When the Celtics were tied at two games apiece with the defending champion Toronto Raptors, I claimed that Boston had a greater than 50% chance to reach the 2020 NBA Finals. The Celtics, despite losing a heartbreaker in game 6, rebounded, for the second time in the series, and prevailed in game 7 behind a classic gutsy effort from Marcus Smart and a 29-12-7 line from Jayson Tatum. The right team won the series and the Celtics get to play at least four more games of meaningful basketball in the bubble. This is great.
However, the Heat of Miami, a very good basketball team, stand in the way of the Celtics. (See here for my analysis of them.) ESPN’s “experts” are split 11-11 about this series, with a bunch of these “experts” being the same ones who thought that the Raptors would take care of the Celtics. In fact, seven of the “experts” who predicted that the Raptors would beat the Celtics are also picking the Heat in this series. I love it. Doubt us some more.
There’s a somewhat decent chance that this series comes down to the best player in the series, which is currently up for debate between Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler. While I won’t look at you sideways for thinking that Butler is better, I like Tatum a little bit more. Yes, Jayson is just 22-years old, yes, he will settle for some long-contested twos against smaller defenders, and yes, he tends to complain after not drawing a foul that he thinks he did draw. And while he may not always have that “dawg” in him that Butler typically possesses, he has demonstrated that he can take over in certain situations: He has been able to lock in and lock up on key defensive possessions and he has been able to get to the free-throw line as a result of isolation on offense. And while Butler’s passing ability after stopping a drive may be a little bit sharper than Tatum’s, Tatum has the ultimate trump card in the fact that he can pull out a step back or side step three when he needs to, something that Butler does not have in his bag when Miami might need him to bail them out. I am concerned about Butler because I don’t think that Jaylen Brown will lock up him up like he did Siakam, because Butler can create off the dribble better and has that alpha dog mentaility that Siakam doesn’t have, at least not at the moment. Plus, I think that Spoelstra will employ Dragic at times to defend Tatum like how Nick Nurse did with Lowry to mess with Tatum’s rythem and confidence. However, I have no doubt that Tatum will be able to figure things out should he get slowed down, and if Brown can’t stick with Butler all the time, I’m sure Marcus Smart will be more than eager to take on the challenge.
Miami’s recipe for success will be to impose their will and their pace of play with Butler, Bam, and Dragic, while getting great shooting numbers from Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. Also, Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk might seek revenge against Boston; we shall see. I’m the most nervous about Dragic and Robinson. Just like in the Raptors series how I was scared to death about Lowry, Vanvleet, and Ibaka–– every time one of them shot I thought it was going in–– I am going to think that every time Dragic or Robinson shoots it’ll go in.
With all that being said, however, there are three wrinkles that I like in Boston’s favor. One, Kemba. I think that Kemba will bounce back after an overall pretty bad series, especially in games 6 and 7. Dragic and Nunn might make him work for it, but I think with the four days of rest, he’ll be rejuvenated. Two, the return of Gordon Hayward. We don’t know when exactly in this series Hayward will return, but when he does, even if he’s 80% of how he was before the ankle injury, he’ll be greatly appreciated because he can ease the offensive burden of Jayson, Jaylen, and Kemba, while also, at least in theory, take away from some of the dumb threes that Smart takes. And thirdly, the backup big man spot. Robert Williams was a nice piece in the Raptors series, and while Enes Kanter barely played in said series, it wouldn’t shock me if Stevens keeps the Heat off balance with a rotation, so to speak, of Williams and Kanter off the bench. He might decide to play it like an offensive coordinator with a committee backfield: ride the hot hand. (And oh by the way, the Celtics, once again, have the X-factor of all X-factors in Marcus Smart. )
The Heat are really good. They have a bunch of dudes who can play well and mesh together nicely. But just like in 2010, the Celtics will kickoff this decade with an appearance in the NBA Finals.