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OTG's Eastern Conference Finals Preview: MIA vs BOS

Rejoice, NBA fans - the Eastern Conference Finals are upon us! After a long hiatus, some explosive early seeding games, a stunning upset or two, and more than a handful of overtime periods, we are in the endgame now. 

The third-seeded Boston Celtics square off against the fifth-seeded Miami Heat in a rematch of the most traumatizing Eastern Conference Finals in Celtics history (albeit with a very different cast of characters). The Heat, led by head coach Erik Spoelstra and the most locked-in version of Jimmy Butler we’ve ever seen, are sporting a deep, versatile team that’s fresh off of a stunning upset over the Milwaukee Bucks. Miami is looking to make the NBA Finals for the first time since LeBron James said he was coming home

The Celtics, meanwhile, scraped by the feisty defending-champion Toronto Raptors in seven games. Brad Stevens managed to out-coach Nick Nurse on the backs of superstar efforts from Jayson Tatum, gutsy play from Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, and surprising contributions from bench players Brad Wanamaker and Grant Williams. 

This series should feature elite coaching, starry vets and budding youngsters, elite defenses, and maybe a few surprises. One thing is for sure: it has all the makings of a playoff classic - especially coming from two teams who weren’t really supposed to be here.

X’s vs. O’s

This series should be a basketball tacticians’ dream. Erik Spoelstra and Brad Stevens are two of the best coaches the league has to offer and watching them adjust their schemes in real time will be a fascinating contrast. The Heat have had success employing a variety of blitzing defenses, something that should be unwelcome news to Kemba Walker, who struggled against Nick Nurse’s box-and-one in the previous series. 

On offense, Spo made a smart adjustment at the beginning of the bubble, throwing Goran Dragic in the starting lineup to juice Miami’s spacing. Stevens has made some of his own adjustments over the course of the postseason, sending Enes Kanter to the bench in favor of the more explosive Robert Williams and shortening his rotation despite the loss of Gordon Hayward. Stevens coached perhaps the best series of his career in the last round, coming up with answers for everything that Nick Nurse threw at him. He will no doubt have his hands full again versus Spoelstra’s squad.

The Ghosts of Celtics past

Of particular concern for the Celtics are two familiar faces, Kelly Olynyk, signed by the Heat in the 2018 offseason, and Jae Crowder, acquired via this seasons’ trade with Memphis. Crowder has been terrific since he arrived in South Beach, providing spacing and defense for Miami’s starting lineup, hitting 40% from deep in the bubble and taking on primary Giannis-duty against the Bucks. Olynyk has been a great tool for Miami’s frisky bench, hitting threes and emerging as the first big off the pine behind Adebayo. 

Speaking of Miami’s bench, Andre Iguodala, Tyler Herro, and Derrick Jones Jr. round out the back end of Miami’s rotation, making up one of the deepest rosters in the league. The Celtics, in contrast, are full of promising but somewhat unproven relief players. Robert Williams, otherwise known as the Timelord, is a tantalizing athlete but is prone to mental lapses, something that Serge Ibaka exploited in the last round. Grant Williams is a savvy player who is physically limited (read: small-ish), and you can’t count out the rock steady, if thoroughly unexciting Brad Wanamaker. Usual bench captain Marcus Smart has been inserted into the starting lineup, leading to the most interesting X-factor of this series...

Waiting in the lobby...

The Celtics have gotten this far with exceptional play from their three stars in Tatum, Brown, and Walker. But the original recipe for this squad included a fourth; Boston is missing the proverbial straw that stirs the drink, the League of Legends legend himself, Gordon Hayward. The perpetually injured Hayward sprained his ankle in the Celtics first round matchup against Philadelphia, and while Marcus Smart has admirably stepped in to the starting lineup, the Celtics were clearly missing Hayward’s playmaking and floor spacing. 

Hayward is, in theory, the perfect player to throw at Miami: a crafty, patient ball handler who can bust a zone defense and punish Miami when they double Walker or Tatum. But Gordon’s conditioning will no doubt be a factor to watch; Hayward is out for at least the first game of the series, but Stevens is optimistic that he will return after Game 1. When and how that occurs will go a long way in determining the outcome of this series. 

Which star shines the brightest?

While this series will be fascinating for all the reasons listed above, at the end of the day both of these teams have something in common: they will only go as far as their respective stars take them. This matchup ultimately comes down to a pair of very talented, and yet very different Big Threes (and the amount of ‘big’ threes that they make). 

On one side, Adebayo has blossomed into one of the league’s best big men, a matchup nightmare who will no doubt give the Celtics’ rotation fits. Dragic is playing like an All-Star and will have opportunities to make huge plays, and Jimmy Butler is back to his old ways as a playoff-buster, providing Miami with instant late game offense. On the other side, Kemba Walker is coming into his most significant basketball action since his UConn days, and looking to bounce back after an up-and-down series against Toronto. 

Jaylen Brown has emerged as a true two-way star, providing playmaking and shooting as well as superb defense against oversized matchups. The Celtics are led by their golden boy, franchise centerpiece Jayson Tatum. Tatum has been exceptional in the postseason, coming through time and time again when the Celtics need him most. He will need to take his game up to the next level for the Celtics to win this series. 

So what happens next?

I have been surprised by Miami all season long; they continue to play above my expectations and have truly earned their spot in the Eastern Conference Finals. This team is well coached, well rested, and eager to keep proving everyone wrong. 

That being said, the Celtics present a stern challenge to Miami. From a matchup standpoint, they have more problematic options to cycle through than the Bucks, and proved that they are ready to face the fire in a gut-check series against the Raptors. This series truly feels like a 50-50 to me, and in that case, my gut is to go with the team with the best player. Perhaps it’s homer goggles, but right now that feels like Jayson Tatum. Celtics in 7.