Heat vs Celtics Series Preview: Generating Offense, Forcing Turnovers, Stopping Corner 3s, ISOs

Insight2 weeks ago12 min readJohn Jablonka

We can finally say that the bubble wasn’t a fluke. We finally have those same teams in the conference finals back again. Wait. No, hang on. We already had a rematch from the bubble.

We’ve seen this film before. The Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics are facing one another for the second straight time and third in four years. And with both the Heat and the Celtics winning once, this series is going to be entertaining to see who will break the tiebreaker.

Now, a lot of fans and analysts will have the Celtics winning. There were 18 experts at ESPN that made their predictions. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Celtics got 15 votes. The three people that voted for the Heat? Jorge Sedano, Omar Raja, and Bobby Marks.

Even all of the models have the Heat as unlikely to win:

  • 21 percent to make the finals per 538
  • 3 percent to make the finals per ESPN
  • 24 percent to make the finals per LEBRON

No metric has them making the finals that are higher than 30 percent. And the most likely scenario in all of the metrics is that they lose in five games.

Obviously, when looking at the Heat’s season as a whole, it makes total sense. What they’ve accomplished isn’t normal or likely. An eighth seed rarely makes a run like this. But they still found ways to beat teams that were better than them in the regular season, so it is possible that they’ll find another way to beat this Celtics team.

So, let’s go over everything that you need for this series! First, a whole bunch of stats that you’re going to need!

Here are their four factors for the season and against each other(stats from NBA Stats):

Here are their shot distribution for the season and against each other(stats from PBP Stats and all attempts are per 100 possession and the number in the bracket is the shot frequency):

Here are the player’s stats:

Let’s start with the offense:

What Can the Heat do on Offense:

As it has been all season long, everything for the Heat will start with their shooting. This may be a poor analysis but their 3pt shooting will be the deciding factor in this series, otherwise, it will make life a lot harder elsewhere.

We know what the Celtics are going to do. We’ve seen this before and it’s going to look awfully similar to how the Milwaukee Bucks have played them. The Celtics will drop for most of the game. Al Horford and Robert Williams will be dropping on the screens and giving the Heat those pull-up 3s.

This is going to be tougher than what we’ve seen in the regular season against the Celtics because there won’t be any Tyler Herro as the team’s best 3pt pull-up threat.

Here are the team’s 3pt pull-up shooters against the Bucks and the New York Knicks:

  • Gabe Vincent: 43.5%(4.6 attempts) → 15.0% (3.3)
  • Jimmy Butler: 38.1%(4.2) → 14.3%(1.4)
  • Kyle Lowry: 55.6%(1.8) → 38.5%(2.2)
  • Duncan Robinson: 71.4%(1.4) → 33.3%(1.0)

This won’t cut it. If this is the shooting that they’re going to get, I don’t think they’ll be able to win unless they play perfectly everywhere else on offense and be perfect on defense.

What makes this worse is the Celtics, particularly in the first this season, have done an excellent job at limiting Heat’s 3pt rate by taking away catch-and-shoot opportunities and forcing them into more pull-ups.

So, not only will they get less volume at putting up 3s(especially the easier 3s), they will have more looks at the things they’re struggling at.

Heat’s 3pt stats in the regular season and against the Celtics:

  • 34.1% on 24.2 → 36.7% on 19.8 C&S 3s
  • 34.4% on 9.9 → 37.7% on 13.3 pull-up 3s

That’s exactly what happened in the first round against the Bucks, but that doesn’t matter when they shot almost 43 percent on pull-ups and over 48 percent on C&S.

But this won’t all be about shooting. One of the ways the Celtics have limited the Heat’s 3pt shooting is by keeping the pick-and-roll actions strictly 2v2. Take a look at these actions from game one:

They don’t help off shooters, don’t allow deep paint touches, get put in rotation, or allow kick outs.

In the regular season, the Heat averaged 45.4 drives per game and passed on 42.4(highest in the league) percent of them. Against the Celtics, the drives went up to 50.0 but they passed it only 32.0 percent of the time(that would rank 29th). They do a great job at limiting those kick outs.

That wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the Heat were getting better looks at the rim. They do get to the rim more against the Celtics but their rim FG% drops by 11 percent! Their 55 percent at the rim would rank seven percent worse than last.

Instead, they force the Heat into more long 2s. 13 percent of their shots come between 14 feet and the 3pt line. For comparison, the Chicago Bulls had the highest frequency with 16 percent. And another wild comparison is that the Phoenix Suns(who had Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul) had an 18 percent frequency. They are forcing them into tough jumpers.

Fortunately for the Heat, they made them at a ridiculous 49 percent clip. Again for comparison, the Suns shot 51 percent in the playoffs. And yet, despite that high percentage, they couldn’t generate an efficient offense

What makes matters worse is notice who’s taking all of those shots in the clip. A lot of them are taken by Herro. The Heat don’t have that now, so all of that falls down on Vincent, Butler, and Kyle Lowry as the ball handlers.

So, everything will start with the shooting — whether it’s killing the drop with pull-up 3s or forcing Horford and Williams to step up to the mid-range and open up places elsewhere. Lowry and Vincent will need to step up with their shooting.

If the shooting isn’t excellent, the Heat will have to manufacture offense some other way and a big key in so many games against the Celtics has been Adebayo.

