If casuals didn’t know about the Miami Heat before, they likely do now.
In the latest chapter of a growing Miami-Boston rivalry for eastern supremacy, the Heat performed to the standards of a team that you can believe has what it takes to win it all.
Jimmy Butler led a spirited victory which was highlighted by a dominant 22-2 Miami “avalanche” where Erik Spoelstra’s troops showcased the defensive ceiling that makes them as dangerous as any remaining hopeful in the postseason.
Butler was the game’s MVP, showcasing all-around, superstar-level brilliance with 41 points (12-19 FG, 17-18 FT), 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks. No one in playoff history had previously recorded numbers like those since 1974, according to StatMuse.
It didn’t matter who defended Butler – although Payton Pritchard was the common victim – because he was performing on a level which no one else in the game reciprocated.
Miami now leads the Eastern Conference Finals 1-0. Since Spoelstra has been their head coach, the Heat are 15-2 in playoff series when they win the opener, and 14-1 in series where they have homecourt advantage. They now have a +93 margin in the third quarters of this year’s playoff games, and +117 all in all, defeating opponents by an average margin of 9.8 points per game.
History is trending towards their side, although that doesn’t make it any easier to discount Boston, who won 3 of the 4 quarters on Tuesday. The Celtics were the better team in the first half and got within a few hits short of a comeback in the final quarter. Their disappointing execution coming out of the break dug them a deep hole, especially without Marcus Smart (ankle) and Al Horford (HSP).
It also shows how Miami needs just a brief window of opportunity to erase a deficit and push the game out of their opponents’ hands.
Let’s take a look at what happened in Miami’s game-defining third quarter run:
Butler gets things going by drawing a foul and converting 2 of his 18 total attempts for the night. Related: The Heat shot 30-of-34 from the foul line, while the Cs hit 24-of-32. The overall FT distribution was nearly balanced, but Miami converted at a better rate.
Jayson Tatum, who was unstoppable in the first half, missed a 3 thanks to a solid Gabe Vincent recovery and contest. What was once a 13-point Boston lead had been cut to six. PJ Tucker and Max Strus then get solid looks from deep, but both missed their shots. The Celtics failed to secure the rebounds twice.
On the Heat’s third try, Bam Adebayo scores on a drive against Grant Williams, who fouls Miami’s big man and gets an incidental kick to the face. The lead is cut to three, and suddenly the momentum shifts.
Jaylen Brown responds with a split at the line. Afterwards, Gabe Vincent hits a tough 3-pointer with Tatum all over him, reminiscent of how he played when Nigeria beat USA in the Olympic tune-up.
From there, the defense worked its magic.
In this clip below, Tatum uses a Robert Williams screen to get in the paint, but his vision one step in is instantly crowded. Miami gives him the same treatment Trae Young and James Harden received in past weeks. Vincent inches in from the corner, Bam switches on Tatum, and Tucker is containing Williams’ roll while also bothering Tatum’s weak side vision.
Butler has a foot in the paint, ready to deflect a pass to the rolling Williams or outside to Brown. Even Strus leaves the other Williams in the corner, prepared to help in case Tatum drives to the rim. Miami is daring Tatum to be a playmaker, almost in a pick your poison situation, because they have the defenders who recover and disrupt passing lanes.
Boston’s leading man chooses to lob it to Williams, but Tucker’s fronting on the move and Strus’ weakside presence makes it a tough catch, leading to one of Boston’s 8 turnovers in the quarter.
Vincent misses a 3 in transition, but Butler, who was down the court before anyone else, enters the paint after stationing out of bounds, and gets in front of Brown, who didn’t find a man to box out. Williams is lackadaisical when the ball is heading to the rim, which might be why Ime Udoka wound up upset at him after. Butler gets the easy put-back for the lead change.
Butler falls for his pump fake, so Derrick White penetrates. Tucker comes out to help, points behind him to indicate that Williams, who’s in the short corner, can go in for the lob or rebound. PJ tries to get back in position when White attempts to pass and bodies the Celtics’ big, but Williams has a few inches on Tucker and catches the ball.
Vincent, whose original man is Brown in the corner, realizes what’s happening when Tucker pointed. So, when Williams attempted a reverse lay-up, Vincent was already in position to go for the strip, leading to one of Miami’s 12 blocks of the evening.
