Heat vs. Celtics Series Odds & Betting Preview: Eastern Conference Finals NBA Playoff Picks
Pictured: Jayson Tatum dribbles while being defended by Bam Adebayo. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
We made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, and boy does this feel familiar.
The Celtics and Heat met in this exact spot one year ago, with a Jimmy Butler miss in the final moments of Game 7 giving the game to Boston. They also met on this same stage three years ago, with Miami winning in six in the Bubble.
This is the rubber match, and whoever wins will be hoping they can do what neither team has done yet after either previous matchup — win the NBA Finals.
The analysis and metrics tell us to trust Boston on paper, but the history and odds are begging us to take Miami. I’m on the Heat. Let’s get into why.
The Case for the Celtics
The case for Boston is pretty easy. On paper, the Celtics are better — by a lot.
Miami wants to take a ton of 3s and force opponents to do the same, turning the game into a 3-point shootout. Boston will gladly oblige. The Celtics ranked top five in 3s made and 3-point percentage. The Heat fancy themselves a tough defensive team that wins on 3s. The Celtics are the actualized version of that. In some ways, they’re the team Miami wants to be.
This will be a heavy shot variance series, and Boston has the better shooters and a better defense against shooters. The turnover battle will be key. Boston typically doesn’t turn it over much, but Miami forces heavy turnovers and gives the Celtics all sorts of problems. Jayson Tatum averaged 4.7 turnovers per game in last year’s series and had games with five and seven turnovers against Miami this season. Jaylen Brown had at four or more turnovers in four of the seven games in last year’s series and is averaging 3.2 this postseason with three or more in nine of 13 games (69%). Boston turnovers will lead to easy Miami offense.
Without easy buckets off turnovers, the Heat offense is no match for a locked in Boston defense. The Celtics defend well without fouling, neutering Miami’s elite free-throw rate, and Boston is top five against 3s. When Boston is locked in and Miami’s 3s aren’t falling, the Celtics will have a few avalanches like they did in Game 7 against Philadelphia. They might win a couple games by 20 or 30.
When Boston’s 3s are falling, the Celtics are nearly unbeatable. They’re 35-2 when they hit 40% of their shots from deep and 49-12 when they make at least 35%. When they’re below that number, the Celtics are beatable at just 16-18, including 0-2 in the playoffs.
When Boston misses 3s, they’re beatable. When the 3s are falling, they’re indomitable.
Boston has been the better road team and is best in the playoffs with a +4.9 Net Rating. They’re also an elite first-half team. When Boston is good, it’s usually apparent early.
If you like the Celtics in a game, you probably want an over because that means the shots are falling. You might also play a first-half line or an alternate spread for an early lead and a big win.
On paper, this is a mismatch. The on-paper Celtics should win this series in five, if that.
But Boston never seems to play these series on paper.
The Case for the Heat
The problem is the regular season never seems to tell us much about the Heat.
In 2020, Miami went 44-29 and was outside the top 20% in Net Rating, ORTG and DRTG. Then, the Heat had the fourth-best playoff offense, steamrolled through the East and came two games away from winning a title.
Last year’s 1-seed had metrics similar to the 2020 team and looked like the sixth- or seventh-best team in the league. Instead, the Heat came a bucket away from second in playoff Net Rating and a were bucket away from a return to the Finals.
This year’s Heat don’t stack up to the Celtics on paper, but on paper, this year’s Heat should’ve been out four weeks ago — and nearly were.
But none of that matters now.
The Heat play to the level of their competition. It hurt them all year, but it works pretty well against the Bucks and Celtics. Miami is 31-27 against teams above .500. The Heat are also 15-8 in three-point games with a sparkling record in the fourth quarter and in the clutch. Miami has played 42 games within five points, two off the all-time NBA record.
The regular season Heat went 2-2 against Boston — predictably winning twice by three and four points. This is just what the Heat do. It’s who they are.
The Heat grind things down, make opponents’ lives miserable, keep things close and give themselves a shot. That’s embodied by the NBA’s best coach, Erik Spoelstra, and Playoff Jimmy, whose coffee is for closers and who’s been one of the league’s five best players since the Bubble.
