A lot has changed since October 26th. Our focus, however, has not. It’s the Miami Heat taking on the Boston Celtics. This time, though, it matters. While these probably aren’t the rosters we expected, it’s what we’ve got to work with, so let’s dig in.
It’s hard to determine what the four regular season meetings mean. They did happen, but they were played with different rosters at very different points in the year. The two early matchups featured a Miami team in its infancy phase. The third game saw big minutes given to Kendrick Perkins and Mike Miller. The final game looked as though the Celtics were going through the late season motions. The final game may be the most telling because it featured the rosters we’ll see in this series.
Heat on Offense
After 87 games, Synergy Sports has the Miami Heat ranked as the top offense in the NBA, putting up .99 points per possession. While the Heat score efficiently, they do rely on individual excellence to score said points. The Heat have been the most efficient team in isolations, pick and roll ball-handler situations and in transition. Much of this can be attributed to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
However, while the Heat dominate in those areas, they are still very dependent on spot-ups. Spot-ups accounted for over 21% of the Heat’s offense in the regular season. This is a function of teams helping off of the Big Three, and Heat shooters getting open looks.
While the Heat have the top offense, and thus a big advantage over most teams, the Boston Celtics have had the best defense in the NBA allowing only .84 points per possession. Unlike the 76ers, who had glaring weaknesses, Boston is strong across the board, ranking in the top ten in every play-type. They provide a daunting challenge to the Heat.
This graph shows the Heat’s PPP in each scenario and what percentage of possessions was used by different plays. As you can see, the Heat did a few things different in game four than they did in previous three games. The Heat’s isolation game, one of its strengths this season, really improved jumping from .88 PPP to 1.20 PPP, but it only made up five of the Heat’s offensive possessions in game 4. So what really changed? The Heat really came through on spot-up opportunities. The Heat’s PPP jumped from .90 to 1.08 (season average of 1.04) while it accounted for 24.5% of the Heat’s offensive possessions. The Celtics will be happy to let the Heat settle for jumpers, so it is imperative the Heat continue to cash in on spot-up opportunities.
What has remained constant against the Celtics is the Heat’s proficiency on cuts to the basket. The Celtics play great team defense and clog passing lanes, but they are at an athletic disadvantage against the Heat. Movement off the ball will play a huge role in determining the Heat’s success in the series.
If the Heat continue to attack the basket off of cuts while knocking down their spot-up opportunities, watch out. Also of note, the Celtics do turn the ball over at a high rate. The Heat are better in transition than any team, given the chance to run, they will finish.
Heat on Defense
The Boston Celtic offense has been below average this season. They finished the season 17th in offensive efficiency according to Hoopdata.com and 19th according to Basketball-Reference.com. The offensive production tailed off as the play of Rondo did late in the season.
The Celtics do shoot the ball at a high clip, 51.9 eFG%, but turnovers doom their overall production. When holding onto the ball, the Celtics are very efficient in cuts, hand-offs and coming off of screens. The Heat are top three of the NBA in stopping each. The only true weakness of the Heat’s defense is its inability to control teams in transition. In the fourth head to head game the Heat limited the transition opportunities for the Celtics. When the Celtics did get transition opportunities, the Heat were able to stifle them holding the Celtics to .56 PPP.
Much of the Heat’s transition defense will fall on the shoulders of Dwyane Wade. In the fourth game, Wade did a fantastic job of getting back on the break and contesting Celtics’ shots. Ray Allen will pick the Heat apart in “second breaks” if Wade doesn’t get back on defense.
Also, both James and Wade have had issues handling the ball against the Celtics this year. In the first three games they combined for 34 turnovers. In the last game they had seven. That’s still too many, but fewer than the 11 (!) per game average they were exhibiting. Boston is third in the NBA in forcing turnovers. The Heat must protect the ball.
“Big Three” Matchups
So far this season, there has been one player out of the big six that hasn’t performed to a respectable level. That player is Dwyane Wade. Wade’s PPP is only .69 and is a -28 for the series. To make matters worse, Wade’s counterpart, Ray Allen, has torched the Heat. He is producing well above his season average of 1.11 PPP, putting up 1.43 PPP in the series. Wade needs to do a better job of limiting Allen’s effectiveness. While chasing someone around screens in the regular season can be frustrating and bothersome, in the postseason it is a must. I’d expect Wade’s focus and effort to be much better in the playoff series, but that’s only because it cannot get much worse.
For the most part, Chris Bosh and Kevin Garnett have played to a draw. The same goes for Pierce and James. Pierce does as good of a job as anyone guarding LeBron. Solving the Pierce puzzle would be a boon for the Heat’s superstar, but it’s not likely. James needs to be aggressive but not force matters, a balance he accomplished in round one.
Bench, Also Known as “The Joel Anthony” Effect
Much has been made about the Kendrick Perkins trade. Many blame the Celtics’ late season swoon on it, but in reality, the trade did little to change Celtics’ numbers. In my opinion, what the trade did do is allow the Heat to play its best five players on the floor for extended minutes. Instead of a steady diet of a healthy Shaq and Perk, the Heat will face Jermaine O’Neal, Nedad Krstic and maybe a gimpy Shaq. In the first scenario, the Heat would have been forced to play mainly Erick Dampier, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and limited doses of Joel Anthony. Now however, the Heat will be able to feature its smaller lineups.
With all of the attention given to Joel Anthony during the last series, you should all be aware of the defensive impact he can have on a game. Well, that effect he had on the 76ers is pretty similar to the one he has on the Celtics.
The Celtics’ offensive production drops dramatically across the board. It is important to note that these numbers include all four matchups. In the last two games against the Celtics, Joel Anthony was a +26 in 56 minutes. Dealing Perk allows the Heat to play Joel Anthony over 30 minutes a game. That probably wasn’t a concern back in March, but it may cost the Celtics the series and their postseason aspirations.
As for the rest of the bench, the Heat’s reserves have done their jobs this postseason. James Jones, Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony outperformed a Philadelphia bench that was supposed to be better and deeper. The Celtics bench on the other hand has been atrocious. Boston struggles greatly once any of their top four players step off the floor. Glen Davis has struggled, Delonte West hasn’t been able to make any shots and Jeff Green has been playing like Jeff Green (that’s not a good thing). The Celtics’ bench would be bolstered by a return of Shaq, but I remain skeptical as to whether that will ultimately happen. There is always talk of needing role players to win games in the postseason, but these teams are very reliant on production from their starters. That won’t change now.
I like the Heat to win the series, but I think it will need to be in either five or seven games. I have doubts as to whether the Miami could close the series out in Boston in a game six.
The Heat have been playing better basketball than the Celtics for a few months now, and Boston’s roster moves play to Miami’s strengths. I am a believer in efficiency and balance; the Heat have both. The Celtics struggle to score, and I don’t think two good games against a porous Knicks team change that.
I am not a believer in the mystique of this Boston team (Dwyane’s won as much as any of them), and I think their “toughness” is overstated. The Miami Heat will not be intimidated and I think they will win the series in a grueling five games. Nothing would really surprise me though, and I am very excited to find out what happens.
Get more great Heat news, recaps and analysis over at Hot Hot Hoops.
As always, feel free to contact me on Twitter @DannyMartinez4. All of the numbers came from Synergy Sports unless otherwise indicated. Also, I would like to thank @toothpicksray from Pacers blog eightpointsnineseconds.com for helping with the spider webs.