Can Miami Heat win their rematch with Boston Celtics in Eastern Conference finals?

eastern conference finals

The Eastern Conference finals is a rematch of last year’s matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat. It’s sure to be a blood-bath between two playoff-experienced teams with not-quite-there-yet “superstars” in Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum.

Few besides Butler could have foreseen a Heat-Celtics rematch, especially after Miami did little to upgrade their roster and the Celtics fumbled the suspension of their coach Ime Udoka. Udoka is now gone, replaced by rookie head coach in Joe Mazzulla. In addition, the Heat are missing their third- and fifth-leading regular season scorers in Tyler Herro (broken right hand) and Victor Oladipo (torn patellar tendon).

But as the five-game thrashing of the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and the hard-fought six-game bout with the New York Knicks showed, Miami’s role players are ready for the moment.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has developed a plug-and-play culture that elevated undrafted gems like Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, and Caleb Martin into high-usage roles, capable of guarding multiple positions and nailing clutch 3-pointers. Even former outcast Duncan Robinson is back, and he is also an undrafted “gem” and seems to have regained his shooting form that earned him a rich contract before being banished to the bench.

Martin and Strus will see plenty of time on Boston’s two stars, Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Butler is having an all-time playoff performance. His combination of clutch scoring and hard-nosed defense has been second only to Devin Booker going nuclear with the Phoenix Suns. Butler has made the Heat, who entered the postseason as the No. 8 seed in the East, the hottest show in the playoffs. They are trying to advance past the Eastern Conference finals and become only the second No. 8 seed to reach the Finals, joining the 1998-99 Knicks.

Against the Bucks, Butler dropped 56 and 42 in Games 4 and 5. Against the Knicks, he led the Heat in assists (six) and was the lead playmaker, finding open shooters to outpace the Knicks’ lack of perimeter play. The Heat’s zone defense invited the Knicks’ non-playoff-tested role players to make shots. Against the Celtics, the Heat will need to revert to their stringent man-on man defense and stay honest on shooters like Al Horford, Marcus Smart, and Malcolm Brogdon — guys with plenty of big-game experience.

The growth of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown

jayson tatum

Speaking of the Celtics, they are seeing the gap close between Brown and Tatum, as each not only made the All-NBA team qualifying both for mega max extensions. Brown is now eligible to sign a five-year, $295 million contract extension this summer, while Tatum will be up for a five-year, $318 million deal next offseason. Helping the Celtics advance to another NBA Finals would help justify big paydays.

Tatum and Brown have also had moments of excellence in the postseason. Brown had three games of 30 or more points in Games 4, 5 and 6 to eliminate the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. Meanwhile, Tatum notched a 51-point, 13 rebounds, 5-assist performance in Game 7 of the second round to eliminate the Philadelphia 76ers, going 6-for-10 from three.

While the Heat has Butler, they do not have a second star to matchup up against Brown and will rely on a group effort, as they did against the Bucks. That’s not to say Bam Adebayo is not a star, he certainly is on the defensive end. And his playmaking ability was a big reason the Heat overtook the Knicks. But he is not the type of player to average 30 points for a series, as he hasn’t scored over 23 in a game these playoffs and is averaging 18 points.

Miami’s surprising appearance in Eastern Conference finals

max strus

The Heat’s first-round upset of the top-seeded Bucks remain the biggest surprise of the playoffs thus far. Two seasons ago, the Bucks swept the Heat in the first round. But the Heat have short memories when it comes to losing and thriving being the underdog. Playing with a chip on their shoulder as the underdog has served them well. And that will be their role again against the No. 2 Celtics, who are coming off a Finals appearance last season.

With a confident perimeter game, Miami has shot itself past its regular season standings to the fifth-best offense in the postseason and fourth-best net rating. The Celtics currently rank second in postseason offensive rating and second in net rating. Both teams rely on their continuity, a mixture of wiry veterans and two-way star wings, to balance their offensive and defensive attacks.

The Heat have the clear advantage on the sidelines in the Eastern Conference finals. Spoelstra was on the list of the NBA Greatest Coaches that the league released last year. Mazzulla, in his first year as a head coach, has often faltered with in-game adjustments and his use of timeouts. But the Celtics have the collective talent differential, with two stars to Miami’s one. With the two team’s starting lineups relatively equal, this series will come down to the two team’s benches, and which rise to the occasion on defense and from three.

Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo

Mentioned in this article:

More About: