The Celtics Can Still Beat the Heat and Win the Title — Should You Bet On It?

The Celtics Can Still Beat the Heat and Win the Title — Should You Bet On It? article feature image
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Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images. Pictured: Jayson Tatum.

The Boston Celtics can still make the NBA Finals and win the championship.

Factually, it's true. Until the clock reads 0:00 on a fourth loss in the series, every team technically has a chance. But do the Celtics really have a chance?

We were never supposed to be here. The Celtics had the NBA's best Net Rating. The Miami Heat ranked 21st, the lowest of every postseason team, including all the play-in losers. Miami was almost a play-in loser itself.

The Heat have won 11-of-14 games since, including 8-1 against the two title favorites. The Celtics lost twice at home, then by a billion in Game 3 — now Boston is staring into the abyss of elimination.

NBA teams are 0-149 all time facing an 0-3 deficit. It's never been done.

Could these Celtics be the first to come back from down 0-3? And should we bet on them to do it?

What History Has to Say

So often in sports, it's always darkest just before the dawn.

Only one team in Major League Baseball history has come back from an 0-3 series deficit — and you don't have to remind Boston fans who it was.

In the 2004 American League Championship Series, the Boston Red Sox were down 0-3 to the New York Yankees and trailed in the final inning of Game 4. Boston won in extras, came back from an eighth-inning deficit in Game 5, completed the comeback in Game 7 and went on to win the World Series.

It had to be the hated Yankees. It had to take fans to the deepest nadir before euphoria.

I'm a Chicago Cubs and Manchester City fan — save your hate.

The Cubs waited 71 years to get back to the World Series, then went down 3-1 with back-to-back home losses and appeared to be on the brink. They pushed it to Game 7, rallied and blew a big lead there, then needed a miraculous rainstorm to recover and win their first World Series in 108 years.

Before this version of Man City — and its five English Premier League titles in six years — were endless years of "Typical City," when the team always managed to blow games in the biggest moments. In May 2012, City hosted the worst team in the league, needing only a win on the final day to clinch its first EPL crown. Instead, the team trailed 2-1 as the match hit extra time. That's when City scored, then scored again at 93:20 as Aguerooooo was born and the club clinched its first league title in 44 years.

It's always darkest just before the dawn.

There are countless other examples of championship teams at every level reaching the lowest of lows before rebounding to finally reach that highest mountain.

There's little need to argue that the Celtics are at their lowest after a lifeless effort in Miami. As @Bibimoore on Twitter pointed out, the Los Angeles Lakers "are down 0-3 respectfully" while the Celtics "are down 0-3 disrespectfully." Boston can't get any lower. Might as well go up.

Celtics in my opinion

Lakers are down 0-3 respectfully
Celtics are down 0-3 disrespectfully

Huge difference

— Bibimoore (@Bibbimoore) May 22, 2023

NBA teams are 0-149 all time when faced with an 0-3 deficit.

But how many of those teams led the league in Net Rating? How many were facing an 8-seed that was the last playoff team in, allowing more points than it scored in the regular season, missing two rotation guys?

How many of those teams down were heavily favored coming into the series like Boston? How many could earn a deciding Game 7 at home, where Boston is 22-5 all time in Game 7s?

Of those 149 0-3 deficits, 100 came within the first two rounds. None of those 100 teams had proven itself with two playoff series wins, let alone a last half-decade of winning results like Boston.

Throw out these last three ugly games for a second and focus only on the previous 90+ for each side. Isn't Boston versus Miami a top-10 percentile possible 0-3 comeback? Is it top five? Top one?

No team had ever come back from down 0-3 in MLB either before the Red Sox. No 16-seed had ever beaten a 1-seed in men's March Madness until UMBC — and now two of them have.

History always says things are impossible, right up until they're not.

It won't be easy to win a second straight Game 7 and go on to win a title. The attrition of two consecutive Game 7s would be a lot to overcome, on top of the 0-3 deficit … but not unprecedented. The 2008 Celtics won a pair of Game 7s before going on to win their title, the last Celtics banner.

As Kevin Garnett famously said: Anything is possible.

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What Shot Variance Has to Say

If the Celtics are to win the series, they'll need the shot variance to swing heavily in their direction. That equation has been all Miami.

The Heat have made 44-of-92 3s through three games, an incredible 48%. The Celtics are 31-of-106, attempting 16 more treys but making 13 fewer, a paltry 29%.

This was always going to be a shot variance series with both teams so reliant on 3-point shooting. Should we really be all that shocked Boston's down 0-3 with the shot variance skewed so strongly?

Miami has five games all season shooting over 50% on 3s. Two of those came in this series. Miami is 11-1 when making over 45% of its 3s. The Heat are just 44-40 otherwise, their median 3-point percentage is 34% for the season.

