Celtics vs. Heat: Boston is one win away from the NBA Finals, so has the team solved Miami?

Celtics vs. Heat: Boston is one win away from the NBA Finals, so has the team solved Miami?

After two of their most putrid offensive performances of the season, the Miami Heat are in danger of being eliminated on the road. Jimmy Butler shot 7 for 32 in Games 4 and 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and the duo of Kyle Lowry and Max Strus shot a combined 1 for 28. Butler is playing with an inflamed knee, Lowry is playing with a hamstring injury and Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro did not play due to a groin injury. Is the heat cooked?

I will make it. First, I’d like to talk about Boston Celtics goaltender Derrick White. In Boston’s 93-80 win on Wednesday, White scored 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting, with five assists, two steals and a block in 29 useful minutes. Al Horford said he was “incredible”. Jaylen Brown chose “fantastic” and “essential”. White, acquired at the Spurs trade deadline in February, is an overqualified bench player, the kind of guy who can turn a game or a series upside down.

White started in place of Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart on Monday in Game 4, and coach Ime Udoka said the opportunity gave him a spark, which continued through Game 5. White made transition plays for himself and others. He made plays as a roll man and as a playmaker. He created easy shots, hit a few tough ones, and was on the field for Boston’s entire 24-2 decisive run. , which started late in the third quarter and lasted just over six minutes.

“He’s going to have a weaker defender on him with [Brown] and [Jayson Tatum] kind of get covered,” Udoka said. “He could take advantage of it. A capable scorer, driver, starter and one of our best guys at making quick decisions, getting down and making plays. And so we trusted him to do that, he took advantage of a few double teams on Jayson and he’s really good at making the back game. We trust him to get the ball in the middle, whether he has a floater, a pull-up or finds guys on the perimeter.”

The Heat also had a strengthened reserve guard on Wednesday: Gabe Vincent scored 15 points on 6-for-12 shooting, plus two assists and a steal in 23 minutes. Vincent made several jumps off the dribble, including a step back 2 on Smart who bailed out poor possession just before the Celtics made their big run.

The most significant difference between Vincent and White, however, points to Boston’s greater advantage over the Heat. White is an exceptional defender with the length to guard the wings, while Vincent is too short to handle the likes of Brown and Tatum. Three times in the third quarter of Game 5, one of the Celtics’ biggest and strongest wings isolated itself against Vincent and knocked down a midrange jumper. In the fourth, Tatum took him to the post and came to the line.

Upon winning, Udoka reduced the Celtics’ rotation to seven players: starters White and the all-rounder Grant Williams. After playing 25 minutes in Game 5, Payton Pritchard, who has the same defensive limitations as Vincent, has only played six, all in the first half. This was possible because, for the first time in the series, all Boston players were available. When neither Pritchard nor Daniel Theis are on the ground, there is no obvious weak link to attack.

That doesn’t explain Miami scoring 59.8 points per 100 half-court possessions on Wednesday, according to Cleaning The Glass. That’s not to say the Celtics are unbeatable. But being free of weak links is what allows the best of the best defensive teams to stop their opponents’ favorite plays and put them to work for every little advantage they can get. There is no easy money.

“I think the mental stress and strain that we put on some teams with our defense worked and got us through the playoffs at times,” Udoka said. “You saw it on the Brooklyn series, the guys started to wear down. Game 7, it looked like [Giannis] Antetokounmpo slowed some down. But just having all those bodies to throw at people is physically and mentally draining them, making it difficult. As long as we don’t give them easy baskets in transition.”

Over five Conference Finals games, the Heat scored 102.3 points per 100 possessions in clean minutes, per CTG, meaning Boston made their offense worse than any team in the regular season. . That number drops to 84.2 per 100 in the half court, which would also have been ranked last this season. However, neither number is significantly different from what the Milwaukee Bucks managed (102.1 per 100, 81.9 per 100) in seven games against the Celtics.

(Sidenote: For all the discussion of Kevin Durant’s offensive struggles in Boston’s first-round sweep, the Brooklyn Nets, who scored 116.9 points per 100 possessions and 97.6 per 100 in half court, far better behaved than Milwaukee and Miami.)

The Heat had to play with immense physicality, force turnovers, push the ball and break the glass to stay with Boston. It’s hard to live like this for a whole series. As soon as the Celtics stopped dribbling through traffic and spitting it out on Wednesday, they broke apart and put Miami on the brink.

So, is the heat cooked? It looked like this when Boston, the NBA’s most complete team in months, played to its strengths and exploited Miami’s increasingly glaring weaknesses. The Celtics know exactly who they are, while the Heat are clearly still experimenting with lineups and trying to mess things up. Miami used a nine-man rotation on Wednesday, even with injured Herro and big man Dewayne Dedmon out of the mix.

Of those nine players, Boston has hunted three — Vincent, Strus and Duncan Robinson — relentlessly. And that fooled almost everyone behind the 3-point line. By giving the Heat a heavy dose of drop coverage, he was already disrespecting their pull shot, but it hit them with another adjustment in the second half of Game 5, putting a big man on Butler, rather than on Smart.

The Celtics wanted to “stay locked in on shooters and get others to score,” Udoka said. “Some of the guys who initiate the offense for them, whether it’s Bam [Adebayo] or Butler too. And then help [P.J.] Tucker some. And really, with that, Butler wasn’t really looking to score. He was more of a screen and made handheld games. And so he was slipping behind some of our switches and so we wanted to keep a big on him and play him like a big and play in more traditional drop cover. »

Miami didn’t come close to having Boston reconsider. The Heat attempted 45 3-pointers on Wednesday, which would usually be a sign of a good offense, but the vast majority were either contested or taken by average shooters. That they made 15.6% isn’t entirely down to the Celtics’ defense, but it certainly isn’t just bad luck.

The Heat desperately need something to change. Can Butler shake off his knee problem and save Miami’s season on Friday? Can Adebayo start bullying Robert Williams III? Can Lowry, Strus, or even a returning Herro start?

“I know how flammable our guys are,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said, using the same word he used after losing Game 4 of the second round to Philadelphia. The Heat have won the next two games in this series in convincing fashion, but Boston is a different beast.

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