What to know about Heat vs. Celtics
It’s not all that often that you get an Eastern Conference finals series without either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed. In fact, that scenario hasn’t occurred since the 1969 NBA playoffs, and back then it was called the Eastern Division.
And yet, maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising to see the Celtics and Heat battling it out for a spot in the 2020 NBA Finals. Both of these teams are well-coached, defensive-minded and tough as hell. Oh, and they happen to possess some really good players, so that helps.
Miami has been patiently waiting for its next opponent since it eliminated Milwaukee on Sept. 8. The Heat shut down reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and utilized a balanced scoring attack — five players averaged at least 13 points — to send the Bucks home in just five games.
The second-round experience was much different for Boston. The Celtics went the distance against the defending champion Raptors, winning a tight Game 7 behind terrific performances from Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart to advance to the conference finals.
Boston won two of the three regular-season games against Miami, but key players were missing each time these teams previously met. The Celtics’ current starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Smart, Jaylen Brown, Tatum and Daniel Theis didn’t face the Heat at all.
We’re basically starting from scratch in Game 1, so trying to predict what will happen is a tremendous challenge. Let’s give it a shot.
The key matchup
Goran Dragic vs. Marcus Smart
Yes, All-Stars like Tatum, Walker, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo will meet on several possessions. However, the individual matchup of Dragic vs. Smart could swing the entire series in one team’s favor.
Dragic is averaging 21.1 points and 4.7 assists through nine postseason games while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from 3-point range. With Dragic on the floor, the Heat hold a net rating of 11.1, but when he hits the bench, that number drops to -4.9.
The 34-year-old can break a defense down and score in a variety of ways. He has no problem shooting off the catch or on the move, and he is comfortable creating in the pick-and-roll or in isolation.
Good luck doing all of that with Smart right on your hip, though. The All-Defensive First Team selection can stick with speedy guards in a foot race.
And he can stand his ground when a forward drives directly at him or posts him up.
Even when Smart should be out of a play, he finds a way to blow it up.
Miami doesn’t solely rely on Dragic to put points on the board, but he is an important part of how the Heat like to operate on that end of the floor. If Smart is able to limit Dragic’s production, that would be a huge plus for the Celtics.
Some Boston fans may have gotten a little excited when they saw footage of Hayward working out prior to Game 7.
Hayward hasn’t played since the Celtics’ first-round opener against the 76ers when he suffered a right ankle sprain, but that footage showed he is making progress in his recovery. Boston coach Brad Stevens recently said he believes that Hayward will return “at some point in this series.” (He is already officially ruled out for Game 1.)
Assuming there are not setbacks, can Hayward make a real impact?
He gives the Celtics another scorer, playmaker and wing defender when he’s at full strength. It’s unfair to expect that version of Hayward the moment he steps onto the court, but simply giving Stevens another piece of the rotation could be valuable, especially if this series goes six or seven games.
The big number
The Heat are shooting 40.7 percent on above the break 3-pointers during the playoffs. Celtics opponents are shooting 29.9 percent on above the break 3-pointers and just 30.5 percent from deep overall, the best mark of any postseason participant.
The old adage about a make-or-miss league? That might apply here.
Heat vs. Celtics schedule
Heat vs. Celtics prediction
Celtics in seven
There really is no wrong answer here given that both the Celtics and Heat are playing at an incredibly high level. The execution and effort have been special.
The slightest of edges goes to Boston because it presents a much different challenge for Miami than just building a wall in front of Antetokounmpo. If Hayward looks like even 75 percent of his old self, that could tip the scales as well.
A prediction we can all get behind: This is going to be fun.
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