The Eastern Conference Semifinals were immensely entertaining, with a convincing upset and a thrilling seven-game series. With both teams proving their merit in tough battles, the fight for the Eastern Conference trophy is sure to be exhilarating.
(3) Boston Celtics vs. (5) Miami Heat
Despite going up 2-0 early in the series against Toronto, a buzzer-beater by OG Anunoby in Game 3 and a fantastic Game 6 performance by Kyle Lowry, put Boston in a precarious Game 7. They maintained their resolve against the defending champions, defeating them 92-87. Miami dismantled the best team in the league in five games, making quick work of Giannis Antetokounmpo. With an astounding comeback in Game 3, the Heat cemented themselves as contenders in the East.
Boston won the season series 2-1 against Miami, but both of their victories came early in the season. Miami won the recent Aug. 4 matchup 112-106 without star Jimmy Butler. The teams are very evenly matched on paper, which will make coaching and game-to-game adjustments critical to success.
All-Star guard Kemba Walker was a clinical playmaker in the first round against the Philadelphia 76ers, making him a priority for the Raptors defense. He was held under his seasonal 20.4 points per-game mark five out of seven times during the series. The Raptors guarded him with the box-and-one defense, where one defender guards the scoring threat with his teammates ready to play help defense. This coverage caused a highly uncharacteristic five-point outing for Walker in Game 6.
Despite Walker’s struggles, the Celtics offense did not falter against Toronto due to hefty contributions from All-Star forward Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. Tatum was the leading scorer with 24.3 points per game and an outstanding 34-point performance to secure a Game 2 victory. Brown added 20.7 points per game and Smart’s three-point shooting was essential, with him hitting five and six three-pointers in games one and two.
The versatility of Boston’s offense, with multiple players capable of big scoring nights was a key factor against Toronto. The Heat’s defenders will be a daunting test for the offense, with forwards Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Jae Crowder and Andre Igoudala all having the size to match up against Tatum and Brown. With tenacious defenders guarding the Celtics’ forwards, guards Walker and Smart will need to increase their scoring for the worst remaining offense to stay afloat.
Miami’s All-Star Jimmy Butler was magnificent against Milwaukee, scoring 40 and 30 points during games one and three respectively, and facilitating the ball with six assists each in games two, four and five. His ability to score or assist depending on the team’s needs makes Miami dangerous, as they can rely on him for clutch baskets while still giving other players shots to maintain their offensive rhythm.
Miami’s three-point shooting has been a highlight during their playoff dominance so far. They are shooting 38.0 per cent from three-point range during the playoffs, third overall in the playoffs. Their shooting success and rhythm can be attributed to an increase in attempts allowed by Milwaukee’s defensive scheme. The Heat attempted 35.4 three-pointers per game during the season, a figure that rose to 40.2 attempts against Milwaukee.
The Celtics defense has been relentless, as they rank first in defensive rating at 101.9 in the post-season. Additionally, their three-point defense has been formidable, as opposing teams have only been able to shoot 30.5 per cent. The Heat’s offense will need to be more varied against Boston. In two games against the Celtics this season, Butler has averaged 28.5 points. He will need to perform similarly for Miami to remain unpredictable on offense.
Both teams have counters for each others’ biggest strengths. Coaches Brad Stevens and Erik Spoelstra will be engaged in a constant chess match to find the slightest advantages all series long. However, Miami has had a week of rest compared to three days for the Celtics, and field the best player in the series in Butler. The series will be uncomfortably close, but a rested Heat team should edge out the Celtics in seven games.
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