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2023 Eastern Conference Finals Preview: 5 Keys To Heat-Celtics Series

It’s funny to see all this talk of parity and yet, when it’s all said and done, somehow, it’s the Miami Heat facing off against the Boston Celtics for a chance to reach the NBA Finals… again.

Don’t get me wrong, parity definitely has been a thing in these playoffs, and in the regular season. There’s both a 7th seed (the Lakers) and an 8th seed (the Heat) in the Conference Finals for the first time ever. It’s just funny that regardless of the parity, for the 3rd time in 4 seasons, the Heat and Celtics face off in the conference finals.

To say these teams are familiar with each other would be an understatement. The franchises have played each other 5 teams in the playoffs, all in the last decade and all with incredibly high stakes.

It’s hard to say that the Heat were expected to be here this time around, though. They had an up-and-down season derailed by injuries and availability, lost a play-in game to the Atlanta Hawks, narrowly avoiding facing the Celtics in the 1st round, and slotted in as the 8th seed. They shockingly upset the best record in the NBA in the Milwaukee Bucks thanks to a back injury to Giannis Antetokounmpo and some unbelievably heroic performances from Jimmy Butler. They handled the New York Knicks in 6 games in a grueling series that felt like it was being played in the mud and now, after all that, they’re back where they were this time last year. What a ride.

As for the Celtics, despite changing their Head Coach mere weeks before the start of the regular season — they didn’t skip a beat. The NBA Finalists from 2022 trekked along winning the second-most games in the Association and adding a Sixth Man of the Year to their core in Malcolm Brogdon. Anything short of a Finals run this season would be a disappointment for this ball club.

Let’s try to dissect the things that can determine this series.


OFF RATING25th (112.3)2nd (117.3)
DEF RATING9th (112.8)2nd (110.6)
NET RATING21st (-0.5)1st (+6.7)
POST ALL-STAR OFF RATING16th (115.7)5th (118.3)
POST ALL-STAR DEF RATING22nd (117.1)2nd (110.4)
POST ALL-STAR NET RATING21st (-1.6)1st (+7.9)
TRUE-SHOOTING PERCENTAGE21st (57.4%)5th (60%)
PACE29th (96.76)20th (99.15)
3-POINTERS MADE17th (12)2nd (16)
3-POINT PERCENTAGE27th (34.4%)6th (37.7%)
TURNOVER PERCENTAGE13th (13.8%)7th (13.3%)
FREE-THROW RATE13th (0.270)27th (0.243)


OFF RATING5th (115.7)2nd (118.7)
DEF RATING7th (111.1)6th (111.0)
NET RATING4th (+4.7)2nd (+7.1)
ASSIST PERCENTAGE6th (60.4%)9th (59.5%)
TURNOVER PERCENTAGE4th (12.6%)2nd (12.3%)
PACE9th (97.04)10th (96.65)
3-POINTERS MADE5th (13.4)2nd (15.4)
3-POINT PERCENTAGE5th (36.8%)1st (39.5%)
OFF REBOUND PERCENTAGE13th (26.6)14th (26.7)
TRUE-SHOOTING PERCENTAGE5th (58.1%)1st (60.7%)
FREE-THROW RATE8th (0.255)13th (0.218)
OPPONENT FREE-THROW RATE14th (0.293)4th (0.216)

FACTOR #1: Defending The 3-Point Line

I hate to be that guy, because there’s more that goes into basketball than shooting. Oftentimes, shooting variance becomes some sort of blanket excuse for why a team won or lost and I think that discourse gets out of hand at times.

But I’d be lying if I said shooting isn’t going to be a massive swing factor in this series. Outside of Al Horford who is shooting 31% from 3 in the playoffs so far, and Robert Williams III who isn’t a shooter, every player in the Celtics rotation is knocking down better than 36% of their 3’s from behind the arc. Throughout the course of the season, they shot the 4th-most amount of 3’s per night, knocking down the highest percentage of them in the league (nearly 40% on nearly 40 attempts a game) and finding open looks with near certainty. They generated nearly 16 open 3-point attempts per game throughout the season, good for 4th-best in the league. Their Head Coach, Joe Mazulla, has consistently been quoted emphasizing the importance of winning the math battle.

But that dependence on the 3-point shot has created a sort of over-reliance.

The Celtics are 3-4 in the postseason when they shoot worse than 40% from behind the arc. They’re 5-1 when they knock down over 40% of their threes.

As for the Heat, they spent the entire season as a lacklustre shooting team (27th in percentage, 10th in attempts), only to catch fire in these playoffs. They’re knocking down nearly 37% of their 3’s — good for 5th best in the post-season thus far. A good chunk of that can be attributed to their scorching hot shooting in the 1st round versus the Bucks where they shot 45% from 3 on over 34 attempts per night through 5 games. Their series versus the Knicks was an entirely different story, they came back down to earth, shooting 30% on 38 attempts through 6 games.

The Heat aren’t over-reliant on the 3-point shot, they have proven that they can find other ways to win and to make things hard on other teams defensively — but they will absolutely have to defend the heck out of the 3-point line against the Celtics if they want to have a chance.

It starts with dribble penetration. The majority of the Celtics wide-open, good looks from three are based off a very simple principle: “drive-n-kick”.

They can get to their drive-n-kick game in a number of ways, either high pick-n-rolls with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and one of their bigs or the guard trio of Marcus Smart, Derrick White or Malcolm Brogdon, carving up an advantage, getting downhill, collapsing the defense and finding an open shooter.

If you start to trap those pick-n-roll actions — the Celtics can dump it off to Horford, a good short-roll playmaker who can easily find the open shooter instead.

You’re not going to be able to play a ton of drop if you’re the Heat, because the Celtics also have the pull-up shooting requisite to make you pay — especially when Tatum is on a heater like he was in Game 7 versus the Sixers.

Luckily for the Heat, they do a ton of switching and I think given their personnel, they should be comfortable just switching a lot of these actions, not letting guys get downhill and force the Celtics to play 1-on-1 more, living with the consequences.

But this also gets tricky because the Celtics just have more talented offensive weapons than the Knicks. On this play Caleb Martin switches onto Hartenstein, but let’s say that’s Horford or even Tatum, the Celtics will be comfortable throwing it to either one of them in the post and letting them operate on Martin.

The other thing is Miami is going to aggresively wall off the paint to negate drives. That can be a positive thing against the Celtics who rely on paint touches to generate these open 3’s but sending too much help can cause trouble against Boston.

For example, Martin essentially does a soft double on this Randle drive, leaving Josh Hart open on the wing, if that’s Brown, or Smart or Brogdon or really any Celtic, that’s probably a make.

They like to send a bunch of help from the nail and they love having Butler operate as the nail defender, helping on drives and forcing the kick-out. That’s going to be a tough game-plan against a good 3-point shooting team in the Celtics.

There’s no question that Erik Spoelstra and crew are going to have to be creative with their coverages and add some variance to what they do defensively.

But if anything, that’s been the Heat’s calling card in the Jimmy-Bam tenure — being able to adapt defensively. Which brings me to the next topic…

FACTOR #2: The Heat Zone

No team runs zone more than the Miami Heat do. In the NBA, it’s a good way to throw a wrench in high-octane offenses and just provide a different look. The issue is that the Celtics shooting could absolutely torch the Heat depending on the alignment of their zone. Their ability to flow from man-to-man to zone is breathtaking, it takes a level of coordination and communication on the court that is really difficult to achieve.

Look at the Knicks on this possession not knowing what to do with themselves when the Heat throw out this zone.

I’m not entirely sure how succesful they’ll be or how frequently they’ll do it against the Celtics, but I’d be shocked if we don’t see it at all — it’s been a staple and it’s a good change up every now and then. On a night where the Celtics aren’t making their shots? This could be the defensive switch that puts the game away for Miami.

Zone is all about disrupting matchups and making it harder to hunt guys on switches and while I think the Heat are comfortable switching, it becomes a little bit more difficult when they start throwing out their bench guys like Duncan Robinson and Cody Zeller, who could get hunted.

Miami hasn’t been afraid to throw out their 2-3 zone against Boston before — they got to the NBA Finals in 2020 by doing just that.

FACTOR #3: Miami’s Transition Offense

Another reason to throw out a variety of different defensive coverages is to cause havoc and force turnovers and get out and running. Miami leads the playoffs in points off of turnovers with over 20 a game. Their offense is generating 115.3 points per 100 transition possessions this post-season.

When you’re as aggresive as the Heat are defensively, especially in passing lanes where their activity is tremendous, you’re going to force a lot of live-ball turnovers and get out and running.

It’s because of Bam. That’s why. The fact that the Heat have a big-man who can switch out onto a guard, stay with him, force a turnover and get out and running is huge. But the fact that the same big-man can get a defensive rebound, push it in transition himself, collapse the defense and make good decisions is even more important.

Live rebound, Bam pushes in transition (watch as Robinson tries to catch up), the defender is too late, Bam gets downhill, he can kick it out at this point to a shooter, but this time he takes it himself, draws contact and gets the foul call.

The other thing fueling Miami’s transition offense has been the hit-head and outlet passes of Kevin Love and Kyle Lowry, two maestros who probably could have been quarterbacks in another life.

Jimmy, Gabe, Max Strus and Martin all do a great job of leaking out once a defensive possession is over and Love, Adebayo and Lowry are all good passers and rebounders — it helps create these wide open transition looks.

