By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics are back in the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in the last four years. It’s a pretty impressive run considering all the turnover the team has undergone over that span.
Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart are the only Celtics players who took the floor in the 2016-17 Eastern Conference Finals, when Boston lost to Cleveland in five games. Add Jayson Tatum and Daniel Theis to the mix for the 2017-18 East Finals, when Boston once again lost to the Cavaliers in a hard-fought seven-game series. (Gordon Hayward was on the roster, but he obviously didn’t play.)
But those two trips to the NBA’s version of the Final Four felt like the Celtics were playing with house money. This time around, the Celtics are the favorites over the Miami Heat, and there is plenty of reason to believe that they’ll finally get over the hump and reach the NBA Finals.
Boston is flying high after a seven-game battle with the Toronto Raptors, sending the defending champs home thanks to their defense and star play from Tatum. That series was a great test for the Celtics, who suddenly find themselves a battle-tested team.
But standing in their way of a trip to the Finals are a hot Miami team. Like 8-1 in the playoffs hot.
“It’s going to be a dogfight,” Kemba Walker said Monday. “We both have great opportunities in front of us and we both want it, so it’s going to be a war. Looking forward to it.”
It’s a fascinating series, with two of the games brightest head coaches in Brad Stevens and Erik Spolestra set to match wits. Jimmy Butler escaped the dumpster fire in Philadelphia in the offseason and is now the leader of the Heat, and he has a solid supporting cast in big man Bam Adebayo, point guard Goran Dragic and sharpshooters Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson.
“For us, everything starts on defense,” Jayson Tatum said of the matchup. “That’s where we’ve got to focus all our attention and energy.”
Boston’s defense has been playing at a high level this postseason, and that’ll have to continue if they want to reach the Finals. With Tatum adding more and more to his superstar resume every game and Brown contributing with his usual all-around solid play, the Celtics shouldn’t have too many issues putting the ball in the basket.
Here are the keys to the series, as the Celtics look to advance to their first NBA Finals in a decade.
The Heat were the second-best three-point shooting team in the NBA this season. The Celtics were the second-best team at defending the three this season — and have been the best team at defending the three-point line in the postseason. Keeping Miami from (apologies in advance) heating up from downtown is going to be one of the biggest keys to a Celtics series win.
It’ll be a big change of pace from last series against a Toronto team that looked to do their damage in transition. Miami is at its best when the game slows down, possessing one of the league’s most talented half-court offenses.
Miami does it with spacing and talented shooters camping in the corners. They run a bunch of handoffs and ball screens, and work the ball inside-out with Adebayo. The Celtics cannot get caught watching any action on defense, otherwise they’re going to get torched.
But the Celtics lacking on perimeter defense is a rare occurrence. They held the Raptors and the 76ers to a collective 30.5 percent from three-point land this postseason. And before you say Philly’s putrid three-point shooting brings that number down, know that the C’s held Toronto to just 32.3 percent from deep.
Old pal Jae Crowder (40 percent), Herro (40 percent), Robinson (39 percent) and Dragic (38 percent) all take and make a large amount of shots from deep on a given night, with each of them attempting at least six threes per game. And there is also Kelly Olynyk, a blind squirrel that can find an acorn from downtown when you least expect it. If the Celtics let up at any point on defense, Miami will make them pay.
But don’t expect that from the Celtics, not with a trip to the Finals on the line.
Busting Miami’s Zone
Miami has a handful of talented defenders in Butler, Crowder and deadline day pickup Andre Iguodala. They play a boatload of zone, mostly to make up for the defensive deficiencies of Dragic, Herro and Robinson. The Celtics were lost at times against Toronto’s various zones in the East semis, but that should have them prepared for what they’re about to face.
Boston was eventually able to create some offense as the Raptors threw a box-and-1 at Kemba Walker (which frustrated the point guard), with other scorers like Tatum an Brown aggressively attacking the basket. If they can do that against a collectively solid defensive team like the Raptors, they should be able to do it again against the Heat.
Kemba Needs To Be Better
Kemba Walker had a few bad games against the Raptors. They were really bad games, with that box-and-1 defense completely throwing him out of sync. He should be much better against a lesser Miami defense, and he has to be better for the Celtics to win the series.
Walker played well against Miami in the regular season, averaging nearly 20 points on 40 percent shooting overall and 42 percent from downtown. Life should be easier if Dragic is on him, and if that is the case, he should be able to blow by Dragic and get into the paint, which will open the door for layups, kickouts or trips to the line for Kemba.
Defensively, Walker will likely find himself on either Crowder or Robinson on the three-point line, leaving Marcus Smart to shadow the offensively gifted Dragic wherever he goes.
Force Defensive Switches
Tatum will likely be guarded by Crowder, a matchup he should attack quite a bit, and Brown will probably receive a healthy dose of Butler defense. But the Celtics are going to do their darnedest to generate defensive switches and get some much more desirable mismatches in their favor.
Miami will try to hide Robinson on defense, but Boston is going to work to get him switched onto Tatum as much as they can, a matchup Tatum should take advantage of with ease. The same goes for getting Dragic on Brown. Force Miami’s worst defenders play some meaningful defense, and Boston should win the series.
CLOSE ‘EM OUT
Enough of these poor finishes to quarters or games. If they keep it up, it’s going to catch up to the Celtics.
The last we saw the team, they went the final five-plus minutes without a bucket. That was in a Game 7. They held on, but the Celtics did everything they could to nearly blow their series-clinching win against the Raptors. Poor shot selection, turnovers and missed free throws highlighted those hectic final minutes last Friday night. The series could have been over much sooner had the Celtics done a better job closing out Game 3, but we all know what happened in those final 0.5 seconds.
If the Celtics learned anything from beating the defending champs, it’s that they have to execute at a much higher level when it comes to closing time. They still made a handful of winning plays at the end of Game 7, but those plays may not have been needed if Boston had just been a tad bit better down the stretch. Given Miami’s penchant for knocking down long-range shots, they can come back from even a seemingly insurmountable deficit.
If the Celtics get lax with a lead, they’re in for a few more fourth-quarter heart breakers.
Keep The Freebies Low
When Daniel Theis gets announced as a Boston starter, the announcer should add that he already has three fouls before the game even tips off. The Heat are that good at getting to the line.
The Heat do a fantastic job at getting fouled on their way to the basket and getting defenses to bite on upfakes, resulting in lots of trips to the free throw line. They average 28.4 free throws a game, led by Butler, who has taken 96 free throws over Miami’s nine games. He has four games with at least a dozen freebies, including one game with 20. Of his 196 points this postseason, 40 percent of them have come at the charity stripe.
The Celtics have to play some extremely disciplined defense this series. Yes, they have to cut off Heat players as they cut to the basket, but don’t send them to the line. If they do, at least make sure they don’t get an easy basket on their way.
Not biting on upfakes will be even more of a key. If Robert Williams finds himself playing some meaningful minutes, he needs to stay grounded and not bite on every fake. Butler will absolutely feast on the young big man if he gets the chance.
Hayward The X-Factor
Gordon Hayward is getting closer and closer to a return, and that would obviously be a big boost for the Celtics. He gives the team another playmaker on the floor, and in the event he comes off the bench upon his return, a little more firepower when one of Boston’s starters needs a rest.
The Celtics may not necessarily need Hayward to beat the Heat, but having him would certainly improve their chances quite a bit.