After two of their most putrid offensive showings of the season, the Miami Heat are facing elimination on the road. Jimmy Butler shot 7 for 32 in Games 4 and 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, and the duo of Kyle Lowry and Max Strus shot a combined 1 for 28. Butler is playing through knee inflammation, Lowry is playing through a hamstring injury and Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro has not been playing because of a groin injury. Are the Heat cooked?
I’ll get to that. First, I’d like to talk about Boston Celtics guard Derrick White. In Boston’s 93-80 win on Wednesday, White scored 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting, with five assists, two steals and a block in 29 helpful minutes. Al Horford said he was “unbelievable.” Jaylen Brown went with “fantastic” and “essential.” White, acquired at the trade deadline from the Spurs in February, is an overqualified bench player, the kind of guy who can swing a game or a series.
White started in place of Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart on Monday in Game 4, and coach Ime Udoka said that the opportunity gave him a spark, which carried over to Game 5. White made plays in transition for himself and others. He made plays as a roll man and as a point guard. He created easy shots, made a couple of tough ones and was on the court for all of Boston’s game-breaking 24-2 run, which began late in the third quarter took a little more than six minutes.
He’s going to have a weaker defender on him [Brown] and [Jayson Tatum] kind of being blanketed, “Udoka said.” He could take advantage of those. A capable scorer, driver, initiator, and one of our best guys at quick decisions, getting downhill and making plays. And so we trusted him to do that, he took advantage of some double teams on Jayson and he’s really good at making the play behind. We trust him to get the ball in the middle, whether he has a floater, pull-up, or finding guys on the perimeter. ”
The Heat also had a reserve guard step up Wednesday: Gabe Vincent scored 15 points on 6-for-12 shooting, plus two assists and a steal in 23 minutes. Vincent made several off-the-dribble jumpers, including a stepback 2 over Smart that bailed out a bad possession just before the Celtics made their big run.
The most meaningful difference between Vincent and White, though, points to Boston’s biggest advantage over the Heat. White is an exceptional defender with the length to guard wings, while Vincent is too small to handle the likes of Brown and Tatum. Three times in the third quarter of Game 5, one of the Celtics’ bigger, stronger wings isolated against Vincent and knocked down a midrange jumper. In the fourth, Tatum took him to the post and got to the line.
When it was winning time, Udoka shrunk the Celtics’ rotation to seven players: the starters, White and the versatile Grant Williams. After playing 25 minutes in Game 5, Payton Pritchard, who has the same defensive limitations as Vincent, played just six, all in the first half. This was possible because, for the first time in the series, all of Boston’s players were available. When neither Pritchard nor Daniel Theis is on the floor, there is no obvious weak link to attack.
This does not explain Miami scoring 59.8 points per 100 half-court possessions on Wednesday, per Cleaning The Glass. This does not mean that the Celtics are unbeatable. But being free of weak links is what allows the best of the best defensive teams to shut down their opponents’ pet plays and make them work for every little edge they can get. There is no easy money.
“I think the mental stress and strain we put on some teams with our defense has worked and carried us through the playoffs at times,” Udoka said. “You saw it in the Brooklyn series, guys started to wear down. Game 7, it looked like [Giannis] Antetokounmpo slowed down some. But just having all those bodies to continue to throw at people wears down on them physically and mentally, making it tough. As long as we don’t give ’em easy baskets in transition. “
Through five conference finals games, the Heat have scored 102.3 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes, per CTG, which is to say that Boston has rendered their offense worse than any team’s was in the regular season. That number drops to 84.2 per 100 in the halfcourt, which would also have ranked dead last this season. Neither number is meaningfully different from what the Milwaukee Bucks managed (102.1 per 100, 81.9 per 100) in seven games against the Celtics, though.
(Sidenote: For all the discussion about Kevin Durant’s offensive struggles during Boston’s first-round sweep, the Brooklyn Nets, who scored 116.9 points per 100 possessions and 97.6 per 100 in the halfcourt, fared far better than Milwaukee and Miami.)
The Heat have needed to play with immense physicality, force turnovers, push the ball and crash the glass in order to stay with Boston. It is difficult to live that way for a whole series. As soon as the Celtics stopped dribbling into traffic and coughing it up on Wednesday, they separated themselves and put Miami on the brink.
So are the Heat cooked? It sure looked like it when Boston, the most complete team in the NBA for months, played to its strengths and exploited Miami’s increasingly glaring weaknesses. The Celtics know exactly who they are, while the Heat are clearly still experimenting with lineups and trying to muck things up. Miami used a nine-man rotation Wednesday, even with Herro injured and big man Dewayne Dedmon out of the mix.
Of those nine players, Boston hunted three – Vincent, Strus and Duncan Robinson – relentlessly. And it cheated off almost everybody else behind the 3-point line. By giving the Heat a heavy dose of drop coverage, it was already disrespecting their pull-up shooting, but it hit them with another tweak in the second half of Game 5, putting a big man on Butler, rather than Smart.
The Celtics wanted to “stay locked up to the shooters and make the others score,” Udoka said. “Some of the guys that initiate offense for them, whether it’s Bam [Adebayo] or Butler as well. And then helping off [P.J.] Tucker some. And so really, with that, Butler wasn’t really looking to score. He was more of a screener and making plays in the pocket. And so he was slipping behind some of our switches and so we wanted to keep a big on him and play him like a big and play in a more traditional drop coverage. “
Miami has not come close to making Boston reconsider the drop. The Heat attempted 45 3-pointers on Wednesday, which usually would be a sign of good offense, but the vast majority were either contested or taken by so-so shooters. That they made 15.6 percent of them is not entirely because of the Celtics’ defense, but it’s certainly not just bad luck.
The Heat desperately needs something to change. Can Butler shake off his knee issue and save Miami’s season Friday? Can Adebayo start bullying Robert Williams III? Can Lowry, Strus or even a returning Herro get going?
“I know how ignitable our guys are,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said, using the same word he used after losing Game 4 of the second round in Philadelphia. The Heat won the next two games of that series convincingly, but Boston is a different beast.