Usually, the gap between Games 2 and 3 in a series represents the most drastic change for both teams. As the series shifts to a different setting, the teams also shift into a different phase of the series. With two games of information, the level of coaching really comes out in Game 3.
But in this Heat-Celtics series, there’s so much more pressure on Miami at this point despite the series being tied at 1-1. Don’t mind the next two games being in front of the always-tough Boston crowd, the Celtics handed them their lunch in Game 2 in the same emphatic manner Boston has grinded out big wins in these playoffs.
The spotlight is squarely on Erik Spoelstra to come up with the answers to Ime Udoka’s overwhelming green swarm. Let’s look at the questions that face Spoelstra and the Heat ahead of Game 3.
How much Jimmy is too much Jimmy?
Jimmy Butler has been Herculean to start this series. After 41 points on 19 field-goal attempts and 18 free throw attempts, Butler carried the Miami offense again in Game 2 with 29 points. He’s had a usage north of 30 percent in the entire playoffs and it doesn’t seem like he’s ready to slow down.
The Celtics look like they have no problem with this. In Game 1, Boston didn't have Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and Al Horford, limiting the Celtics’ options in containing Jimmy Buckets. But the pair returned in Game 2 and immediately wreaked havoc. With Smart in place of Payton Pritchard, Butler had a lot less room to operate and less cleaner looks. According to stats from John Schumann, Butler had just nine points in the 35 possessions when Smart was his main defender.
Butler isn't the selfish sort of superstar. He mainly takes over as a means to jump-start the offense and get more looks for his teammates. The rest of the Heat just haven’t inspired a lot of confidence on that end.
In Game 2, Tyler Herro was limited to just 11 points and Game 1 savior Max Strus dropped just six markers. The Celtics keyed in on Miami’s perimeter threats and didn’t let them get the clean looks they had in Game 1.
The quick answer for the Heat should be to get Bam Adebayo more touches. Adebayo has been a beast defensively this postseason. Against the Celtics, the Heat might need him to get more involved in the offense.
This isn’t a massive stretch for Spoelstra, who has actions and sets where Adebayo initiates their offense. The one-on-one matchups aren't going to be a cakewalk for him but Adebayo taking some of the playmaking pressure off Butler and Herro could open up more opportunities for Miami. He could also feast on mismatches he creates as a screener in pick-and-rolls.
Speaking of screening, the Celtics have been terrorizing opponents defensively with their active switching defense that smartly exposes the opposing team’s weakest options. Their lineup of Smart-Horford-Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum-Robert Williams shackled the Heat in Game 2.
They dared PJ Tucker and Victor Oladipo to make plays but still recovered on them to not allow too many wide-open looks. They switched as many Jimmy Butler screen plays as they could, but they had so many guys they threw in front of Butler that it didn’t really matter.
The switching combined with the quick trapping and triple-teaming suffocated the Heat in Game 2. Boston has done a good job these playoffs containing generational superstars – from Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the first round to Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second round. It hasn't ever been about making these guys have bad nights statistically. The Celtics have been comfortable forcing them into bad decisions – the tiny details that pile up quickly and open the door for them to strike.
Butler played right into their hands in Game 2. The adjustment here could be Spoelstra bringing his All-Star off more off-ball action to really mess with Boston’s switching. Butler feasted on smaller matchups in Games 1 and 2. Maybe attacking Boston’s bigs might serve the Heat better, in the long run, to draw out the Celtics’ intimidating interior defenders.
This is the puzzle Spoelstra finds himself in before Game 3. The final scores haven't shown it, but this has been one of the more entertaining series because of the decisions coaches make throughout the games. Does Spo have another masterclass in him or has Udoka stumped him?