NBA experts preview Eastern Conference Finals matchup between Miami Heat and Boston Celtics

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It’s the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals once again in what seems to be an intense growing rivalry in the NBA.

The two teams faced off in the same round in 2020, with the Heat coming out on top in six games. After they both experienced down years in the 2020-21 season, Miami and Boston rematched last season in the conference finals. That time around, Boston came out on top by winning Game 7 on the road.

Both teams mostly look the same this time around, but that doesn’t mean the series will have the same exact outcome.

This edition of the Heat-Celtics rivalry is set to begin on Wednesday night in Boston. Here’s a breakdown of keys to success for each team, one X factor for each team as well as series predictions from two of our NBA experts.

3 keys to success for the Miami Heat

Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler

1. Keep the rebounding battle close

David Akerman: The Celtics were one of the better rebounding teams in the regular season and have largely performed just as good in that department so far during the postseason. Miami is a pretty small team in general, but it actually matches up pretty well against Boston, which isn’t that big of a team either.

Getting more rebounds usually means getting more shots, which would obviously allow the Heat to score more and more. However, it’s important to note that Miami has actually won multiple games throughout the playoffs when losing the rebounding battle, so it doesn’t need to win outright in that department in order to come out on top.

But, it will surely want to maximize its own opportunities while minimizing chances for a Boston offense that continues to be lethal in the postseason after posting 117.9 points per game in the regular season.

Miami has improved on its scoring a bit in the playoffs after ranking dead last in scoring during the regular season, so more chances for buckets should come good for it. It has topped 100 points in all but one of its 11 playoff games so far, with the hope being that the trend will continue.

2. Maintain success from beyond the arc

DA: During the regular season, the Heat ranked toward the bottom of the league in 3-point shooting, making just 34.4 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc.

They have upped that to 36.8 percent in the playoffs, and that’s been one of the reasons why they’ve dispatched their opponents pretty easily through the first two rounds.

Duncan Robinson, Caleb Martin, Max Strus and others have really stepped up in that department, offering consistent contributions from downtown. Realistically, the Heat aren’t as talented on offense as the Celtics are, so knocking down plenty of 3-pointers to make up for that would go a long way.

After another rough regular season, Robinson seems to have found his groove again, as he’s shooting 42.6 percent from beyond the arc in 11 playoff appearances this season. He’ll need to keep that up and attract attention from Boston’s defense in order to allow Jimmy Butler and others more room to operate on the floor.

Kevin Love, who has shot 33.9 percent from deep in the playoffs, will likely have plenty of outside shots. He’s going to need to knock them down in order to draw Celtics center Robert Williams, an elite rim protector, away from the basket. Williams is set to remain in Boston’s starting lineup for Game 1, and it seems like he will draw the assignment of guarding Love.

Getting Williams away from the rim would allow for Butler, Bam Adebayo and others to go as hard as possible without having to worry about shots getting blocked or altered.

3. Steal Game 1 or Game 2 on the road

DA: In order to win the series, the Heat will need to take at least one game on the road in Boston. To set the tone early and get the Celtics on their heels, Miami needs to steal one of the first two games in the series.

The Heat have actually won both of the Game 1s they’ve played so far in the playoffs, with both of those wins coming on the road. Getting a third Game 1 win would shift home-court advantage to Miami.

Kaseya Center has been a fortress throughout the playoffs, with the Heat going 5-0 at home. If the Heat were to come back home with at least a 1-1 split, their fans would make sure to show up extremely energized and ready to create hostile environments for Games 3 and 4 of the series.

Boston is only 5-3 at home during the playoffs, so Miami definitely has a good chance at stealing one of the first two games. Winning the first game would be huge, as it could leave the Celtics a bit shell-shocked for the following contests.

3 keys to success for the Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown

1. Limit Miami’s points off turnovers

Jason Simpson: The truth is that the Heat are going to have a difficult time going punch for punch with the Celtics when the game slows down in the half court. The talent gap is pronounced, as Boston simply has more creators and offensive valves than Miami.

However, fast break and transition opportunities are often major equalizers when two teams with imbalanced offenses collide. History has shown that certain game plans against the Celtics can cause the team to give the ball away.