Lowry is also incredible at these hit-heads, connecting on them with unreal accuracy.

If the Celtics don’t get back in transition, expect a lot of this.

Boston has been pretty good at limiting transition opportunities this post-season, primarily because they don’t turn the ball over a ton — but if Miami can apply pressure in the right spots defensively, get out in transition and score… they can make this a much more competitive series.

FACTOR #4: Celtics Defense On Jimmy + Bam

Ultimately, the Heat will try and fuel their offense through their defense, forcing turnovers, getting out in transition and scoring that way.

But that won’t always be the case. They’ll need to score in a half-court setting and those responsibilities will rest in the hands of Jimmy Buckets and Bam.

We’ll start with Jimmy. The Celtics are going to be comfortable helping off of him when he’s off the ball, which makes me think we see more actions with Butler initiating, hunting mismatches and trying to get downhill as much as possible.

The Heat are going to try and get as much empty-side stuff for Jimmy as possible and let him work 1-on-1 with whichever man ends up on him. Jimmy has made them pay in the past. He’s been a Celtics killer throughout his career and they’ll need him to be that once again in this series.

Finding ways for Jimmy to go 1-on-1 is probably the best route offensively for the Heat. But they’ll still need more.

The hub of their half-court creation starts with Adebayo, who loves working off of those DHO’s above the break with Vincent, Strus, Lowry or even Butler. But what happens if the Celtics negate those actions? Either by sagging off of Adebayo entirely (like the Lakers did with Draymond and Looney against the Warriors) or switching them?

Option #1 is sagging off and forcing the Heat to make outside shots. Something they’ll definitely do if the Heat run this action with Martin.

Option #2 is switching it entirely and forcing the Heat into tough threes. Still an unreal Strus shot here.

I think a way to get Bam going would be as a roller, helping him get momentum going downhill and putting pressure on the rim for the Heat.

This spain action could be an easy way to get Bam some good looks near the basket.

Above all else, though, they’ll need Adebayo to look for his own shot aggresively. The Celtics know that the Heat want to run this DHO action above the break with him (see below) but a change-up to throw their way would be to just let Bam cook 1-on-1 and apply pressure as a scorer.

The solutions for the Heat in the half-court is to find empty-side stuff for Bam and Jimmy to operate. They need to have Adebayo look for his shot aggresively and they need Jimmy to hunt mismatches on switches at every turn.

It’s not a sure-fire plan but it’s the only chance they have to look semi-decent in the half-court.

FACTOR #5: Which Starting Lineup Changes First

The Celtics changed their starting lineup to include Timelord against the Sixers and having Williams help off of PJ Tucker in the corners. This really stumped the Sixers offensively, took away their driving game and forced them to look stagnant.

I’m not entirely sure that formula will work on the Heat. Miami started Bam-Love-Jimmy-Strus-Gabe against the Knicks and there isn’t really a Tucker there that they can help off of. You can maybe try and live Love or Butler killing you from the perimeter but that may not last long.

In all likelihood, the Celtics won’t start out with the double-big lineup and instead they’ll start either one of Horford or Williams.

As for the Heat, they’ve brought Lowry off the bench for the entire postseason and it’s done wonders. Lowry is averaging 10 points, 4.5 asssists, 1 steal and shooting nearly 36% from behind the arc through 11 playoff games. He’s helped the Heat sustain offensively, manufacturing advantages out of thin air. Lowry also helps the Heat play faster, creating open looks off of these pseudo-transition opportunities that keep the Heat’s offense humming. His 2-man game with Bam and Love in the half-court has been great as well.

He’s a great table-setter for Miami off of the bench but does Miami look to change that up and start him?

PREDICTION: Celtics In 6

I’ve seen some wild estimates saying that the Heat have a 4% chance to win this series and I think that’s ridiculous. Miami has a great opportunity in this series just because of how familiar they are with this particular Celtics team. They understand their quirks, they know how to stop them, they can sink their teeth in defensively, force the Celtics into tough shots, score in transition and make this series extremely close — and I expect them to do that.

The Celtics also have had a problem in these playoffs closing out opponents. They’ve been notoriously lackadaisical when playing with the lead and I ultimately think the Heat will use that to their advantage.

Could the Heat win this series? Absolutely.

I just think that the Celtics offensive firepower is too much, their shooting has been too potent, and takes away a lot of the defensive advantages the Heat have in this series. They can’t be over-aggresive, they can’t wall off the paint as much as they’d like to because Boston will consistently make them pay from outside.

I also think the Heat would need an incredible offensive performance themselves to win this series and while they looked great against the Bucks, they seemingly came back down to earth against the Knicks.

I’m not betting against Spoelstra and Jimmy, they have a great chance to shock the world.

But as of now, advantage = Celtics.