By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
OK. So the Celtics got by the Raptors, and we’re officially at peace with Canada again. I hope everybody got some rest after burning the midnight oil last Friday night. It’s time for Game 1 of the Celtics' big playoff rematch against the top-seeded Milwaukee Bu- I mean the clearly very dangerous Miami Heat, with Boston's first trip to the NBA Finals in a decade on the line.
Here are some pregame thoughts to chew on, while I search for my 2012 NBA Playoffs “Beat The Heat” t-shirt.
There it is. Double XL? This fits like a garbage bag. Who dressed me back then?
As mentioned, the Heat knocked off the top-seeded Bucks in the second round. Just how remarkable of an accomplishment was it? The top seed in either conference had only flamed out before the Conference Finals seven times over the last 20 years. Make it eight. Those teams are now a combined 72-8.
But what does it mean for the conquering heroes? On just three occasions, the victor (2006 Mavericks, 2010 Celtics, and 2018 Cavaliers) advanced to the Finals. The other four times, the winner was out in the next round, with the Celtics actually contributing to the demise of one such team - the 2012 Philadelphia 76ers, who'd benefited from an injury to Derrick Rose in their first round upset of the Bulls.
While Miami has had an NBA team for over 30 years, the franchises have met just three times in the playoffs. Boston is 1-2 in those matchups. That record was entirely accumulated over a three-year stretch, starting with a gentleman’s sweep by the Finals-bound Celtics in 2010 (before Dwyane Wade went running to his buddies for help) and a 4-1 loss in 2011 (Miami added LeBron and Bosh, while the Green picked up Harvard Square Statue Shaq and "The Iron Horse" Jermaine O’Neal).
Then there was the heartbreaking 4-3 defeat in the 2102 Eastern Conference Finals, a series the Celtics unexpectedly led 3-2 going home, before LeBron tossed in 45 points in Game 6 and pretty much single-handedly dismantled the "Big 3" era for Boston.
This Year's Model
The Celtics went 2-1 against Miami during the 2019-20 regular season, even beating them at home (where the Heat started 27-5 prior to the shutdown). Without a “home” floor, the bubble has recently become a very comfortable place for Jimmy Butler & Co. - they’ve won eight of their last nine.
Miami didn’t play particularly well in the “seeding games,” but they did manage to beat Boston back on August 4, and that was without Butler (who was either hurt or enjoying some Hall & Oates and a Michelob). Bam Adebayo bulldozed his way to the free throw line 18 times en route to 21 points, Duncan Robinson poured in 21 (on five three-pointers), Goran Dragic scored 20, and Andre Iguodala had 20 in a throwback performance. Old friend Kelly Olynyk submitted a tidy line of 15 points, six rebounds and eight assists.
Jayson Tatum led the Green with 23, but Boston was 10-of-33 from distance in the 112-106 loss.
While Iguodala’s 20 points in the August win might have been uncharacteristic of his recent performance, it’s clear that the trade deadline addition of the veteran (one of the few guys left who's been playing since I was in college) has only added to the versatility of coach Erik Spoelstra’s rotation. Fellow midseason acquisition and old friend Jae Crowder also gives Spoelstra a plus defender who has been toasty from behind the arc (40 percent on 8.3 attempts per game in the playoffs).
Speaking of the long ball: Miami loves to bomb threes, and they’re incredibly accurate from distance (second in the NBA during the regular season) despite their leading scorer (Butler) historically being a minus from that spot on the floor and fellow All-Star Adebayo not being a factor at all. Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Goran Dragic have joined Crowder in absolutely launching from deep (nearly 20 attempts per game from the trio in the playoffs), all of them at or around 40 percent accuracy. Part of that success might be on Milwaukee's defensive strategy, which gives up the three to close down the lane, so that's something coach Brad Stevens needs to shut down.
Another adjustment Stevens can make is to go at those shooters on the other end. They're not good defensively. The Heat try to hide them among other premium defenders, while Iguodala and Crowder also give Miami the ability to go small - a look that really bugged the Celtics against Toronto. When Nick Nurse eschewed his traditional bigs and brought in Norman Powell with the starters, it was tough for Boston’s wings to get anything going.
Last round, Stevens got by a coach with a ring in Nurse. Now, he faces a coach with two rings in Spoelstra. While the Miami taskmaster hasn't added another Larry O'Brien trophy to Pat Riley's whatnot shelf since LeBron left, he's kept the Heat relevant and even pulled down NBCA Coach of the Year honors in 2017 - an honor selected by his peers.
Stevens received praise early in his Boston tenure by coaching up role players and quickly piloting a rebuilding squad back to the playoffs, culminating in back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances in 2017 and 2018 - but his reputation took a hit as things unraveled last year. While pundits may not necessarily credit Stevens with out-coaching Nurse, it'd be hard to argue the Celtics are winning in spite of their bench boss if the Green get by Spoelstra's crew and head to the Finals.
The Waiting is the Hardest Part
However, Stevens will have one less tool at his disposal - at least compared to the last time these two teams competed. Gordon Hayward, who torched the Heat for 29 points in their meeting back in January, has been ruled out for Game 1 as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.
Stevens does think the swingman will be back in the fold sometime during the series, which is good news for Boston. There were plenty of times in the last series when they could have used the veteran, even in a bench role.
Before Boston fans get too excited about a potential Finals matchup with the Lakers (for the 13th time!), there's a tough task ahead with Miami. The Celtics spent a good chunk of the regular season looking up at this team in the standings. They just slayed the giant, and they're rested (with an entire week to recuperate while the C's were pushed to the limit).
Order a pizza and find a comfy spot on the couch. Game 1 tips off Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. and airs on 98.5 The Sports Hub, starting with pregame at 6.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.