For the second year in a row, and the third time in the past four seasons, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat will meet in the Eastern Conference Finals.
As the East’s No. 2 seed, Boston secured its spot via a six-game first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, followed by a fierce seven-game showdown in the Conference Semifinals. the East against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Meanwhile, it took Miami just 11 games to qualify for the conference championship, despite being the lowest seed, as it only became the second seed 8 in NBA history to advance to Round 2, joining the 1998-99 New York Knicks.
The Heat will be looking to continue their upset streak, while the Celtics are hoping to get back to the NBA Finals so they can take care of their unfinished business from last season.
Now, let’s dive into some of the core topics of the series.
Recent head-to-head history
As mentioned, these two teams know each other pretty well at this point. On top of that, they’ve been tied for the past four seasons.
Boston and Miami have faced each other 26 times since the 2019-20 campaign and have each won 13 games.
Their Eastern Conference Finals results have been essentially split, with the Heat winning six in 2020 and the Celtics winning seven in 2022.
In this year’s four-game regular season series, the Celtics won the first two matchups and the Heat won the second two. They have each won an away game and a home game.
Despite tied results, Boston easily won the overall scoring margin this season. His two wins were by seven and 13 points, respectively, and his two losses were by four and three points, respectively, with the first loss coming in overtime and the second loss without Jaylen Brown in the lineup.
One final note: it’s been a while since these teams played each other. All four regular season games took place before the All-Star break, with the most recent being Jan. 24.
Butler’s Health, Herro Status
On the health front, Miami and Boston are in two different places heading into this series.
The Celtics are almost entirely healthy (knock on wood) with the exception of Danilo Gallinari, who has yet to play this season after undergoing ACL surgery in the fall. Meanwhile, the Heat are a bit hit at the top of their rotation with two of their top three scorers sidelined or hampered.
Top scorer Jimmy Butler sprained his ankle in Game 1 of the second round against New York, and although he only missed Game 2, he wasn’t as dominant as he expected. was in the first round against Milwaukee.
After averaging 37.6 points per game on 59.7% shooting (44.4% from 3-point range) in Miami’s massive first-round upset against the Bucks, he’s down to 24, 6 PPG on 43.2% shooting (11.1% from 3-point range) against the Knicks. He also failed to reach the 30-point mark in his five appearances against New York, having reached or surpassed that mark in four of five games against Milwaukee.
The other significant injury was that of Tyler Herro, who fractured two bones in his shooting hand during Miami’s playoff opener at Milwaukee. Herro was expected to miss four to six weeks from the April 16 injury. Had he landed early in that recovery period, he could have been in line to prepare for Game 1 on Wednesday night. However, head coach Erik Spoelstra said on Monday that Herro hasn’t even started dribbling or shooting yet, so we may not see him until later in the series, if at all.
One player the Celtics definitely won’t see is Victor Oladipo. Miami’s sixth man tore his left patellar tendon in Game 3 of the first round and is out indefinitely.
Together, these three players produced 53.7 PPG, nearly half of Miami’s lowest league average of 109.5 PPG.
It looks like Butler (22.7 PPG) will continue to play despite his discomfort (he was seen limping after Game 6 against New York), but asking him to carry such a heavy burden won’t be an easy task.
Key Match: The Jays/Marcus Smart vs. Jimmy Butler
Butler is undoubtedly the X factor in this series. He’s got the Heat on his back up to this point, and they’ll only go as far as he can carry them.
It will take a group effort to keep Butler, just like he did last season in the ECF.
Marcus Smart was Butler’s main defender in this series, and he’ll be seeing a lot of Butler again this time around, especially now that Herro is out.
Butler had success against Smart last postseason, scoring 31 points on 12 of 19 shooting during Smart’s 124.4 defensive possessions that kept Butler.
Jayson Tatum guarded Butler slightly less than Smart, although he had a higher success rate in slowing down the Heat wing. In 110.4 possessions against Tatum, Butler scored just 16 points on 7-of-17 shooting.
The majority of the remaining defensive possessions belonged to Jaylen Brown, who gave up 26 points to Butler on 10-of-17 shooting for 83.9 possessions.
Brown will likely see a lot more Butler on the other side of the ball. Butler defended it on 180.1 playoff possessions, during which Brown had 36 points on 14-of-26 shooting.
As effective as he was in the playoffs, Butler will need to have an even greater impact on both sides of the ball in this series, given his team’s numerical inferiority.
Mazzulla’s biggest test
Joe Mazzulla was tested in these playoffs, as you would expect for a freshman head coach. Ahead of him is his biggest challenge yet.
Mazzulla will face one of the world’s elite basketball minds in Erik Spoelstra, who will be looking for his sixth trip to the NBA Finals with the Heat.
Spoelstra has arguably been the MVP (most valuable person) of these playoffs so far. Under his leadership, Miami defied the odds by knocking out regular-season champion Bucks and then, despite injuries, managed to outrun a physical Knicks team.
Spoelstra is notorious for making critical adjustments throughout a playoff series, and Mazzulla has to be prepared to deal with that while making his own adjustments.
What starting composition will the C’s go with?
The biggest adjustment Mazzulla made in these playoffs was changing the starting lineup between games 5 and 6 of the second round.
After falling to a 3-2 hole against the 76ers, Mazzulla relegated Derrick White to the bench in favor of Rob Williams, and the move paid off in the form of two straight wins to close the series.
The question is whether the Celtics will carry their double formation (Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Rob Williams) to the next round?
Miami started big doubles with Bam Adebayo and Kevin Love in these playoffs. So Mazzulla will have to decide if he wants to match Miami’s comp or throw a curveball by putting White back there, potentially triggering a Spoelstra comp counter.