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Boston goes into Friday night with a 3-2 lead over Miami in what’s been an injury-riddled and offensively-challenged series for both sides. Here are three stats to explain the current situation.
That is the Heat’s cumulative three-point percentage across five games, and it’s the story of the series. They led the league in long-ball percentage during the regular season at 37.9%.
Boston has done a tremendous job of challenging Heat shooters, particularly in the corners, where Miami normally feasts. They’ve even had some stone-cold blocks on Miami players who thought they had a clean look:
The Heat should be grateful that Robert Williams missed Game 3. Look how high he gets to block this Gabe Vincent shot:
The Celtics’ defensive gameplan of playing “drop” pick-and-roll coverage on Jimmy and Bam (instead of switching, having the screener’s man sink into the paint to prevent a drive) and hugging Miami’s other shooters has worked to a T.
As we’ll see in this next stat, Miami has also missed the few open looks that they have generated.
2/23 vs. 10/21
In Miami’s three losses, starter Max Strus has shot 2/23 from the field (and 2/18 from three). That includes a 0-16 performance in Games 4 and 5. With Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler’s complete inability to score, the Heat offense has had zero oomph against the vicious Boston defense.
In the Heat’s two wins, Strus has shot 10/21 overall and 7/15 from deep. Not hot enough to fry an egg, but solid percentages that have been vital to an injury-riddled Heat lineup that hasn’t gotten much scoring from anywhere else.
Strus had, by my count, at least four wide-open looks from three in Game 5. This shot has to go in:
Or at least this one:
Strus and Duncan Robinson have had some success pump-faking and driving towards the rim, but Boston has been happy to let them do so, knowing they’re not advanced enough playmakers or finishers to punish the Celtics. Here’s the video of that incredible Robert Williams block from above:
It’s actually a nice action from the Heat. Duncan goes in aggressively around the Bam screen, makes the right read, and passes to Vincent, who would’ve gotten that shot off against basically any other defender in the league. However, this is the Conference Finals, and expectations are higher. Both the relocation from Vincent to the corner and the pass from Robinson are a little too late and a little too slow — they need more zip. Everything needs to be a quarter-second quicker to take advantage of what few cracks the Celtics have shown.
Boston has a 67% assist percentage this series, meaning that two-thirds of their baskets have been assisted by a teammate (compared to 61% in the regular season). Miami, meanwhile, only has a 54% assist percentage this series.
Boston is not a team filled with plus passers, and their best playmaker, Marcus Smart, has missed two games in this series.
But Jayson Tatum, who has been up-and-down overall throughout these five games, has quietly had consistently strong passing games, which is a massive development for Boston. He’s averaged 5.8 assists per game, up from 4.4 in the regular season, with nine assists in Game 5 alone.
He’s punishing Miami whenever they overhelp, showing off court awareness that he hasn’t always had:
To be clear, Tatum has had a lot of bad turnovers, as well. He doesn’t consistently hit guys in their shooter pocket, and he rarely makes life easier for the receiver in the way elite passers do. He’ll never be a point forward.
But for years, the Celtics have tried and failed to unlock Tatum as a playmaker. This season he’s made a mini-leap, and it’s carried through into the playoffs. They’ll take an extra turnover if it means two additional good passes, and more importantly, he’s shown he’s capable of improvement.
The Heat’s dogged defense has forced the Celtics to move the ball. Even a hampered Heat team is still difficult to score against, but Boston’s willingness to pass around for better shots has been vital to eking out just enough points to take a 3-2 lead in the series.