Boston is 35-2 when it hits at least 40% of its 3s, nearly invincible. But the Celtics are 16-21 when they shoot below 35% — including 0-5 in the playoffs and 0-3 this series.

The thing about shot variance is that it varies. Shooting has largely proven to be random, and 3-point defense is almost entirely unpredictable.

The Heat ranked 27th in 3-point percentage in the regular season, and they're still missing their best shooter (Tyler Herro). Miami ranked 22nd in 3-point defense.

Is it possible the Heat are suddenly just first in both categories? I suppose. But it's much more likely they're getting incredibly lucky. The Celtics ranked sixth and fourth in those categories. Are they suddenly the worst shooting team in the league and the worst 3-point defense in league history? Doubtful.

Of course, that doesn't mean Boston is "due" to shoot 48%. That's gambler's fallacy. But it does mean we shouldn't expect Miami to continue this huge shot-making advantage — that means Boston has a chance.

Pretend for a minute that Boston's games come down entirely to just its shot variance. The Celtics have 37 games at 40% 3s or better and 37 more below 35%. Assume they have a 94.6% chance to win (35-2) at the superior mark and 37.8% (16-21) the latter. Add in a 58.3% chance (14-10) to win the other 24 games stuck in the middle.

We've reduced the Celtics to a simple shot variance formula. A little math tells us Boston has a 66.4% chance to win any random game. We need four wins in a row. That comes out to 19.4%, an implied +415 and well short of the posted number.

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So you're telling me there's a chance.

Boston had three streaks this season of at least four games shooting 40%, its invincible number. It also has six streaks of at least three games straight below 35%, like now.

The implied odds of Boston staying above 35% in each of its next four games is just 15%, so the Celtics probably need to win at least one rock fight. Hopefully they don't match that against another 50% night from Miami.

All of this is incredibly reductive, of course. This is not just a 3-point contest, and there are a thousand other variables and factors at play. But the numbers remind us of a few important things.

Boston is a very good team facing an opponent it's significantly better than in any number of measurable ways — as good a chance on paper as any to overcome an 0-3 deficit — and the Celtics are down 0-3 in part because of tremendously unlucky shot variance at the worst time.

Boston had the deck stacked in its favor, then rolled snake eyes. It's an inside straight draw now, but the Celtics still have a few outs.

The Celtics can win. So should we bet it?

Should We Bet on a Celtics Comeback?

The Celtics are priced +700 to +800 to make the Finals at most books, implying an 11.1-to-12.5% chance.

Boston is +100 on the Game 4 moneyline. If we assume a similar price for a road Game 6, the Celtics need to be around a 67% home favorite in Games 5 and 7 to get to that number. That's an implied -200, and Boston was closer to -400 or -450 in Games 1 and 2.

The question is whether we can rely on any of those numbers. Boston was supposedly 80% likely to win those home games but hardly looked the part, and the Celtics have been overpriced for a month.

And we haven't even mentioned the possibility these Celtics are already on 1-2-3 Cancun. They looked like a team that quit on its coach and on each other in Game 3. No amount of shot variance or implied odds can account for a lack of motivation.

My numbers give the Celtics just over a 10% chance at the comeback, which would put Boston below the bettable threshold. But these things are tight. Increase Boston's chances by a mere 5% each game and the Celtics jump past 14%, suddenly bettable to +600.

Of course, that's just to win the East.

Boston is priced +1400 to +1600 to win the title, an implied 5.9-to-6.7%. That would imply Boston being a slight NBA Finals favorite against Denver. The Celtics would have a major rest disadvantage, but they'd also have home court — and the momentum of the first-ever 0-3 comeback.

The math is super tight. There's little margin for error, both for bettors and Boston.

It's too tight to recommend a bet, but not so far off that it's impossible. We're talking tiny margins. There's a +1800 title bet at PointsBet. That might be enough to merit a swing.

If you want to play Boston, I won't stop you.

But I've got a better angle: Jayson Tatum +1200 to win ECF MVP at BetRivers.

At implied 7.7%, Tatum only has to win MVP in 58% of all Celtics wins to give value to that ticket. Series MVPs overwhelmingly go to the winning team's leading scorer and best player, per our Jim Turvey. Tatum is both for the Celtics, and he's up nearly 10 PPG on Jaylen Brown, who's having a miserable series.

A bet on Tatum to be the ECF MVP is a smart proxy for a Celtics series win. At +1200, with one of the best 0-3 profiles ever and the math of shooting variance on our side, it might be worth a shot.

Besides, imagine how fun it'll be to hold this ticket if it cashes.

Sometimes betting is about having fun — especially if you're already sitting on all those juicy Miami futures and this ends up being little more than an entertaining hedge.

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Sean Treppedi
Jul 17, 2024 UTC