This topsy-turvy, injury-riddled series between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat has been so strange that the magnitude of tonight’s Game 5 in Miami almost sneaks up on you.
Marcus Smart, Kyle Lowry, Al Horford, Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams III have missed some or all of at least one game. That has robbed this series of any rhythm. Each game has been its own entity. It almost feels as if the real series hasn’t started, yet one team tonight will give itself two chances to win one game and advance to the NBA Finals.
Every chance at this late stage is precious. Miami has already nailed one of the greatest instant rebuilds in modern sports history, chasing its second Finals in three years despite having almost zero cap flexibility or tradable assets only a half-decade ago. Its two most accomplished veterans, Butler and Lowry, are 32 and 36, respectively, and dealing with nagging leg injuries.
The Celtics are in their fourth conference finals in six seasons; they have yet to win one in this Tatum-Smart-Jaylen Brown era. The 2017 and 2018 appearances were gravy — youngish teams exceeding expectations, and (in 2018) pushing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to the limit.
Then, drama and near misses. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward got healthy in 2019, but the juggernaut-on-paper disintegrated in the second round amid infighting and Irving’s wandering eye. The Celtics met Miami in the conference finals the next season in the bubble, losing a six-game heartbreaker that is regarded internally as a painful missed opportunity. They then fell so far as to be a first-round patsy for the Brooklyn Nets. More turmoil followed. Another loss now and regret creeps into the fabric of this core.
Both teams are as well equipped as anyone to defend the whirring Warriors machine, presuming Golden State holds on against the Dallas Mavericks. Boston in particular has played Golden State well over the Steve Kerr/Stephen Curry era. The contender’s circle will be more crowded next season.
And though it seems the Celtics have the edge — they are plus-28 through four games, and have been the league’s best team since Jan. 1 — Miami has home court. Funny things happen in discrete games. One or two variables flipping Miami’s way tonight — Butler’s return to form after 14 points on 6-of-22 shooting combined in Games 3 and 4, a scorcher from Herro (if healthy), random foul trouble for Tatum or Brown — and Miami could be the team up 3-2, with two cracks at the Finals. The Heat reminded us in Game 3 that they are tough enough, stout enough on defense, to finagle a win even with Butler out after halftime. Finagle another tonight, and all the pressure shifts to Boston.
Miami’s defense gives it a chance almost every night. The return of Lowry — switchable, unmovable on the block — fortified that defense against Boston’s mismatch-hunting. Max Strus is the only real target in Miami’s starting five, and he’s big, smart and feisty. Miami can limit the amount of time it features two of Strus, Gabe Vincent, Duncan Robinson and Herro. (Any Miami lineup without both P.J. Tucker and Butler makes for some nervy possessions against Tatum and Brown.)
Amid all the lineup chaos, the series might have reached one tipping point in Boston’s blowout Game 4 win: The Celtics appeared to figure out their preferred defensive coverages, and nailed the execution.
The biggest question of the series was whether the Heat could puncture the Celtics’ half-court defense. So far, they have mostly failed. Miami is scoring 90.9 points per 100 possessions in the half-court against Boston, per Cleaning The Glass data — a mark that would have ranked 27th in the regular-season.
The Heat have won only when they have forced heaps of turnovers to ignite their transition game. (Miami’s ability to generate turnovers was a very predictable bellwether.) Boston has 39 turnovers in Miami’s two wins, and 18 in its own two victories.
All season, Lowry has been the engine of Miami’s airborne transition game, and his return in Game 3 — his hit-aheads, and relentless devotion to pace for the sake of pace — seemed to catch Boston off guard.
The half-court is a different story.
Four games in, the Celtics have decided to drop back on almost every two-man action involving Tucker and Bam Adebayo as screeners. That keeps Boston’s biggest defenders and rebounders near the glass. The goal is to stay in front of the ball, barricade the paint, stick to outside shooters, and force floaters and long 2s. (Almost half Miami’s attempts in Game 4 were midrangers, a gigantic share.)
In earlier games, Adebayo had been beating some Boston switches with hard slips to the rim; the Celtics seemed determined to correct that in Game 4, even at the risk of opening up other shots:
Boston’s dropback scheme relies on guards skittering around picks without falling too far behind Miami’s ball handlers. Any delay has a cascading effect: That ball handler has more daylight, the Celtic defending the screener has to step further up and over to contain him, and suddenly Adebayo is dunking you into oblivion — or sucking in help that exposes open 3s.
Every inch matters. Even an extra foot of runway can be the difference between Adebayo lofting a 14-foot floater and rampaging into a closer-range shot:
Miami needs to unlock Adebayo again, and Adebayo needs to force the issue. Adebayo had 31 points in Game 3; he has 25 combined in the other three games. There has to be an in-between.
The Celtics were airtight getting around screens in Game 4. Just in case, their big guys ventured out an extra step on actions involving Strus. But even the best drop-heavy defenses yield a few open pull-up jumpers. The Heat missed them in Game 4. To win this game, and this series — and maybe to jolt Boston out of this scheme — they need to make some shots like this:
Those are tough shots. It’s a lot to ask to make a bunch of them. The NBA at this stage demands a lot.
Notice Payton Pritchard is the target on both those plays. The Heat did not go at Pritchard or Derrick White enough in Game 4. (White is a very good defender, but Butler and Adebayo can bully him.) That probably had a lot to do with Herro’s absence and Butler looking a shell of himself, but they need to peck at Boston’s rare vulnerabilities. (One favorite: having whoever White or Pritchard is guarding set an off-ball back pick for Butler — designed to get him a favorable switch as he burrows into post-up position.)
