1. If the first game in Boston was a regular season barnburner, this rematch was much closer in style and rhythm, or lack thereof, to last season’s Eastern Conference Finals. It helped that Jimmy Butler was back in the lineup and Miami was back playing man-to-man defense, but there were also so many fouls and turnovers on either side the evening had that disjointed, stop-and-start quality that so many tense playoff matchups have.
For a time that worked out in Miami’s favor as the league’s best offense being taken out of rhythm is hardly a bad outcome and the combination of Butler and Tyler Herro (26 points) were able to go strike-for-strike as Boston led by just three at the break. But the Celtics put together a 14-2 run in the third as the HEAT’s offense hit all kinds of muck and Miami was playing from behind entering the fourth.
And yet they led with just over seven minutes to play after going down by as much as 13, throwing in a 13-0 run for good measure. Another clutch game, because of course, with a ton of big plays from Kyle Lowry (20 points) and Adebayo (28 points) down the stretch, with timely passes from Herro, good defense from Haywood Highsmith getting the chance to finish the game and Butler (25 points on 21 shots) hitting the shots of the game – first he put Miami up three with 36 seconds left, then he did it again with a looping, fading jumper with five second to play.
That’s where we thought this story was going to end. Then Jaylen Brown (37 points) banked in a ridiculous three to force overtime. Good thing Butler was back to hit another incredibly tough jumper in the final minute, carrying over his clutch performance from Game 6 last season, this time to put the HEAT up four. It might not have been pretty, but nobody cares when you leave that building with a win.
2. Miami wasn’t playing poorly offensively until that third-quarter stretch as far as putting points on the board, but from the opening period there was a sense that they weren’t exactly playing their game. The Celtics will do that, flatten you all the way out, with all their switchable defenders just as the HEAT did to so many teams last season, but the fact that they had just nine assists on over 30 (and an assist percentage of just 39 percent overall) a few minutes in the fourth was a pretty solid sign that the team that is routinely among the top in assist rate was having to change up its profile a bit.
They made it work, even with the threes not falling, in part because they won the possession game taking 14 more shots than Boston. Offensive boards. Scores off turnovers. Anything it took to keep the train moving forward. Even needing some hero-ball heroics down the stretch – have we mentioned Butler yet – it was good, with all that said, to see the ball move for a couple of clutch assists down the stretch, most of them to Adebayo in pick-and-roll or off an Adebayo pick-and-roll, with Boston doing what they do and shutting off Miami’s shooters. There aren’t many teams that are going to look Miami’s offense look like it did tonight, and there aren’t many teams that can just find a way like the HEAT. In that sense, the HEAT have started looking as much like themselves as they have all season.
3. With Butler back, the HEAT took their foot off the pedal and slowed way down on their pace to shatter all records for zone defense usage. There was still a hearty helping of it, especially with Adebayo in foul trouble for much of the first half, but for the most part there was a clear aim to return to their base coverage and get back to Miami’s defensive roots. The results were a little mixed, though as noted above it was tough to get much of a read on anything in this one given the lack of flow. Continuing the trend from just about any HEAT-Celtics matchup over the past calendar year, Boston had another 20 turnovers as Miami’s man-to-man spacing – which isn’t all that different from their zone spacing given how they play the driving lanes – kept players in position to knock the ball loose. Adebayo was also afforded more opportunities to switch onto Boston’s best scorers, and without giving up the usual gaps on the perimeter with zone, Boston’s three-point rate was much lower even though they did get a fair amount of good looks – not to mention Jayson Tatum (5-of-18) had a much tougher shooting night after dropping 49 in the last one. But on the flip side they lost the protection the zone offers, both in keeping players out of foul trouble and keeping Miami’s weaker defenders out of tough matchups. In the end the man-to-man won out as the HEAT held the best offense around to 103.6 points per 100 possessions.
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