Not long after that, Miami scores on a staple of their offensive execution: Tucker receives the inbound pass in the slot, Butler screens for the inbound passer, who in this case is Strus, in the wing, and Max is wide open after receiving the ball from PJ to rise up for what’s essentially a practice shot. It was one of the many times the Heat successfully targeted Pritchard on screens. The communication by Brown and Williams wasn’t ideal as well.
Butler, Tucker, Strus, Tyler Herro, and Victor Oladipo combined to shot 60% (6-10) when defended by Pritchard.
In G1 vs the Celtics, Jimmy Butler shot:— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) May 18, 2022
4/6 vs Brown
2/5 vs Tatum
2/4 vs Pritchard
2/2 vs Grant Williams
2/2 vs Rob Williams
Tatum was 2/6 vs Butler and Brown was 0/5 vs Butler
(Per NBA stats) pic.twitter.com/6d3BcFHcWo
Here’s another impactful play and a good indicator that despite his occasional lack of aggressiveness to score, Adebayo’s value is irreplaceable because of elite defense.
This play starts with Bam fronting Brown and denying a clean pass. This forces Brown to catch the ball near half-court, which meant Adebayo could use his length to catch up in case Brown gets a step in the paint.
It looks like Brown had Adebayo beat when Bam backed-up an inch to avoid a blocking foul, but he also used that moment to size up a block once Brown would leap. The attempt ends in a wedgie, leading to a jump ball.
The Heat won the jump and Butler scored on a mid-range J, putting them up 6. It was a huge shot at the time.
The next 3 defensive plays were old-school “like taking candy from a baby” moments.
Tatum takes a turn going against Bam in isolation but can’t shake him off. Strus leaves Williams in the wing to impede Tatum, who doesn’t see him coming. It leads to a strip and breakaway dunk for Max.
After getting to the paint at will and scoring on contested jumpers in the first two quarters, the Heat were more physical with their defense on Boston’s leading scorer in the second half. That was aided by the return of Tucker, who looked like he injured his ankle in the second period.
According to NBA Stats, the Heat’s opponents convert only 34.3% in isolation against their defense through 12 playoff games. Whether or not Tatum cracks their scheme will be worth monitoring. Miami is willing to leave guys like Grant momentarily open to force Tatum in giving up the ball.
On this instance, Tatum gets a screen from Williams. Unfortunately for him, that meant dealing from Tucker to Adebayo. Brown is in the wing, while Butler is near the high post – a spot many Heat watchers will tell you he’s dangerous in, because as Tatum looks to get the ball to his co-star, Butler tracks his eyes the entire time, and shoots the gap at the precise moment for the steal, followed by a crafty turnaround hook.
Boston, with Tatum handling, then runs a similar action against the same defensive assignments. Instead of a crosscourt pass to Brown, Tatum gets the ball to Williams at the top, possibly for a hand-off. That never materializes because Butler, who was correctly predicting the change in scheme, sneaks behind Williams and gets another easy steal, followed by a dunk.
“I tell you right now, Spo doesn’t like… whenever I do it,” Butler joked in the post-game presser about the steals, with a hint of truthfulness.
“Luckily, I was 2-for-2 on those particular shoot-the-gap passing lanes, but I don’t get them all the time, and then you see him give a look over there.”
Spo didn’t seem to mind them on Wednesday night, describing them as momentum-shifters.
Boston trimmed the lead to within two possessions in the third, but by then, Miami had enough confidence in their game to match them with timely counters the rest of the way. Butler was too good, hitting flamboyant-looking jumpers, making key defensive plays, and getting to the free throw line. Tucker and Strus hit timely 3-pointers to help draw first blood.
There was a particularly significant Strus play in the fourth quarter to keep an eye out for moving forward. The Heat used the delay in Tatum’s recovery to Butler during an attempted switch on Pritchard to run a DHO for Strus. Butler screens Brown for Max to get free and because Tatum is still running back from the first action, Strus gets a decent look, and nails it.
Boston played eight guys in Game 1, including the seldom-used Aaron Nesmith. Daniel Theis saw some run, too. They’ll be better when their starters return, which will mean less weak points for Miami to attack.
The series is far from over. Going up 2-0 on Thursday will be even more difficult.
But every time Miami’s been faced with challenges this season, they’ve responded by coming back better. There will be similar situations to come as this series progresses, an epic confrontation waiting to unfold.
The Celtics will hit back. Count on the Heat to be ready.
9 down, 7 to go.