Miami will push at every chance, but it’ll need to get more creative with counters in the half-court. Vanilla high pick-and-rolls won’t get it done.
It was not a coincidence Miami opened the second half of Game 4 with this gem — a pick-and-roll that morphs into a pindown for Strus:
Plays like that turn drop-back schemes against themselves. The initial pick-and-roll is a decoy to get the defense retreating so no one is in position to jump out on Strus.
Screen-the-screener actions — in which a third Miami player nails Adebayo’s defender as Adebayo is on the way up for a pick-and-roll — have the same effect of knocking the defense behind the play. The Heat can mix in pick-and-rolls with Adebayo as the ball handler and try to surprise Boston with screens at half court — opening a long runway — or low picks around the foul line. Flipping the angle of picks at the last second might fool Boston here and there.
Miami might use Butler more as a screener if the Celtics slot Williams on him again — mimicking a gambit the Philadelphia 76ers tried with Joel Embiid. (Boston has been going under more ball screens for Butler since Game 1, and that tactic has worked.) It could shift more offense away from the pick-and-roll, leaning into Adebayo’s post game — using him as a catalyst for Miami’s complex off-ball actions.
Shifting quickly from one side to the other is always a handy method of baiting the defense — and then attacking elsewhere. Miami tried more of that when Game 4 was out of hand:
The Heat can pry open some quick-hitting post-ups for Adebayo with similar actions, including cross-screens under the basket. Miami is an ultra-high-IQ, resourceful team. The Heat make magic in tight spaces. They need all the ingenuity they can muster now.
Boston is selectively switching many of Miami’s other actions, sometimes as part of the plan and sometimes as improvisation. The Celtics are built to switch any Lowry-Butler actions. They are expert at double-switches — at rescuing smaller guys from the post before the offense can enter the ball.
Miami can beat some of those switches with the usual tricks: hard slips, rejecting ball screens and jetting away from them, and general high-speed creativity.
Miami is a little more adept at that stuff than Boston. The Celtics have been perhaps their most effective this postseason searching out mismatches for Tatum and Brown. That can lead to shots for Boston’s stars, or drive-and-kick sequences when Boston’s offense sings.
The snazziest of those from Game 4 started with a double screen for Tatum from White (defended by Lowry) and Williams (defended by Strus). Lowry diagnosed the play early and ordered Strus to toggle onto Tatum’s first screener: White. Lowry wanted to be last in the chain so he could switch onto Tatum.
But Tatum outthought Lowry, which is hard to do. Tatum saw that first switch, leaving Strus on White, and waved Williams away. Tatum wanted Strus alone.
Tatum got the switch. Adebayo crept from Horford in the corner to show help. Tatum whipped the ball to Horford. Horford blew by Adebayo’s close-out and lofted an alley-oop for Williams. Boom.
Williams’ availability is a major swing factor. If Daniel Theis is in that spot, Horford can’t flick the lob; he has to thread some interior pass, giving Miami’s defense time to recover. If Robert Williams can’t go, the Celtics should start the Grant Williams-Horford duo, and go smaller — with Tatum or Brown at power forward — before going to Theis. (That is more complicated if Smart is out. Ugh, this series.) Boston for the playoffs is plus-34 in 71 minutes with Horford surrounded by four wings and guards.
(On the flip side, the Dewayne Dedmon minutes continue to be a problem for Miami; the Heat are minus-19 in 38 minutes with Dedmon on the floor in this series. They can’t play Adebayo 48 minutes. The best remaining option is the Tuckwagon look, with Tucker as small-ball center, but Tucker is banged up and that lineup hasn’t worked all that well in limited minutes against Boston. It seems far-fetched to dust off Markieff Morris or Omer Yurtseven.)
Boston was more calculated preying on Miami’s weaker links in Game 4. It did not waste possessions, or time within possessions. Tatum is at his best when he goes full speed at those matchups as the switch is happening instead of pulling the ball out to dance:
Tatum meandered a bit in Game 3, sometimes giving the ball up before doing anything against his preferred matchups:
He dialed up the decisiveness in Game 4. That head-down driving is one factor in Boston’s enormous plus-39 edge in free throw attempts. The Heat cannot survive that. Boston has gotten a bit of a friendly whistle, but the Heat foul a lot; they were 27th in opponent free throw rate in the regular season. If Butler can’t pressure the rim — and he couldn’t in Games 3 and 4 — the Heat have a hard time generating free throws.
Miami can probably do better getting under any Tatum ball screens for Smart, but that’s easier said than done.
Brown has looked comfortable going at Strus one-on-one:
(Those sideline pindowns for Brown and Tatum — with all three other Celtics on the opposite side, complicating help assignments — are a Boston staple.)
All of these actions have something in common: They avoid Adebayo. He can shut off Boston’s pick-and-roll attack with switches. The Celtics don’t have to avoid him altogether. The smart move is to entice him into a switch early in the shot clock, removing Miami’s only rim protector from the basket area, then attack elsewhere.
Miami could try more zone, but that hasn’t bothered Boston; the Celtics have scored a blazing 1.36 points per possession in 26 trips against Miami’s once-feared zone, per Second Spectrum data. This isn’t the Miami zone of 2020, with two of Butler, Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones Jr. eating up space at the top. That zone was an asset. This one is at least somewhat an expression of vulnerability — something to protect lesser defenders.
These might be the two best defenses in the league. This series will be won in the muck. Both teams are at home there. Game 4 might have been a turning point — a statement win in which Boston found the right formula on defense. We’ll see. This series has been full of twists. Let’s see the Heat’s response at home.