The Miami Heat should not have won Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. But they did, stealing one in Boston, 123-116, on Wednesday.
The Boston Celtics were the No. 2 overall seed in the NBA, winning 57 games, with the second-best offensive (118.6) and defensive ratings (110.6). The Heat escaped the Play-In tournament to grab the No. 8 seed. But the Heat are far better than their 44-38 regular season record suggests.
The Heat smacked the No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks in five games, before knocking out the No. 5 New York Knicks in six. It almost seems like forever ago — and perhaps a different team — when they lost their first Play-In game to the Atlanta Hawks.
In the playoffs, Miami has improved to third in offensive rating (116.5) and seventh in defensive rating (111.7). Heat head coach Eric Spoelstra has been the best tactician in the playoffs, switching between man-on-man defense and zone, knowing when and when not to double team, and relying on a tight nine-man rotation. Spoelstra has his on-the-court avatar in Jimmy Butler, who executes his vision with precision. In Game 1, Butler finished with a stat line of 35 points, seven assists, six steals, and five rebounds, leading all players in scoring.
How Jimmy Butler is controlling Miami Heat’s flow
At 33 years old, Butler is the center of the Miami Heat’s offense. With Tyler Herro out for the playoffs, Butler is the only Heat player capable of generating his own offense. The rest of the rotation consists of plug-and-play role players who are exceeding their undrafted status. While Butler is carrying a massive scoring load, he has not had to overexert himself, yet. In Game 1, Miami got double-digit scoring from six players, including Butler.
The Miami Heat’s other All-Star, Bam Adebayo, chipped in 20 points and eight rebounds. He and Butler combined for 12 assists as the team’s two best playmakers. Teams playing the Heat typically give them the mid-range, which allows the two forwards to operate in their sweet spot to find shooters and cutters.
The Heat went from one of the most anemic offenses in the league during the regular season —
29th in pace and 25th in offensive rating — to tough to stop in the playoffs. In Game 1, they scored a franchise playoff-record 46 points in the third quarter, which was the quarter that defined the game. They finished with an overall rate of 126.8 points per 100 possessions, a massive jump from the 112 points per 100 possessions they averaged in the regular season.
It’s hard to believe now, the Heat made just 34 percent of their 3-point attempts in the regular season, as they tailored their offense outside of Butler and Adebayo to either three-pointers or drives. They currently sit third in active playoff teams in three-point shooting at 37.8 percent. Against the Celtics’ highly-regarded defense, Miami nailed 16 of 31 attempts, good for 52 percent. Spoelstra has his role players taking only the highest percentage shots possible. Nobody but Butler and Adebayo are going one on one in isolation sets. With the exception of Cody Zeller and Duncan Robinson, each of their players shot over 50 percent in Game 1. That shows a team that knows and sticks to their roles.
It’s been an uphill battle for Celtics rookie head coach Joe Mazzulla to make the adjustments necessary to counteract Spoelstra’s schemes. Take the pivotal third quarter, where the Heat scored 46 points and Mazzulla famously failed to call a timeout during the entire quarter. In contrast, the Celtics went on a 7-0 to start the fourth quarter, and Spoelstra called a timeout 90 seconds in. Spoelstra understands his team’s limitations and knows when they can fight through runs and when they need a change in the lineup. He has 3-and-D perimeter players who can hit 3s and defend multiple positions in Max Strus, Caleb Martin, and Butler. Furthermore, he made the shrewd move to start the playoffs by moving Kyle Lowry to the bench to lead the second unit. This gives his bench unit a championship-winning lead guard to run the point of attack. Lowry is shooting 38 percent from 3 for the playoffs.
Miami’s defense turns up heat
The Miami Heat’s defense took Tatum, who had a historic 51 points on 17-for-28 shooting in the Celtics’ Game 6 elimination of the Philadelphia 76ers and was held to just four shot attempts in the second half. It’s shameful that Spoelstra has never won Coach of the Year during in his 15-year tenure with the Heat.
The Celtics will likely clean up the 15 turnovers they sacrificed in Game 1. It’s also likely they
improve upon their mere 22 points in the paint in the second half. A good start would be removing Payton Pritchard (0 points, 0-for-2 in 12 minutes) from the lineup and swapping out Robert Williams III for Derrick White in the starting lineup, helping the Celtics spacing and adding a quicker point of attack defender on switches. Boston was outscored by 14 points when Williams was on the court, showing the Celts are at their best with five-out spacing.
Game 1 proved Mazzulla, and the Celtics at large, cannot take the Miami Heat for granted, or view them as a lesser opponent. This is not the regular season. The Heat have the best pecking order in the league. Everyone knows their role and trusts Spoelstra to make the right adjustments. The Heat have the better coach and best player on the floor this series. But the Celtics have more talent. To the Heat’s credit, this was the case in the last two series the Heat won as well.
It will be up to Mazzulla to exceed expectations and dictate pace, space, and momentum. If not, Spoelstra and the Miami Heat will be behind another of the greatest playoff runs in league history.
Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo