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Monday, May 22, 2023

Heat Embarrass Celtics, Move Within One Win of Reaching the NBA Finals

Gabe Vincent scored a game-high 29 points on 11-14 field goal shooting as the Miami Heat shot .568 from the field, held the Boston Celtics to .398 field goal shooting, and won game three of the Eastern Conference Finals 128-102 to push the defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics to the brink of elimination. Duncan Robinson, who was out of the rotation earlier in the season, scored 22 points off the bench in 23 minutes, and Caleb Martin had 18 points off of the bench; no Celtic--starter or reserve--scored more than 14 points. The Heat won in dominating fashion even though Jimmy Butler had a down night as a scorer (16 points on 5-13 field goal shooting). Butler contributed eight rebounds and six assists. Many teams talk about not caring who does the scoring and who gets the credit, but the Heat embody that way of thinking and acting; through the first three quarters, six Miami players had scored between 10 and 18 points. It is worth noting that Vincent scored 11 of his points in the fourth quarter when the outcome was not in doubt, and Robinson scored 12 fourth quarter points.

Jayson Tatum (14 points on 6-18 field goal shooting) and Jaylen Brown (12 points on 6-17 field goal shooting) did not make their presence felt at either end of the court. The Celtics' offense was frenetic and undisciplined, with players chucking up low percentage shots from all angles, and the Celtics' defense was as ineffective as a bulletproof vest made out of tissue paper. The Celtics grabbed 21 offensive rebounds, but made little out of those second chance opportunities, scoring 19 points on 7-20 field goal shooting.

Brown described the Celtics' performance as "embarrassing" and he is right. Boston Coach Joe Mazzulla said that he is to blame for not making sure that the Celtics were ready to play. It is not clear if that is a motivational ploy or if that is his sincere belief, but a coach may want to be careful about taking too much public responsibility for losses; I believe that it was former NBA Coach Sam Mitchell who mentioned that if a coach does that too often then the team's owner will begin to wonder, "Why am I paying this guy so much to coach the team if he is the main person responsible for our failures?"

The Celtics' theme for the 2023 season is "Unfinished Business" but they are one loss away from needing to print t-shirts with the slogan "Unfinished Business, Part II." During the Celtics' five trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in the past seven years, they demonstrated the ability to bounce back after falling behind in playoff series, but this series versus the Heat looks and feels much different. The Celtics can talk all they want about games one and two being winnable games during which they had double digit leads, but a team that is trailing 3-0 after suffering a 26 point game three drubbing that felt like a 50 point loss cannot plausibly suggest that this series has been close.

The Heat have demonstrated that they are the superior team between the lines, regardless of how things may look on paper, and that is very surprising. After losing 4-2 to the L.A. Lakers in the 2020 "bubble" NBA Finals, the Heat were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, and then lost to the Celtics in seven games in the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals before posting the seventh best record in the Eastern Conference in 2023. It is not clear what to make of the 2020 "bubble" playoff results; one could argue that doing well in the postseason during those unusual circumstances was more difficult than making a deep postseason run during a normal year, but one could also argue that a postseason without travel (after the teams arrived in the "bubble") and without the adversity presented by playing in front of opposing fans was a postseason that was less challenging than usual (or at least provided less of an advantage to the top seeded teams). Some commentators have noted that the four remaining teams in the 2023 playoffs are the same four teams that reached the Eastern and Western Conference Finals in 2020, but with three years separating those postseasons that seems more like a coincidence than a validation of the 2020 results. Two of the four teams have different head coaches now, and all four teams have experienced changes in their main rotations and in the roles performed by their top seven or eight players.

No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit, so when the Heat officially eliminate the Celtics the narrative construction game will begin (or, to be precise, it will accelerate). This series will likely be portrayed more as an epic failure by the Celtics than as a great success by the Heat, but that assessment feels wrong, or at least incomplete. While it is fair to point out ways that the Celtics could have played better (particularly in game three), the focus should be on giving credit to the Heat for overcoming injuries to key rotation players (Tyler Herro, Victor Oladipo) and for developing a team-first culture that enables the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:43 AM



At Monday, May 22, 2023 12:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking into their playoff history, these Celtics both have a knack for making the ECF, but also a knack for losing them despite being the higher seeded team.

2017, lost in 5 to Cleveland at home.
2018, lost in 7 to Cleveland at home.
2020, lost in 6 to Miami as the higher seed, though that was the Bubble so no fans.
2022, beat Miami at home in 7 (but no Herro for three of Boston's wins)
2023, not looking great against Miami (also no Herro)

Can you think of another team, historically, who was good enough to make that many conference finals but vulnerable/undiscipline/whatever enough to keep losing them at home?

Reggie's Pacers lost a lot of ECFs, but I think the only time they had home court was against that 8-seed Knicks team in the lockout year.

KD & Westbrook's Thunder and Nelly's Bucks also lost a few, but they were always the lower seed.

I feel like Boston's Finals run last year gives them some cover, but it's also worth acknowledging that Milwaukee and Miami both pushed them to the brink of elimination without one of their top three guys (Middleton & Herro).

I imagine on a long enough timeline J&J will be fine. They're awesome for how young they are, but thus far they do seem prone to blinking when the lights get the brightest, and it will be interesting to see how or if Boston is able to keep a competitive supporting cast around them when their monster new deals kick in. Can you win a title spending 100 million of a 134 million dollar cap on any two guys, let alone those two guys specifically? With Horford's age and Williams' injury concerns, how much longer can this version of the roster contend, and how do they replace those guys if they lose them?

Peripherally related, do you feel like either Boston or LA has even a puncher's chance of making the big historical comeback, or should we start talking about Miami vs. Denver?

At Tuesday, May 23, 2023 10:25:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Regarding Boston's ECF losses to Cleveland, in 2017 the Cavs were the reigning NBA champions and Boston only won two more regular season games than Cleveland. LeBron and his teams sometimes went into, as he called it, "chill mode" during the regular season, which explains that two game gap. I don't think that a young Boston team losing to a veteran championship team qualifies as being undisciplined or lacking focus.

I agree with you that Boston's duo is a young tandem that will be fine in the long run. I would add that the Celtics would be foolish to break up that duo, regardless of what happens the rest of the way in the 2023 ECF.

We already saw what happened to L.A. in the WCF. I picked the Nuggets in six before the series, but once the series began it became evident that the gap between the teams is even larger than I thought. The "tremendous trio" that the Lakers acquired in exchange for Russell Westbrook proved to be useless in a playoff series against a legit contender; I knew that would happen, but seeing two of the three players outright benched in the series clincher while the great DLo was removed from the starting lineup must have been a shock to Lakers fans who did not read (or understand) my analysis of the trade and of their team in general.

I think that Boston has a puncher's chance to avoid being swept, but I am not convinced that the Celtics can win four straight against the Heat. The Celtics seem a bit frazzled, which is different from how they seemed in previous series in which they came back after falling behind.

At Tuesday, May 23, 2023 1:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It isn't that I think any individual loss is "bad," I just can't think of another team with the same quantity of higher-seeded losses at the CF level. Your historical frame of reference is much wider than mine so I was curious if you could think of another team that was both so good that they kept making it this far but also flawed enough to repeatedly lose to lower seeds once they did. Assuming they do not make the unprecedented comeback here, they are now 0-4 in this "era" as the higher seed in the Conference Finals, which feels to me nearly as unprecedented. (Though it is necessary to remember that the first of those runs did not include Tatum, and Brown was still coming off the bench for it)

I do think that for this year in particular, my concerns about their focus/intensity/mentality have been pretty well born out. They are losing to this Heat team for two reasons, IMO, but neither of them is a talent deficit.

One is that Miami has had a little bit of three point shooting luck, but the much larger reason is that Miami has demonstrated an ability to play with more focus and intensity throughout the series, and especially in crunch-time, where Miami seems able to consistently generate good looks while Boston seems content to consistently generate careless turnovers and contested isolation jumpers.

A third reason might be that some of the Celtics look/are tired, particularly Al Horford and Jaylen Brown, but I believe that is at least partially a consequence of not taking care of business against Atlanta or Philly in a timely fashion and therefore not a good excuse.

This Celtics team is still talented enough to build double-digit leads even against this hot-shooting Heat team, but sloppy and/or panicky enough that they cannot seem to hold them. And then Game 3 felt like a complete absence of urgency or intensity.

This team, in my opinion, has all they need from a talent perspective, they just do not seem to have a winner's mentality. Perhaps that will come with more reps or a different coach or a key veteran addition. The darker possibility is that Tatum is the heir apparent to the Karl Malone/Chris Paul/James Harden throne of "All-NBA superstar who evaporates when it matters most."

As is often the case with Paul, Tatum's counting stats in the series look fine but anyone who watched the games knows that he was nowhere to be found when the outcomes were decided. Last year's Finals was more of a Harden/Malone style meltdown where his efficiency just fell off a cliff.

Over the next few years, hopefully he will prove that those series were simply growing pains and not a harbinger of things to come. It is probably too late for him to do too much about it this year, however.

Both he and Devin Booker are very vocal Kobe Bryant disciples, and both are often capable of Kobe-level scoring pyrotechnics, but so far both of their "Mamba Mentality" seems to desert them when the going gets its toughest. I am curious to see which if either of them finds that consistency first.

At Tuesday, May 23, 2023 2:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that you are correct that there has not been another team that has made the CF round this frequently in a short time span and lost this frequently as the higher seed. I am not quite sure what to make of that, because there have also been higher seeded teams that lost in earlier rounds and thus do not fit the parameters you proscribed.

Just based on his resume at this point, I already would prefer Tatum over Karl Malone, Chris Paul, or James Harden. The only one of those three who I would even consider versus Tatum is Malone, who did lead two teams to the NBA Finals (albeit with one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players not only as his point guard but as the player who made most of the clutch plays for the Jazz). I would never take a 6-foot, injury-prone playoff underperformer over a 6-10 two-way player. As for Harden, I think that my take on his game is no secret.

Anyone trying to become Kobe is likely to fall short of that mark, much like Kobe never became as good as MJ (though he came closer than anyone else who came after MJ).

I believe that Tatum will lead a team to an NBA title, but I am not quite as confident in him as I was in Giannis a few years back.


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