He’s going to have to punish guys one-on-one and make jumpers off a PnR. Adebayo has had a much higher offensive load when it comes to creating shots for himself. It hasn’t always been great, but the usage has been there and that’s going to be needed. This is going to be needed:

If the Celtics won’t help off shooters or send much help, he’s going to have to go to work, create looks and knock them down. He should be able to beat Horford off the dribble. He’s going to have to punish any mismatch.

Speaking of punishing mismatches. This is going to have to be a Butler series. Anytime there’s a defense that doesn’t send much and is dropping like this, this needs to be “Butler go to work”. If healthy, this needs to be more of what we’ve seen from him against the Bucks.

There will be guys that he can hunt. He’s been pretty damn good in isolation and will need to continue to do that for the Heat to have any kind of offense.

Finally, the best way for the Heat to generate offense is going to be through turnovers and getting out to run. They force the Celtics to turn the ball over almost 19 percent of their possessions. That’s one way to generate good offense.

The Heat are currently third in efficiency in transition with 1.16 points per possession. This is going to be their best way to score points.

What About on Defense?

Let’s start with the obvious. Turnovers. This has been the Heat’s best defense. Pre All-Star break, they were second in the opponent’s turnover rate with 16.7 percent. This has dropped to 14.5 in the playoffs. That’s still pretty good.

One way they’ve done this is by being everywhere when it comes to getting deflections. They are averaging 17.3 deflections per game. They have 190 total deflections.

Luckily for them, the Celtics have been known to commit many turnovers, especially against them. And the thing about the Celtics’ turnovers is 61.5 percent of them are live ones. They commit around seven live turnovers per 100 possessions in the playoffs. Against the Heat in the regular season, that goes up to around eight.

Here are the Celtics’ key players’ turnovers in the regular season and against the Heat:

  • Jaylen Brown: 2.9 → 4.7
  • Jayson Tatum: 2.9 → 3.8
  • Marcus Smart: 2.3 → 4.0
  • Malcolm Brogdon: 1.5 → 2.3
  • Derrick White: 1.2 → 1.8
  • Al Horford: 0.6 → 1.7

That’s a significant increase from almost every player, especially their ball handlers. This is exactly what the Heat need to continue to do. Force a lot of turnovers.

One thing that has been interesting with the Celtics against the Heat is their increase in corner 3s. Their frequency goes up five percent.

Some of that is because of dribble penetration, putting the defense in rotation, and getting those kick outs. But a lot of it was because of over-helping, mainly because of a switch that drew help. The Celtics do want to put up a lot of 3s, but if they’re getting C&S 3s from the corners, then that’s a very easy way to lose.

  • Horford: 2.0 → 3.0 corner 3s
  • Grant Williams: 1.6 → 3.3
  • White: 1.4 → 2.0
  • Hauser: 1.4 → 2.0

I do think the Heat need to make the Celtics fall in love with the 3pt line. The Celtics have been shown to be overly reliant on it and struggle if shots aren’t falling down. But they need to force tougher looks because not all 3s are the same.

That brings me to a conversation about the zone. The Heat did go to a lot of zone without Butler back in December. I went through some of the key possessions and compared that against their man-to-man defense here. Per Couper Moorhead, in that game, the Celtics scored 1.54 PPP on 24 possessions in M2M and 1.12 in 63 possessions against the zone. One caveat to that is they scored 1.31 when Horford was on the floor, which would still be better than M2M.

I do think we’ll see some zone here and there, particularly when Horford isn’t on the floor. Everything is on the table with Erik Spoelstra.

Something that stood out on the rewatch is their perimeter defense was awful in the regular season:

Any Celtic player got past their man with ease to the rim. And with Horford on the floor, Adebayo wasn’t near the rim. It shouldn’t be a surprise why the Celtics shot over 70 percent at the rim.

Another thing that stood out a lot is how much Herro got hunted in PnRs on switches:

Both Tatum and Brown were going at Herro a lot. Tatum had attempted the most shots on Herro out of anyone else going 13-for-25. This applies to Brown too, as he went 6-for-14 against Herro. He won’t be playing now, so it will be interesting to see how much the Celtics will hunt and who.

Final Thoughts:

I do believe this to be a competitive series. A lot of it will depend on what shooting we’ll get from the Heat — if it’s the one against the Bucks, then I’m leaning Heat in six. If it’s how it was against the Knicks, then it’s going to be tough and it will require Butler and Adebayo to go nuclear but it will be possible.

If there’s a middle ground and neither team will shoot at a historic rate, then this will come down to defense and all the little things elsewhere.

In that scenario, this will be a chess match. It will be about adjustments, lineup changes, counters, and everything else.

  • Will the two big lineups survive for the Celtics?
  • Will the Heat stick with Love to draw Williams out?
  • If so, how will Love do on defense?
  • What about starting Caleb Martin?
  • Will that play Williams off the floor?
  • If so, can the Heat survive on defense against the 5-out offense?
  • Will the Heat go back to switching more? (though that did have some other issues)

There are going to be a lot of questions that can only be answered as the series goes on. Who’s going to blink first?

I think it’s a fair assumption that both teams’ offenses could struggle against the switching defense, and if that happens, who has more counters to that to generate any kind of offense?

We’ve seen the Heat stay in games and win when the offense struggled. This was exactly how they beat the Knicks. In the mud. Gritty. Grindy. If the game is like that, the Heat have a damn good chance.

If this turns into a shooting contest and who can score more points, I doubt they’ll barring what happened in Milwaukee.

With that said, my final prediction is Heat in seven(five, of course. It’s always Heat in five)