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Heat face Celtics in first round after epic conference finals duel last season

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Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla applauds as his players head to the bench during a timeout in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, April 7, 2024, in Boston. Charles Krupa / AP

As the Boston Celtics prepare for what they hope will be their latest NBA title run, coach Joe Mazzulla had his team look to past NBA champions for inspiration.

The list included sworn adversaries, like the Los Angeles Lakers and their 2010 run, as well as the last Boston team to raise the Larry O'Brien Trophy in 2008.

"Every path is different," Celtics All-Star Jayson Tatum said. "The '08 team, they went to two Game 7s in the first and second round. He's just getting us prepared. It's not always going to go maybe how we expect it or want it to go. And we have to be ready for that."

It's a lesson Boston learned last season when the Miami Heat jumped on the Celtics 3-0 in the Eastern conference finals, before blowing out Boston at TD Garden in Game 7 to end its title hopes.

The teams are set to meet again starting Sunday after the Heat outlasted the Chicago Bulls in the play-in round to earn a matchup with the top-seeded Celtics.

The edge would seem to tilt to Boston, which swept the regular-season series.

This year's first-round match won't have the stakes of the NBA finals hanging over it. It also won't feature Jimmy Butler, whose injured right knee won't let him match leading Miami on NBA Finals runs in 2020 and 2023.

"I mean, it's the underdog story, right? David vs. Goliath," Heat forward Kevin Love said. "That's why you've got to roll the ball out and play. You've got to understand that anything can happen in this game. Obviously, beating a team like Boston is an incredibly uphill battle. They've played like the best team in the league all year."

The Heat are fully aware that few expect them to win the series. It's No. 1 vs. No. 8, where an upset has happened only four times in a best-of-seven series — although one of those was last year when Miami ousted Milwaukee in five games.

Heat 76ers Basketball
Miami Heat' head coach Erik Spoelstra looks on after calling time during the first half of an NBA basketball play-in tournament game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 105-104. Chris Szagola / AP

"I think honestly, we can just play free," Heat guard Tyler Herro said. "Having Jimmy out and then being on the road, all the odds are against us, no one expects us to win. But I think things can change if we do get one in Boston. So, we're going to bring everything we can to try to get one."

Miami's plan is simple: Make Boston work for everything. If the Celtics get out and running, the Heat will be in huge trouble.

"It's going to be a dogfight," Heat center Bam Adebayo said. "It's going to be a battle. It's going to be in the mud. It's not going to be pretty basketball. That's usually how it's been when we see that team. That's usually how it is. It's super competitive and everybody always plays their best basketball in that series."

Boston is vowing not to take anything for granted this time out.

"We've got to be ready for the unexpected," Tatum said. "The playoffs present a lot of different challenges, game to game. And you've got to be ready to respond and react. Because you never know exactly what's coming."


The Celtics' offseason roster shakeup that sent Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon and Robert Williams III in favor of All-Star Jrue Holiday and 7-footer Kristaps Porzingis has proven worthwhile.

Holiday accepted a reduced scoring role, while remaining an offensive ignitor and defensive stalwart. Porzingis gave the Celtics a new dimension via his ability to space the floor and protect the rim.

Porzingis expects his first playoff experience with the Celtics to be memorable. His first taste of the postseason with the Mavericks was in the Florida bubble. His only other came the following season in partly full arenas post pandemic.

"It's going to be special," he said.


Herro missed all but 19 minutes of Miami's run to the NBA Finals last season. He broke his hand in Game 1 of Round 1 against Milwaukee and wasn't didn't return.

Now with Butler out, Herro has to take on a huge role.

"It means a lot just to be healthy and have this opportunity," Herro said. "Being on the front line, it means a lot. And hopefully, everything goes well so I can prove what I can do."


The Heat have used 36 different starting lineups this season (including a new one in the play-in round) and will open Game 1 on Sunday with their fourth different lineup in as many games against the Celtics this season.

Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro are the only Miami players who started all three Heat-Celtics games so far this season. It's certain that Sunday's will be different from the others because Miami started Kyle Lowry (who now plays for Philadelphia) in one of those games and Terry Rozier (out with a neck injury) in the two others.


AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.



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