By William Coolidge
This time of year is bittersweet for me…on the one hand, we’re approaching the end of the playoffs with four high-caliber teams remaining, duking it out with each other in hopes of advancing to the biggest stage in all of basketball, the NBA Finals, and of course as a by-product, us fans have the privilege of seeing the most exciting and competitive play all season. On top of that, and pertaining to this year exclusively, the league is as wide-open as I’ve ever seen it, meaning that all four teams left have relatively similar odds of winning the championship, there is no clear favorite. However, the caveat to the sensation of all of this and the NBA Playoffs, especially towards the end of it as we are currently drifting, is that the NBA season will be over within a month. However, with that said, my excitement for the games to come, far surpasses any gloomy feelings I have about the season coming to a close. In this piece, I will give my thoughts on the Celtics-Heat series, which of this writing, has not started yet.
This year’s Eastern Conference Championship, a matchup of the two best records in the Eastern Conference this season, the Miami Heat (1st seed) vs. the Boston Celtics (2nd seed). The excitement of these two teams clashing for a ticket to the NBA Finals derives not only from how good both teams have been this season but also, from the intense recent history between them. This rivalry dates back to the 2010 NBA Playoffs when a Boston Celtics team loaded with a triple-headed monster of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen smushed a Dwyane Wade-led Miami Heat team in the first round. Then the very next Playoffs in 2011, the Miami Heat, with a newly acquired LeBron James alongside Wade, got their revenge by trampling the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Next season, the Heat and Celtics would meet again, making it three straight years of playing each other in the postseason. This time though, they were battling in the Eastern Conference Finals and the victor would move on to the NBA Championship series. This was a gritty and well-fought series from both sides, however, the Miami Heat prevailed for the second season in a row, beating the Celtics in 7. With both teams’ descent into mediocrity, this Playoff rivalry would remain dormant for a few years, specifically until 2020. In the NBA playoffs of 2020, a.k.a “The Bubble”, the Miami Heat pulled off a heavy upset over the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals to play non-other than the Boston Celtics. In an intense 6 game series, the Miami Heat prevailed once again. With this brief history in mind, the rematch of these two squads in another Eastern Conference Championship series becomes even more interesting and eagerly anticipated.
Analysis: The Celtics have surprised me all these Playoffs. I projected the Nets would beat them in the first round, instead, the Celtics made quick work of them, beating them in 4. Then, in the second round, I picked the Bucks to beat the Celtics, but what happened? The Celtics came out on top–albeit the series went to 7 and was very competitive. The Celtics have proven themselves to me thus far…but, I don’t think I can say the same for the Heat. I am by no means discrediting their work to get here, earning the first seed and winning two playoff series. However, not all playoff series were created equal. In the first round, the Heat matched up with an underperforming Hawks team, led by Trae Young who played the worst basketball anyone’s ever seen from him (of course some credit to the Heat defense). Miami beat the Hawks in 5, closing out the last game of the series without their franchise lead-star, Jimmy Butler. They proceeded to take on the 76ers in the Conference Semi-Finals. Although the Sixers were seen as contenders after their midseason trade acquisition of James Harden, they became heavily incapacitated in the Playoffs as their Superstar and league MVP candidate, Joel Embiid, suffered injuries and had to sit out the first two games against the Heat. And even when he did come back, he was noticeably not his full, healthy self. All that I have just noted is why I feel lacking a sense of how good this Miami team is. Again, this isn’t a knock on Miami, you’re supposed to play who is in front of you and the Heat have done that successfully. It just so happens that the Celtics have played far better teams and talent thus far, and have solidified themselves as contenders. Irrespective of that though, the Heat are also pretty banged up as a few of their starters/ key players are injured and questionable for game 1. This list includes Gabe Vincent, P.J. Tucker, and Max Strus, all quality role-players that if the Heat are missing, could swing the tide of the series. Not even to mention that Miami’s starting point guard and veteran leader, Kyle Lowry, has been battling a hamstring injury and will be out for the foreseeable future. These injuries put a significant damper on their depth and gameplan, however, if Miami is known for anything, it’s that they seem to always have players that step when called upon. On the other hand, for the advantage the Celtics possess in having fewer injuries than Miami, they perhaps make up for with their starting point guard Marcus Smart being questionable for game 1 with a sprained ankle. Missing Smart is detrimental to the Celtics who pride themselves on having a defense that is just as fierce as their offense. Smart was awarded Defensive Player of the Year this season and spearheads the Celtics on that side of the floor. His presence is deeply felt. In general, the Celtics just need to keep doing what they have been and they should have a good chance to win. Their defense this playoff has been immaculate, sourcing from the terrific efforts of every player on the floor, the C’s lack a weak link defensively in their starting lineup. Al Horford has been a well-needed surprise for them, he scored a career-high 30 points in a win last series vs. the Bucks and has been one of the C’s best defenders thus far. The stifling defense of the Celtics poses a problem for a Miami team that already doesn’t possess many scorers. The wildcard for the Heat in this series is without a doubt Bam Adebayo. We already know Jimmy Butler is going to show up and show out as he is one of the greatest competitors of all time. But Jimmy acting as the lone star is not going to be enough, this Celtics team is too good. There’s no critiquing Bam’s defense thus far, but the Heat could really use Bam being more aggressive on offense as well as his dominant defensive presence. If he could be as offensively aggressive as he was in their 2020 Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Celtics, that would be perfect. In their 2020 matchup, he averaged 13 shot attempts per game, thus far in these playoffs, he’s averaged 8. Tyler Herro’s scoring output will also be a big factor for the Heat, I’d say he’ll need to average at least 20 points per game for them. As good as the Heat defense is, I’m not confident they will be able to contain the lethal scoring duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum for a seven-game series. The Heat are facing more mature versions of these two than they did in 2020. But just as I gave brownie points to the Celtics for beating competition these playoffs, which are superior to who the Heat have faced, that competition has also surely fatigued the Celtics. They’re coming off a long series vs. the Bucks, meaning they haven’t gotten much rest between the last series and now. This plus the fact that Miami is notoriously gritty and will wear you down is an aspect that must not be glossed over.
Conclusion: Taking all factors into account, and even though I will be rooting for the Heat, my best guess tells me the Celtics will win the series in 6 games (4-2).