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Celtics-Heat Eastern Conference Finals series preview

Sports Final: Celtics beat Bucks, will run continue against Heat in Eastern Conference Finals?
Sports Final: Celtics beat Bucks, will run continue against Heat in Eastern Conference Finals? 05:43

BOSTON --  The Celtics sharpened their postseason claws during a first-round sweep of the talented Brooklyn Nets followed by a grueling, hard-fought seven-game win over the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. They're going to need those talons in a showdown with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The road to a title doesn't get any easier for the Celtics, who won't have homecourt advantage in the upcoming series. But they're a team that doesn't mind a little adversity, and since January, has actually thrived in the face of it. With a golden opportunity ahead of them, the Celtics are determined to do something they couldn't two years ago: Beat the Heat and get to the NBA Finals.

Boston is back in the East Finals for the fourth time in the last six seasons, and they'll be out for a little revenge this series. It was the Heat who sent them home from the NBA bubble in 2020 with a six-game victory in the Conference Finals. Miami still has many of the same players from that series, while Boston has a much different look than that bubble team.

The core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart are another year older and a lot better at what they do. And after going two years without a trip to the NBA's Final Four, they're much more hungry and eager to get over the hump this time around. They'll have a lot more help this time too, with veteran Al Horford back in the mix along with Grant Williams and Derrick White playing important roles. If Robert Williams is healthy enough to play, the Celtics would be a lot more deep than the team that fell two years ago, which featured a recovering Gordon Hayward off the bench with guys like Brad Wanamaker and Romeo Langford.

Yeah, things are a lot different this time around. But that doesn't mean it will be easy against the Heat. They're the top seed in the East for a reason, thanks to some incredible all-around play by Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro's heroics off the bench and a versatile interior presence in Bam Adebayo. Miami also has one of the best coaches in the NBA in Erik Spoelstra, a master at in-game and in-series adjustments. If the Celtics find a weakness in Miami's game one night, it will surely be fixed by the next thanks to Coach Spo.

It all sets the stage for another dramatic playoff series for Boston. Celtics players believe that their seven-game battle with the physical Bucks will have them ready for another tough matchup with the Heat, and we'll soon find out if that's the case. The Celtics have knocked off two of the last three teams to eliminate them from the playoffs, and can complete the trifecta over the next two weeks.

The talent is there for both teams, but this one will come down to mettle, grittiness and sheer will. Here's what we'll be watching for throughout the Celtics-Heat battle, which tips off Tuesday night in Miami.

Celtics Need To Steal One In Miami

The Celtics are 4-1 in road contests this postseason, winning two in Brooklyn in the first round and taking a pair of games in Milwaukee -- including a must-win Game 6 -- in the conference semis.

They're going to need to continue to be great road warriors this series. The Heat are 6-0 at FTX Arena this postseason, winning those six contests by an average of 17 points. Yeesh.

Stealing one of the first two games is absolutely key for the Celtics. Maybe they can take advantage of Miami's layoff and sneak out a win in Game 1 on Tuesday night.

De-Fense!

A couple of really good defenses are about to do battle here. The Boston defense has allowed 101.8 points per game this postseason, an incredible number based on the two offenses -- and two superstars -- that they've played. Miami, however, has the best D as far as points per game this postseason, allowing 97.5 points in its 11 games.

The Heat are second overall in opponents field goal percentage (44.1 percent; the Celtics are tied for third at 44.3 percent). Boston's perimeter defense is slightly better than Miami's, holding opposing sharpshooters to 32.9 percent, while the Heat have help opponents to a 33.2 percent clip from downtown. Whereas the Bucks filled the paint last series and left the perimeter open, Miami aggressively guards the arc. The Celtics are going to have a much tougher time finding open looks from downtown this series, so maybe they'll attack the paint a lot more than they did against Milwaukee.

This is going to be another grind-em-out series. Both teams employ a stellar switching defense, so it will really come down to which team takes better advantage of mismatches. If Tatum and Brown can make lesser defenders pay on a consistent basis, the Celtics are in great shape.

Balanced Attacks

Butler makes it all go for Miami, averaging 28.7 points while hitting 53 percent of his shots from the floor. He's hitting 57 percent of his two-point attempts, while knocking down 36 percent from downtown. He's also getting to the line a ton, with 7.8 free throws per game. He has a pair of 40-point games so far in the playoffs; a 45-point showing in Game 2 against Atlanta and 40 points in a Game 4 loss to Philly.

