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Saturday, September 12, 2020

Boston Versus Miami Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

#3 Boston (48-24) vs. #5 Miami (44-29)

Season series: Boston, 2-1

Miami can win if…Jimmy Butler is dominant--not good, not very good, but dominant. Butler is leading Miami in playoff scoring (21.8 ppg, including a team-best 23.4 ppg as the Heat upset the number one seed Milwaukee Bucks), but he has only scored at least 20 points in four of Miami's nine playoff games. In the other five games, Butler has scored 18 points, 17 points twice, 13 points, and six points. Butler's overall production is good, but there is more value in consistently scoring 20-25 points than in scoring six points in one game (as Butler did in game four of Miami's first round sweep over Indiana) and then 40 points in the next game (as Butler did in game one of Miami's five game second round win over Milwaukee).

Former All-Star Goran Dragic has thrived in this year's playoffs; he has more talent around him than he did in previous seasons, and he is most productive and efficient when he does not have to carry the weight of being the number one option. Opposing defenses focus on Butler and also have to pay attention to All-Star center Bam Adebayo, so Dragic has a lot of room to operate.

One possible advantage for the Heat is that--much like a baseball team that is strong up the middle with All-Stars at catcher, shortstop, and center fielder--Miami is receiving All-Star caliber play at all three levels: guard (Goran Dragic), wing (Jimmy Butler), and big man (Bam Adebayo). The Celtics are a perimeter-oriented team without an All-Star big man, and they may have to go small to win this series, much like they went small for extended stretches versus Toronto; however, going small against the Heat could leave Boston vulnerable in the paint, as Adebayo could punish the Celtics to a greater extent than any of Toronto's big men did.

Boston will win because…Jayson Tatum is emerging as an elite player. Tatum is the Celtics' playoff leader in scoring (25.3 ppg) and rebounding (10.1 rpg) while also averaging 4.3 apg. In Boston's 92-87 game seven victory over Toronto, Tatum led both teams in all three categories (29 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists); he joined Larry Bird and LeBron James as the only players to lead both teams outright in all three categories in a seventh game.

Jaylen Brown is second for the Celtics in playoff scoring (21.0 ppg) and rebounding (7.6 ppg), while Kemba Walker is averaging just a shade under 20 ppg in the playoffs. The Celtics may have acquired Walker to be the number one option, but he is the team's third option behind Tatum and Brown.

If Gordon Hayward can return from injury for Boston then he could provide a lift as a playmaker and as a valuable perimeter defender.

Other things to consider: This is the first time since the NBA went to a 16 team playoff format in 1984 that the Eastern Conference Finals will not include the number one seed or the number two seed, but this is not a shocking circumstance in a "bubble" environment that negates the value of home court advantage. Boston became the first team in NBA history to win four "road" games in one series. Would Boston have won game seven versus Toronto had that game been played in Toronto? We will never know the answer to that question, but regardless of any extenuating circumstances both Boston and Miami deserve respect for earning upset victories by playing great defense supplemented by timely offense.

This is Boston's third appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in the past four years. That sustained success has flown under the radar to some extent, perhaps because the Celtics have not made it to the NBA Finals since 2010 and because the Celtics have played musical chairs with All-Star point guards (Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker) during the past several years. Coach Brad Stevens has been on the bench for all three Eastern Conference Finals appearances, and he has established himself as one of the league's best coaches.

I picked Toronto to beat Boston in seven games, and that series was up for grabs until the final seconds of game seven, so even though my pick was wrong I am not shocked by the outcome. I like Jimmy Butler as a two-way player and as a leader; it is clear how much Philadelphia misses him, and how much he has helped Miami. This evenly matched series may very well be decided by whether Butler or Tatum is the best player. In my Toronto Versus Boston Preview I wrote, "If Tatum establishes himself as clearly the best player on the court during this series, then the Celtics could outlast the Raptors." In game seven, Tatum became the second youngest player to post at least 25 points, at least 10 rebounds, and at least five assists in a seventh game. Kobe Bryant, Tatum's mentor, is the youngest player to post such numbers. For all of the talk about Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, and others, we may look back on the 2020 playoffs as the coming out party for Tatum, much like Bryant elevated his status during the Lakers' run to the 2000 NBA title.

I expect this series to be just as close as the Boston-Toronto series, and I am picking Boston to beat Miami in seven games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM



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