The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics are facing off in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in three years for the right to play in the NBA Finals. The Heat and Celtics finished with the best two records in the East.
Each team has a plethora of options that could swing this series. From the major players to the role guys and bench players, we’ve nailed it down to three key guys that can really shift this series if things go right for them.
So let’s talk about the guys who are the X-Factors…
X-Factor #1 — Al Horford
One of Miami’s most lethal pieces in their Conference Finals matchup with Boston in 2020 was the play of Bam Adebayo. The Celtics tried to guard him with Daniel Theis and it didn’t go well for them.
Well now, Boston has been able to utilize Al Horford to a really impressive level. His play against the Milwaukee Bucks should be evident of that. Horford was able to extend the floor by being a three-point threat, but still able to do enough offensively in other areas to be useful against mismatches and zone. On top of that, Horford is actually a really good defender. He’s physical and he has great length, even though he’s only 6’9”.
If Horford is able to get Adebayo from beating him off the dribble, then Bam’s efficiency will drop. Horford really could elevate the Celtics to a near impossible level to defend if he plays well. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, you know what you are going to get with them…same is true with Marcus Smart. But Horford’s play, either way could shift this series.
The same is true if Horford can’t keep Bam from driving past him, and if he isn’t able to keep him from positioning himself in the dunker’s spot and/or the middle of the paint where he can score in his own little mid-range push shot. Bam has the chance to make Horford a non-factor in defense. But I still see Horford’s play as an X-Factor.
X-Factor #2 — Max Strus
The Heat have shown that they are a pretty dominant team when Max Strus is in the starting lineup. And in their last game at Boston this season, Max Strus showed how valuable of an asset he is in a matchup like this. Twice he was able to have strong defensive one on one plays against Jaylen Brown and hold his own — which was always a bit of a concern. If Strus is able to hold his own against Tatum and Brown and make the matchup-hunting go away when he’s sharing the floor with the starters, the Heat are better.
But Strus’ most valuable contribution to the Heat is his shooting and cutting. Even when Max isn’t shooting, his off ball movement opens things up for his teammates in ways you may not notice.
Regardless, when Strus is on and hitting, he takes the Heat to juggernaut levels on the offensive end because he is a terrific Green Light player from the perimeter. He’s not afraid to make the defense pay with just a little bit of space. If Miami can get Max going offensively to take pressure off of Jimmy and others to have to score the hard way, then he changes the series.
X-Factor #3 — Jimmy Butler
Here’s the deal…it may sound odd to have Jimmy Butler as an X-Factor but this is totally related to how the Celtics play defense. If the Heat were playing the Bucks, the Heat’s perimeter shooting in its entirety would be the X-Factor because they pack the paint and would force the Heat to score from there.
The Celtics won’t do that. They will play a similar defensive scheme as the Heat with a switching defense. And what that means for Jimmy is that he should be able to manipulate many different mismatches from the Celtics defense. The Celtics are comfortable putting Smart, Brown and Tatum on Butler for isolation plays. And Jimmy probably is comfortable with those matchups as well.
The problem becomes putting Grant Williams or even Horford on Butler. When that happens, Butler will probably force the Celtics to react with a double or help and that opens things up for Miami.
But Butler has to continue to excel in isolation play as he did verse the Sixers to make this work. If Jimmy regresses his shooting which has been amazing, then the Celtics defense will work and Miami can have a hard time. He needs to be on his game.
Who or what is your X-Factor for this series?