For the first time in Eastern Conference history, the conference finals will not involve a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. The Miami Heat dispatched a depleted Pacers team in four games and followed it up by dominating the Bucks in five. The Boston Celtics quickly passed a 76ers team in shambles before providing one of the best series of the playoffs beating the defending world champions in seven games.
Despite their seeds, these two teams have been two of the best in the 2020 Playoffs. Both teams are in the top three of playoff net team ratings behind the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami is the only team with just one loss through the first two series.
Whether it’s a matchup to keep an eye on, a scheme to look out for or an x-factor to keep in mind, there are many components to this series. Let’s take a look at the five most important things to watch for in the Eastern Conference Finals that aren’t quite as obvious as “Jimmy Butler needs to be good” and “Jayson Tatum needs to be Boston’s best player”. Of course, those things are true, but let’s look a little deeper and then make a prediction.
Bam Adebayo is the most important player in this series.
Adebayo is the most important player in this series on both ends of the floor. This is the one part of the matchup where the Heat have the overwhelming advantage. Daniel Theis has been good for the Celtics, but Adebayo is an All-NBA level center.
On the offensive end, Miami can run through him on the high post as a scorer getting to the rim and as a facilitator. They can also put him in the pick and roll with Goran Dragic — we’ll get to him in a minute — and get him moving towards the basket that way as well. When these two teams met in the bubble on Aug. 4, Adebayo took 18 free throws. While he really struggled from the field, he took every opportunity he had to go at Jaylen Brown on the offensive end. When Adebayo is aggressive and gets to the foul line, it keeps Theis on the floor who is the only player with the size to bang with a guy as big and strong as Adebayo.
On the defensive end, Adebayo can switch 1 through 5. Not only is he capable of switching, but his main assignment will more than likely be Theis. Theis has been inconsistent in the playoffs on the offensive end and hasn’t seen a lot of threes go down when he’s had the opportunity to take them. All this means Adebayo will be able to play a lot of help defense and the Heat should feel very comfortable switching almost everything in the pick-and-roll with his ability to guard every position on the floor. He’ll also be the center of the Heat zone that we’ll more than likely see after the Raptors were successful playing a zone against Kemba Walker.
Kemba Walker and Goran Dragic
Jimmy Butler has been good, Adebayo has been good, but no one has been better for the Heat on offense than Dragic in the playoffs. In nine games, he has six games of 20 or more points, six games of four or more assists and seven games of shooting 40% or better from the three point line. After only starting three games in the regular season, Dragic is back in the starting lineup and playing at an all-star level adding yet another dimension to this Heat offense.
Marcus Smart should spend most of the time on Dragic. The only question is, where do you hide Kemba Walker? The logical explanation is chasing Duncan Robinson around screens, but his ability to contest a Robinson shot is much less than a taller defender. In that Aug. 4 matchup, he spent a lot of time guarding Robinson and other Heat shooters such as Tyler Herro. There’s no doubting Walker should be on the floor as much as possible, but keep an eye on where Walker starts the game on the defensive end.
It’s no secret that Walker struggled with Toronto’s box-and-1 defense. They’ll probably see it again especially against a Heat team who played more zone than anyone this season. Walker clearly doesn’t have to be great for the Celtics to win games, but things become much more difficult on the offensive end if Walker doesn’t contribute the way he has for the majority of the playoffs.
Hayward has been ruled out for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals but should return in the series. Hayward was playing some very high level basketball in the bubble before going down in the first round against the Sixers. He had six games of 19 or more points since the restart.
Hayward changes a few things for Boston. First, he sures up the rotation even more. Regardless of what role he plays, he takes away Semi Ojeleye’s minutes and makes the Boston rotation even better than it has been in the playoffs. No disrespect to Ojeleye, but Hayward is a much better option. Hayward also played really well, averaging 22 points and eight rebounds in two games against Miami this season.
Whether he comes off the bench or is put into the starting lineup, Hayward also allows for the scary Boston lineup of Hayward, Walker, Tatum, Brown and Smart. While that lineup could result in Adebayo running rampant (as we talked about above), that lineup is versatile defensively and even better on the offensive end of the floor.
Hayward might be the biggest question mark in the series. How much does he play? When does he play? Is he in the game in crunch time and just how big of an impact does he make on this series?
Boston has the advantage in a lot of places in this series (even if it is marginal). Now, Brad Stevens clearly only has faith in a small number of players so it’s not like that’s how Boston operates, but it’s indisputable that Miami’s bench is scary. Tyler Herro, Andre Iguodala and Kelly Olynyk each bring something different to the floor. Herro brings a swagger and ability to get hot at any time. Andre Iguodala is bringing exactly what you think he is and, if nothing else, experience. And Kelly Olynyk’s ability to operate in the pick-and-pop can work both in the second unit or with Dragic when Adebayo is on the bench.
With Hayward back in the rotation, Boston’s bench gets stronger by default, whether that means through him or Smart going back to the second unit. Miami’s offense is very balanced. Most of the time, that’s a good thing, but only if the bench continues to perform at the level they have throughout the playoffs. Miami is going to need this advantage, they can’t afford for bench production to not be in their corner.
Celtics in 6.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take the chance to make a prediction for this series. I like both of these teams a lot and they’ll still be contending in the East for the foreseeable future. However, right now the Celtics just have too much for the Heat.
Boston will have the best player on the floor in this series and ultimately be too much on both sides of the ball. Marcus Smart will bother Dragic and neutralize him more than he has been in these playoffs, Brown and Tatum will do a great job making Butler earn every basket he gets in the series and Adebayo won’t be able to make up for it.
These are two very high level teams, but I’m more impressed by the Celtics and their ceiling and think they have the advantage in too many places for the Heat to come away with this series.
Boston in six.
Photo by: Erick Drost / Wikimedia Commons