They’ve been better in that regard this season (and particularly in the 2023 postseason, as they’re averaging just 11.5 turnovers per game in these playoffs compared to 14.0 per game in the 2022 postseason), but if their old habits come out to play, Miami will gain a major advantage.

That’s especially true considering the fact that the Heat rank first in the 2023 NBA Playoffs in points off turnovers at 20.4 per game.

The key here for Boston? Don’t give Miami a chance to neutralize your biggest advantage in this series — the talent gap on offense — by giving up free points.

Simply put, don’t turn the ball over, or at the very least, limit the live ball turnovers. Dead ball turnovers aren’t as harmful since they don’t lead to easy buckets.

2. Don’t lose the Joe Mazzulla vs. Erik Spoelstra battle by a series-altering margin

JS: It’s no secret that the Heat have the upper hand in this series when it comes to the coaching battle. Erik Spoelstra has been here before. Joe Mazzulla has not. There’s a good chance that it’s going to show.

Mazzulla’s game management abilities — particularly his rotations and timeout utilization — have come into question at multiple points in the 2023 postseason. He did make a brilliant (and gutsy) decision by changing Boston’s starting lineup when the team was facing elimination in Game 6 against the Philadelphia 76ers, which paid off in a major way. But he’s now facing off against one of the best head coaches in the NBA and someone who knows when there’s blood in the water.

If Mazzulla’s inexperience rears its head, Spoelstra will sense it, and he’ll stick to anything that works until it forces Mazzulla to adjust. The first-year Celtics coach will likely find himself in several situations throughout the series where he needs to think on the fly and make changes, and if the Heat can get him flustered, he may stumble.

It’s not reasonable to expect Mazzulla to outcoach Spoelstra, but he needs to do his best to keep pace and let his players determine the outcome of the series. Boston will find itself in a lot of trouble if Spoelstra ends up coaching circles around Mazzulla.

3. Enter the series with a sense of urgency

JS: For whatever reason, the Celtics are at their best when their backs are against the wall. Jayson Tatum is arguably the head of the snake in that regard, as he’s starting to establish himself as a big-game player who sometimes struggles in the early stages of playoff series.

Take a look at how his career playoff averages change depending on the stage of the series he’s in:

  • Game 1s: 22.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game
  • Game 2s: 20.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game
  • Game 3s: 22.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game
  • Game 4s: 25.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game
  • Game 5s: 24.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game
  • Game 6s: 25.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game
  • Game 7s: 28.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game

The data isn’t perfectly linear, but you can see that he tends to start slow in the early stages of series before turning things up a notch as it gets later.

This isn’t necessarily a good quality, and it’s not just a Tatum thing. When the Celtics play with a lack of urgency in the early stages of series, it gives their opponents life.

If the Celtics give the Heat an inch, they’re going to take a mile. In order words, if Boston gives Miami a chance to believe that the series is up for grabs, the Heat are going to pounce.

Miami already believes it can win the best-of-seven battle, and Boston doesn’t need to give the team any more confidence.

The Celtics had no business going to six games against the Atlanta Hawks earlier in these playoffs, and the only reason they were on the ropes against the Sixers in the second round was because they gave some winnable games away earlier in the series.

If Boston can demoralize Miami by taking a commanding lead over the first couple games of the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals, the deck is going to be stacked against the Heat in a major way.

Miami’s X factor: Caleb Martin

Caleb Martin

DA: There are plenty of players that could end up deciding the series for Miami, but ultimately, things will come down to Caleb Martin.

He contributes in just about every part of the game for the Heat, and he’s really stepped things up in the playoffs. In 11 playoff appearances this year, he’s recording 10.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game while knocking down 52.6 percent of his shots from the field and 38.6 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.

His efforts on offense are important, as he oftentimes bails the Heat out with his creativity and ability to improvise when plays are completely blown up. He’s also done a decent job of getting to the line (80.0 percent on 2.3 attempts per game).

The 27-year-old has come up big time and time again for Miami, as he continues to cement his standing as a fan favorite.

While his offensive contributions off and on the ball will be important, his defense might be more integral to Miami’s success in this series.

