It seems fitting that the two top-seeded teams will face each other in the Eastern Conference Finals. After a tight regular season race and all the talk about who will emerge as worthy title contenders, it’s the Boston Celtics going up against the Miami Heat.
The Celtics withstood a valiant stand from the defending champions Milwaukee Bucks, including a tremendous effort from Giannis Antetokounmpo. Grant Williams dropped a career-high 27 points, punctuated by seven 3-pointers in the winner-take-all Game 7. Jayson Tatum fired 23 points and the Celtics burned the Bucks with a Game 7 record 22 triples.
The Heat, on the other hand, are coming off a 4-2 series win over the Philadelphia 76ers. They pounced on a hobbled Joel Embiid as Jimmy Butler scored 32 points in the clincher. Butler gave a stern reminder to his former team of what they were missing.
Most compelling storyline
This is a rematch of the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals back in the Orlando bubble. Despite the roster moves of both squads, the familiar faces and stars still headline the matchup.
Probably the biggest difference now, however, is the growth of Jayson Tatum. Where is Tatum now in the pantheon of current NBA stars? At only 24 and currently in his fifth season, is this the beginning of a new phase of his young career?
Tatum’s Game 6 against the Bucks was an absolute masterpiece. He had 46 points on the road to save the Celtics’ season. His stat line read 17-for-32, 7-for-15 from deep, nine rebounds, and four assists. When his team needed him the most, he rose to the occasion. Not to mention, he and the Celtics overcame a 44-point, 20-rebound game from Antetokounmpo.
It’s like he’s operating differently, playing with more precision and better decision-making. It’s as if he realized he doesn’t need to do those Kobe-esque jumpers off a double team (even though he can). The Boston offense isn’t a your-turn-my-turn with Tatum and Jaylen Brown anymore. Tatum knows how to pick his spots and shred the defense methodically.
If Tatum can put up a series to remember against the Heat—who you know will have a specific game plan to stop him—and punch a ticket to the NBA Finals, he will cement his place among the game’s best.
At some point, Miami will need Kyle Lowry in this series. The veteran guard has missed six of the last eight playoff games because of a left hamstring strain. More than his season average of 13.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 7.5 assists, it’s his leadership and on-court decision-making that will be crucial.
Boston had the best defense during the regular season and they just took a massive challenge from Giannis and the Bucks and lived to tell the tale. Lowry’s skills at the point and how he’ll navigate through the Celtics gauntlet might just spell the difference between winning and losing. The Heat got Lowry because they believed he was going to be a key factor in bringing the championship to South Beach. They need him now more than ever.
For the Celtics, keep an eye on the role players. We’re assuming that Tatum can get his points by hook or by crook and the same could be said of Jaylen Brown. The pressure is on Grant Williams, Derrick White, Robert Williams III (if he’s healthy), and the rejuvenated Al Horford. Their production will be more important in this series since Miami has the homecourt advantage. Can they replicate their production on the road? If they can resemble their performance during the Bucks, the Celtics will have a better chance of succeeding.
The team that can defend better will win the series and move on to the NBA Finals.
The Heat have the second-best defensive rating in the playoffs (104.6) while the Celtics are third (105.2). Both teams love to deploy switching schemes to stifle opposing teams. Horford isn’t afraid to be on an island with Butler and in the same way, Bam Adebayo won’t be a liability when he’s shifted to guard Tatum or Brown.
There are few weak points in each other’s rosters so hunting a matchup won’t be as easy. And if someone gets exposed, both coaches can adapt quickly and make the right substitutions. They have the personnel and the smarts to shut down offenses just by constantly switching. It’s going to be an interesting chess match in defensive strategies.
As much as there’s the juicy matchup of Butler versus Tatum, it’ll come down to which team can guard the other better.