The Celtics have the defense to slow him down, but it obviously won't be easy. The key with Butler is keeping him away from the basket and away from the free throw line.

And even if they can keep Butler at bay, Miami has a much more balanced offense than the Nets and the Bucks. This will be much different than the last two weeks, when the Celtics defense had to load up on Giannis. This series, the Celtics will also have to worry about Bam (more on him in a minute), Herro, outside shooters like Max Strus and P.J. Tucker (a serious corner three threat), and former All-Star Victor Oladipo, who has been filling in nicely for an injured Kyle Lowry.

But the Heat defense will also have to worry about a pretty balanced group as well. Tatum and Brown lead the charge, obviously, but then anyone else can step up for Boston on a given night. It could be Smart, Grant Williams, Rob Williams (if healthy), and even Payton Pritchard should get some moments.

Brown was the leading scorer for the Celtics in their three regular season matchups with Miami, scorching the Heat for 24.7 points off 46 percent shooting, including 47.8 percent from downtown. Tatum averaged 17.7 points to go with 8.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists. His playmaking will be key against a solid Miami defense, and he'll have to cut down on his turnovers.

Miami's defense is as diverse as it comes, and they throw a lot of different looks at you, including a zone. The best way to bust that is by moving the ball. The Celtics do that as good as anyone.

Putting The Wraps On Bam

Adebayo is Miami's second stud to Butler, and the Celtics had no answer for him in 2020. In the bubble, the versatile Heat big man averaged 21.8 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists over Miami's six-game series victory over Boston. He received little to no resistance any time that he had the ball, hitting 61 percent of his shots.

This time around should be different. In 2020, Daniel Theis was Boston's starting center, with Enes Kanter coming off the bench. This time around, the Celtics can send Al Horford to get in front of Bam.

Horford made Giannis look human for large stretches of the second round, and his matchup with Adebayo will be a fascinating one to watch in the Conference Finals. Al doesn't play like your normal 35-year-old, and if he can keep Adebayo in check, that could shift the balance in Boston's favor. The big concern, however, is there are now games every other night and no opportunity for Horford to catch a break at any point this series.

Herro vs. Boston's Unsung Heroes

As we said regarding Boston's third big performer, it could be anyone on any give night. It takes everyone to make it to the NBA Finals, so don't be surprised for another unsung guy to step up big at a time of need.

We saw Horford have a huge Game 4 against the Bucks, and then saw Grant Williams do his Steph Curry impersonation in Game 7. Who is next?

Robert Williams could make a huge impact on this series if he's healthy, especially on the glass against a Miami team that doesn't have many great rebounders outside of Adebayo. Pritchard could also knock down some important shots, trying to be this year's Tyler Herro -- who torched the Celtics two years ago.

But a lot is riding on Boston continuing to get unsung performances out of Derrick White, who was phenomenal against the Bucks despite not putting the ball in the hoop much. He keeps the ball moving on offense and helps lock guys down on defense.

White will likely find himself spending a lot of time guarding Herro, who took home Sixth Man of the Year honors. Herro certainly deserved it after averaging 20.7 points in the regular season, but he's cooled off considerably in the playoffs. He's averaging just 13.8 points this postseason, and is hitting only 27.3 percent of his shots from downtown. His deep shot was way off in the first round against Atlanta, with Herro knocking down just 18 percent of his deep looks. He shot at a much better 37 percent clip in the second round against Philadelphia, but padded those numbers early, going 7-for-11 from deep in the first two games of that series. He's since shot just 3-for-16 from three over the last four games, so something is very off with his shot.

Elsewhere, Miami is getting some solid ball out of former Celtics summer leaguer Strus, who is averaging 12.5 points in his 11 playoff starts. He's their best option from deep at the moment, hitting 35 percent off 8.5 three-point attempts per game.

The Celtics will need everyone on the roster to play well to take advantage of the depth battle this series.

The Lowry Factor

Kyle Lowry won't play in Game 1 as he continues to nurse a hamstring injury that he suffered in Game 1. Gabe Vincent has started in his place, with Oladipo getting a bigger role in Miami's rotation in Lowry's absence.

It's unclear if Lowry will be able to play in this series, but he is a gamer who will make life difficult -- and super annoying -- for the Celtics if he plays. He is their version of Marcus Smart, and a serious flop-off would ensue if he returns.

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