Miami needs to find ways to slow down Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Butler could start off on Brown while Adebayo draws the assignment on Tatum. However, the Heat will need to find ways to keep their stars fresh for offense. That’s where Martin comes in from the bench.

The fifth-year pro is more than capable of covering either Tatum or Brown on any given night. Martin slowing either one of those two down while producing more of the same on offense might just make the difference for the Heat.

Boston’s X factor: Al Horford

Al Horford

JS: Nobody knows better than Al Horford that time is running out on his dreams of winning an NBA title. If it’s going to happen, it needs to happen soon, and this year is as good of an opportunity as any.

For that reason, it’s fitting that he’s going to have a major hand in whether or not his team goes the distance this season. Horford is Boston’s X factor in this series — and to be more specific, it’s his 3-point shooting that’s going to help determine which team advances.

Horford did a phenomenal job defending Joel Embiid during Boston’s series against Philadelphia, holding the superstar to 38.8 percent shooting from the field as his primary defender. However, the Celtics veteran struggled on the offensive end, particularly from beyond the arc.

Despite shooting 44.6 percent from deep during the regular season, Horford knocked down just 27.5 percent of his triples during the series against the Sixers.

This is perhaps an unconventional way of looking at the importance of a player’s 3-point shooting, but here’s how many more points the Celtics would have scored in each of their seven games against the Sixers had Horford made his 3-point attempts at his regular season clip of 44.6 percent:

  • Game 1: 2.4 more points
  • Game 2: 7.7 more points
  • Game 3: N/A (he shot better than his regular season percentage in this game)
  • Game 4: 3.4 more points
  • Game 5: 9.4 more points
  • Game 6: 2.7 more points
  • Game 7: 0.7 more points

Some of those numbers are small, and some are large. But all of them are crucial enough to make or break the result of a game.

Horford needs to knock down his 3-pointers against the Heat and start looking like the lethal shooter he was during the 2022-23 regular season again.

Series predictions

DA: It feels wrong to pick against the Heat despite them being viewed as underdogs. They thrive in that type of scenario and have won two playoff series so far this year that way. Butler is pretty confident in his team’s chances to win it all this year, and with a leader like him, anything is possible.

While some might think there’s a bit of an overreliance on Butler, there are plenty of Heat players that are more than capable of stepping up when the lights are the brightest.

Veterans like Love and Kyle Lowry have championship experience and will be heavily relied upon to give the Heat some solid minutes.

There seems to be no doubt that Boston has more talent overall, but it has had some interesting lapses against inferior opponents in the playoffs. The Celtics were able to escape series against the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers, but they can’t really afford to make the same types of mistakes against the Heat.

This series might be one of the closer ones the NBA world ends up seeing this year, and it truly could end up going either way. The recent time off should be good for Butler, as he seemed to still be a bit bothered by his ankle injury during the end of Miami’s series against the Knicks.

The two teams will go back and forth all series long, with neither side really taking a commanding lead. But, things will sort of be the same as last year’s playoff matchup, when road teams won the majority of games.

Miami will once again do what it’s done twice in the playoffs and shock the world by advancing to the next round by winning in seven hard-fought games.

JS: If it wasn’t already clear, the Heat have made it obvious in the 2023 postseason that you can never bet against them and feel good about it. No matter the circumstances, Miami is always going to find ways to compete.

On paper, there’s no reason the Celtics should lose this series. Boston’s roster has fewer flaws, more talent and is loaded with players who want redemption after last year’s NBA Finals.

But the games aren’t played on paper, and that’s why the next couple of weeks are going to be full of angst for both sides.

There are two ways the Celtics could lose this series. One, they beat themselves. Or two, the gap between Mazzulla and Spoelstra proves to be so significant that it makes up for the difference in talent between the teams.

One (or both) of those factors mixed with some Jimmy Butler magic could result in the Heat reaching the NBA Finals for the second time in four years. It’s an outcome that’s entirely on the table.

Unfortunately for Miami, it’s not the most likely outcome. Instead, the Celtics will likely ride their superstars to a gritty series victory in six or seven games.

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David is a Miami native and University of Maryland graduate with experience in writing, editing and video production. He is a proud contributor of Heat Nation.