I honestly don't know why we don't talk about Jimmy Butler more.
Arguably a top 5 player since the NBA Bubble and we somehow left him off the All-Star team two of the three years.
Jokic, Giannis, Embiid excluded, here's Jimmy G. Buckets vs the rest of the field last 3 years. pic.twitter.com/KZkqjPFw4W
— Brandon Anderson (@wheatonbrando) April 16, 2023
If you missed an Eastern Conference Finals game and found out Miami won, there’s at least five easy, one-line reasons why it might have happened:
1. Spoelstra outcoached Joe Mazzulla. Spoelstra made all the adjustments before and in-game that Boston’s rookie coach has struggled with through two rounds.
2. Jimmy Got Buckets. This is a man who averaged 37.6 against Milwaukee and had games of 35, 41 and 47 against Boston in last year’s ECF. Butler is the best player in the series and can win a game on his own.
3. The Celtics lost Game 1 after Game 7.Per Raheem Palmer, post-Game 7 teams are 33-52 SU (36.5%) since 1988, going 36-49 (42.4%) in the series.
4. Shot variance got Boston. Miami’s shots all fell like they did against Miami, or Boston’s shooters went ice cold. This series will see huge swings with the number of 3s going up.
5. Miami stole a close game late. The Heat have a +20.1 playoff Net Rating in the fourth quarter. That was Boston’s worst quarter all year, and the Celtics offense still gets stuck in mud late.
Miami can steal moments, steal games and stay in the series. Boston loves to “play with its food” and play long series. Boston has played 11 series beyond the first round over the past six postseasons. The Celtics average 6.3 games per series, with five of their six series wins going all the way to Game 7.
Boston lets opponents hang around, and Miami is the hang-around-iest team in the NBA. The Heat simply will not die.
And the longer Miami hangs, with the best player on the court and the best coach in the league, the more chance the Heat will have to steal games — and maybe even this series.
The Celtics are absolutely the better team and should definitely be favored to win this series, but the -550 series price is outrageous. That’s an implied 84.5%, a ridiculous number.
I expect the Celtics to win, but put them closer to -200. My most likely outcome is Celtics in 7, followed by Celtics in 5, then Heat in 6.
Maybe the on-paper analysis is right. The odds imply Celtics in 5 as the most likely outcome, and that’s what my initial analysis said. Maybe Boston finally got scared straight by Philadelphia and will come out and take care of business like a mature team. But wasn’t that supposed to be the case after the Hawks in round one, or against the Bucks last year before letting Miami hang for seven, or against the 2020 Raptors or 2018 Bucks or 2017 Wizards? How many times are we going to trick ourselves into believing this Celtics core has turned the corner? At some point, we have to accept that this is who Boston is.
The Celtics have told us they’ll look invincible for stretches and fart away games in others. This is who they are, and the Heat are uniquely built to hang around and take advantage.
I love Heat +2.5 on the series line.
Miami has to win two games to get there, and it might accomplish that by Game 4. We’re paying -134, an implied 57.3%, but my numbers say that should be priced closer to -250.
I like Heat +1.5 on the series line too. My numbers actually put that line at almost exactly -134, the price we’re getting for +2.5, meaning we’re getting a full Miami win for free. We get a +165 payout on the Heat winning at least three games.
Remember, Boston has played 11 non-first-round series over the past six years and have won in six or less just once. In other words, opponents have covered a +1.5 series line in 10 of those 11 series (90.9%).
I’ll play both the +2.5 and +1.5 series lines as an escalator — and I’ll go one step further. Give me Miami -1.5 at +680. Boston is nearly invincible in home Game 7s, so I’ll give up that out for the big payday of a Heat series win in six or less. Butler’s Heat have won seven playoff series, all in six games or less.
Split your bets how you’re comfortable. I’ll play 60% of my bet on the standard +2.5 line, 25% on the +1.5, and 15% on a -1.5 Heat stunner.
The Heat are not the better team, nor my pick to win the series, but betting is about value, not winners. Bet the number, and bet on the Heat, who simply will not die.
THE PICK: Heat +2.5 (-134) | Heat +1.5 (+165) | Heat -1.5 (+680) Escalator
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