Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Boston vs. Miami rivalry comes to the bubble; three keys to decide series

Kurt Helin   NBC Sports

The rivalry between Miami and Boston runs deep.

It starts at the top — Danny Ainge and Pat Riley can’t stand each other. It began in the 1980s when Ainge was a pesky player for the Celtics and Riley coached the Lakers Showtime Lakers. The rivalry runs through the 2011 and 2012 playoffs when LeBron went to the Heat and the Celtics had the Big Three, then Ray Allen left for South Beach.

Back in 2013, Ainge went on a radio show and criticized LeBron James, only to have Riley put out a press release that said, “Danny Ainge needs to shut the f*** up and manage his own team.”

Now the rivalry runs into 2020, when the Celtics are emerging as an elite team in the East but they face a young and talented Heat team led by veteran Jimmy Butler, a Miami team that just knocked off the top seed with ease and is finding ways to win in the bubble. This also is a matchup of a couple of the league’s best coaches — Eric Spoelstra vs. Brad Stevens.

This could be the first of years of Heat vs. Celtics playoff matchups.

Who is going to come out on top in 2020 and move on to the NBA Finals? Here are three keys to watch:

1) Can Miami’s defense slow down Jayson Tatum?

Miami just locked down on reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (as much as one can), but they now face a very different challenge in slowing Boston’s emerging superstar Jayson Tatum. Miami can’t simply wall off Tatum and dare him to shoot over them — Tatum’s pull-up jumper is as good as anyone’s in the league, and he’s hitting 41.9% of his threes in these playoffs.

Tatum is averaging 25.3 points and 10.1 rebounds a game through the playoffs. Defending him is almost the opposite of Antetokounmpo — don’t let Tatum pull up from three, force him to attack the rim against size, he’s less efficient that way. But letting Tatum drive creates another problem for the Heat defense.

Boston as a team thrives on penetration into the paint with kick-outs to three-point shooters who can knock it down (including Marcus Smart some games). Miami was a middle-of-the-pack halfcourt defensive team this season, but it has to slow that penetration. Miami’s biggest challenge may be defending Kemba Walker, who was such a threat Toronto ran some box-and-1 defenses against him in Games 6 and 7. Bam Adebayo is going to have to protect the rim and Heat perimeter defenders are going to have to close out hard on shooters.

Miami players such as Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro are about to face a defensive test unlike anything they have faced so far. The Heat have to stay disciplined, and how it responds will go a long way to determining this series.

On the flip side, Boston is going to have to use Marcus Smart and others to keep Jimmy Butler in check. Which brings us to another key in this series…

2) Can Boston’s strong three-point defense contain Miami’s shooters?

Boston had a top-five halfcourt defense this season (stats via Cleaning the Glass), but Miami presents a defensive challenge for Boston — they have shooters that have to be chased off the arc, like Robinson and Herro, but the Heat will also carve a team up with backcuts and moves to the rim (think Game 1 of the Milwaukee series). Last series, half the battle for the Celtics was to cut off Toronto’s transition play — Miami had the third-best halfcourt offense in the league this season, they thrive when things slow down.

Boston has to cut off the drives and scoring in the paint Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic, but do it without fouling. Miami’s ball handlers are excellent at drawing fouls and you know that will be part of the Heat’s plan — attack and get star Celtics players in foul trouble. Boston’s challenge is if they become too focused on that, Adebayo will get the ball and hit a cutting Dragic in the lane or Robinson curling off a screen at the arc.

Miami moves the ball and finds the open man; all of Boston’s defenders will need to be on a string.

3) Gordon Hayward may be the X-Factor in this series… whenever he returns

Gordon Hayward suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He’s been out ever since, even leaving the bubble for a while to get treatment, but he is close to a return (he was taking shots on the court before Game 7 against Toronto). Exactly when? Brad Stevens isn’t tipping his hand but said he expects to have him this series.

Hayward would give the Celtics another versatile player who can create his own shot and knock down the open looks others create for him. Hayward can run pick-and-rolls with the second unit while Tatum and Walker get rest, and the Celtics’ offense would not see a huge drop-off.

Hayward is the best fourth scoring option in the league and allows Stevens to run out an offense-heavy lineup of Walker, Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Hayward (Marcus Smart can be subbed into that lineup too, for defense).

If Hayward returns and is himself, that puts Heat defenders in even more of a scramble mode trying to cover all the Boston players who can get buckets.

Prediction: Boston in six.

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