The Boston Celtics squeaked by the Toronto Raptors in seven games to make it to the Eastern Conference finals, while the Miami Heat needed only five to take out the Milwaukee Bucks. Both teams are stingy and switchable defensively, and both get offense from a variety of sources. The third-seeded Celtics are widely considered the favorites, but the Heat are anything but a typical No. 5 seed. Here are 10 questions to preview the series, which begins on Tuesday:
Boston didn’t get past the Raptors on the strength of its offense, which looked particularly out of sorts against zone coverage. The box-and-one made it difficult for Kemba Walker to find his rhythm running pick-and-rolls and for Boston to generate shots that the same ways they usually do. Miami knows this, and it played more zone than any other team in the NBA this season.
Maybe the second round prepared the Celtics for what’s coming. They were in problem-solving mode the entire time, and their coaching staff will make sure they won’t be surprised if the Heat start Game 1 in a 2-3 zone. It is also possible, though, that zoning up is simply an effective way to combat the best thing Boston does when it has possession of the ball: giving it to Walker and setting screens for him.
One thing that might make a zone less tenable is having another playmaker and shooter in the lineup, which brings us to…
Gordon Hayward went through a small group workout after practice on Monday and “looked good when he was going through it,” coach Brad Stevens said, “but there’s a big difference between doing that and actually getting into a game.” He won’t play in the opener, but if he is available after that and can approximate his play in the regular season, he can change the feel of the Celtics’ offense.
Hayward had a usage rate of only 20.6 percent this season, but that drastically undersells his skills and how important he can be in a series like this. What makes Boston unique is that, at full strength, it can create matchup problems with four perimeter players, making it difficult for defenses to zero in on any of them or hide a weak defender. Hayward is equally comfortable creating plays for others as he is for himself, which cannot be said about Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, so his presence naturally gives the offense more pop.
The luxury of starting four multipositional defenders is that Stevens has all sorts of options. I’m most interested in who’s on Goran Dragic and who’s on Bam Adebayo at the beginning of Game 1.
First Team All-Defense guard Marcus Smart is the obvious choice to slow down Dragic, who was one of the league’s best reserves in the regular season and has been a phenomenal starter in the playoffs, an enormous driver of Miami’s success on offense. Tatum is an intriguing alternative, though, and might be able to disrupt Dragic’s rhythm with his length — he and Brown both spent a lot of time guarding Raptors guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet in the second round (and will presumably both draw Jimmy Butler duty).
Daniel Theis seems like the default matchup for Adebayo, but I’ll bet Boston gets creative at some point in the series. If Stevens experiments with Brown or even Smart on him, you can expect Adebayo to try to bully his way to the rim and get to the free throw line. In that scenario, though, the big man is often the one who gets called for the foul. Which brings us to…
The Heat get an amazing amount of mileage out of Adebayo doing stuff that opposing teams don’t see too often. On offense he is a total weirdo, sort of a hybrid of Draymond Green and Domantas Sabonis, unconventional All-Stars in their own right, but with much more foot speed and explosiveness than either of them.
Adebayo will push the ball off of defensive rebounds and find the Heat easy buckets off of dribble-handoffs. When he has the ball at the elbow, Miami confuses defenses the same way the Golden State Warriors did, with screens and cuts that often end with Adebayo earning an assist — and if he senses you’re playing him for the pass, he will happily attack the basket himself. Boston knows all about his chemistry with Duncan Robinson, and if it decides to hide Theis elsewhere, it is probably for the purposes of switching when the two of them are involved in an action.