at FTX Arena on April 19, 2022 in Miami, Florida.

The Boston Celtics took down the reigning NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in seven grueling games after previously dispatching the star-studded Brooklyn Nets in the first round. Now they take on the Miami Heat, which seems to some like it might be a bit of an easier path for the Celtics.

The Celtics are the public team, the Heat are somehow unheralded underdogs as the No. 1 seed in East. But given that this series is basically a Spider-Man-pointing meme between two tough switching defenses led by dynamic wings, there’s a lot more to dig into.

Is Miami undervalued, or will Boston ascend to yet another NBA Finals for the team with the most titles?

Let’s bet Heat-Celtics Eastern Conference Finals.

“Switches and Zones and a Lot of Muscle”

These two teams are not only excellent defensively in terms of technique, with long, athletic, locked-in defenders who give high effort every play with few weak spots in the rotation, but they also both play the most grinding, annoying styles of defense.

Both are high-usage switch teams in pick-and-roll coverage, and both use a zone defense to a high degree. These two things are ripe for grinding offensive game flow into absolute sludge.

The Celtics haven’t been challenged with a zone defense in the playoffs — Synergy has just six possessions where Boston has faced zone, and Second Spectrum has just five. In the regular season, Boston ranked 19th vs. zone coverage and Miami ranked 27th. Switching defenses take away ball movement and zone will disrupt their flow.

“Both these teams are so good at controlling their possessions,” one Western conference scout said Sunday night. “Miami’s stubborn and unmovable, and (Ime Udoka) keeps the Celtics on their game plan. I don’t think people are ready for how ugly these games are going to be between those two with how those defenses play. Switches and zones and a lot of muscle.”

It’s going to be ugly.

A central question that has to be evaluated is how good the Bucks’ defense was vs. the Celtics. The Bucks really fell off in the back half of the year. Boston’s offense was good in wins, but not great. They have registered a 117 Offensive Rating in wins, which is just 10th among all playoff teams, and Miami is one spot above them.

However, the Heat played the hapless Atlanta Hawks and the Philadelphia 76ers who were without Joel Embiid to start the series, and Embiid was compromised when he returned. But the perception of Milwaukee’s defense, given their penchant for giving up 3s, may have been exaggerated.

Either way, the weak points for both teams is unquestionably their offenses. Their defenses are sound, but their offenses tend to sputter.

It’s All About Pace for the Heat

The Heat play a particular brand. They don’t blow you out or run away with it. They keep themselves within range and trust in their ability to hit you with clutch plays when you hit a bad stretch.

This was Miami’s formula in the 2020 Conference finals as well. In Game 2 of that series, the Celtics won the first, second, and fourth quarters, but they lost the third quarter by 20 points. The Celtics would routinely build leads in that series (in the Bubble, notably) only to have a scoring drought at the worst time just as the Heat would hit multiple 3s.

It’s difficult to get the Heat out of their pace. Miami averaged the same pace (96) in wins as in losses in the regular season and the same pace in wins (93) as in losses in the playoffs so far.

Miami doesn’t take home run swings. They pick at you, like a flock of birds. You feel like you’re in a good spot, then Jimmy Butler hits a runner and-one. You turn the ball over, then Max Strus hits a 3-pointer. You can’t get a good possession, then Adebayo gets a putback and suddenly it’s an 8-0 run. You work your way back into it just in time for them to hit you with another run.

They’ll test the Celtics’ patience and resiliency, like they did in 2020. This is a better Celtics team on multiple fronts, but if Milwaukee was a test of wills, this is a test of focus for Boston.

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The Celtics Will Wait for Key Matchups

The Celtics are the more emotional of the two teams. They don’t necessarily need big plays to thrive, but they create enough. The road games should be difficult, not because of Heat’s home crowd (which is hit-or-miss at best), but from the lack of momentum of their own crowd.

The Celtics are patient; they are second in the league in time of possession in the playoffs. They very rarely fire off shots without multiple mechanisms. They’ll try and get you to react to their initial moves and then reverse the ball.

Derrick White misses this shot, but you get the sense:

They keep moving and do a really good job of relocating after the reversal to set up shots like this:

The Celtics want to test your willingness to make multiple efforts on both ends. If the Heat want to wear you down mentally, the Celtics want to wear you out physically. They play with pressure and relentlessness, on both sides of the ball, forcing you to make the mistakes they can punish.

This is all telling because if you do hold up, their offense often becomes pedestrian perimeter passing into nothing.

Jayson Tatum, of course, is the exception for this. Across the past three seasons, Tatum has averaged a 48% Effective Field Goal percentage against Butler in halfcourt matchups. Tatum will likely try and get Butler switched off of him, and Butler staying with him will be a key point.

“Jimmy (Butler)’s always a double-edged sword with his personality, but they’ve made it work,” one executive remarked to Action Network before the series began. “I’m really interested to see how attached they can keep him to Tatum and if Butler will have enough on the offensive end if he has to try and guard Tatum and fight through screens all the time.”

This is why Duncan Robinson will once again be a sore point after he did not play much in the second round against the Sixers.

Tatum will hunt Robinson, if he’s on the floor, on switches. If Butler tries to double, the Heat are now in rotation, and the entire point of switching is to avoid rotations.

If Robinson doesn’t play, Miami may not have the 3-point shooting to keep pace. If Robinson does play, the Celtics can hunt him as the weak point. It’s a difficult needle to thread.

The Heat may well be better off letting Tatum hunt Robinson and force Tatum to exhaust himself offensively in one-on-one play while limiting 3s rather than letting the Celtics get in rhythm.

All the Unders. All the Time.

The Heat aren’t getting enough credit for how well they match up with the Celtics. Bear in mind that the Heat are the No. 1 seed, with the home court advantage, while the Celtics played a Game 7 less than 48 hours ago and yet are only short favorites at home in Game 1.

That’s a sign that the market doesn’t give Miami the respect it deserves.

I think Boston will win the series based on its overall talent and execution level, but the odds of a Game 1 Miami win directly contradicts that. Teams who have won Game 1 at home in the Conference finals have gone on to win the series in 74 of the 90 matchups in NBA history, per WhoWins.com.

As such, while if I had to make a prediction, I would say Celtics in 7, I think there’s value on Heat +1.5 wins at BetRivers at -139 on the series win spread. There’s also value on the Heat -1.5 at +255.

I like the Heat in Game 1 at home -1.5 against a tired Celtics team that will face a defense unlike one they’ve seen yet. I bet Tatum over 5.5 assists; he averaged seven per 100 matchups with Butler. I bet under 15.5 points on Bam Adebayo who faces Al Horford and Robert Williams, and both can disrupt his scoring effort.

I also bet the under 205 and under 200.5. This series will be a slog.

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