The Boston Celtics did some soul searching in Game 4. Sitting around the proverbial drum circle while incense burns (shoutout to Kyrie), they rediscovered what they’re made of. The hope is that it’s not too late, but the Miami Heat now have a large margin for error with a 3-1 lead. I expect Erik Spoelstra to do what he does best: use that margin for error to his advantage.
What I really mean is that the Miami Heat don’t have to push, they don’t have to take chances, and the probabilities are on their side, both micro and macro. In order to exploit this advantage, the Heat will likely do two things. First, I anticipate them to play defense to limit low variance offense. In other words, they will pack the paint. Second, I expect them to slow the game down when they have the ball to limit turnovers, which fueled the Celtics Game 4 win.
Limiting low variance offense
When you need to win one game out of three, the numbers are in your favor. You can afford to play the percentages and limit your risk. The Heat will do that by cutting off low variance offense. Low variance offense really means two things and they are related: shots at the rim and free throws. These are the types of shots that go in at a consistent rate and result in points more often, even if it’s not as efficient on a macro level, when you just need to win one game limiting consistency is key.
There is a lot less risk of going cold when a team scores in the paint or at the foul line, which means the Heat will likely force the Celtics to make shots for the rest of the series. They’ve already play defense this way. Going zone, shading help off corner shooters, letting Bam Adebayo ignore lesser threats and help at the rim. Expect to see this strategy in hyperdrive for the rest of the series, however long that may be.
But just because the Heat want to limit low variance offense doesn’t mean the Celtics have to let them. They will, undoubtedly, need to shoot competently from 3 for the rest of the series, but falling into the Heat’s trap and settling for the first shot that comes your way is a recipe for disaster. There are cracks in every defense, even one that’s trying to take away the rim.
Swinging the ball side-to-side, moving it quickly, and reading the help correctly will be the keys. You have to keep the Heat defense scrambling, driving against a set defense angled to stop rim attacks is a recipe for a getting your pocket picked, something we’ve seen often this series. The Celtics have too often allowed their offensive tempo slow, and it’s let the Heat defense off the hook and led to big Miami runs. The deeper into Spoelstra’s junk defense bag the Heat go, the more important it will be that the Cs don’t lose focus on offense and keep finding seems.
Tatum pushes, but rightly holds up with 4 Heat back. Al turns down a mediocre shot to initiate the offense. Tatum gets the ball in danger zone by hitting Al on the short roll. Then pass-cut-pass for 2. This is how you attack Miami. pic.twitter.com/8iDulhf8Gk
— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) May 24, 2023
That’s not to say the Celtics shouldn’t shoot threes — they absolutely must and will. When you get a look, however, you need to take it with confidence, like Grant Williams does here.
You cannot let Miami frustrate you. There will be ugly possessions, there will be turnovers, the key is not letting those mistakes compile and getting back to the correct process. Don’t let Miami force you into what they want and instead, find those gaps, and when you don’t, hope the threes fall.
Slowing the Pace
Miami has a reputation for playing fairly slow, but this series they’ve been the faster team, more willing to get out in transition. I expect them to slow things down a bit these last three games. By playing slower, Miami can limit a key component of the Celtics’ Game 4 win: turnovers. You can fuel a team’s offense by turning the ball over and it can cost you games even when the opposing team is shooting poorly. The Celtics know that lesson very well. With a 3-1 series lead, Miami can afford to play it a little safe by avoiding giving the ball away. Expect to see lower risk offense designed to make the Celtics earn every point on the other end.
If Miami is successful at limiting turnovers and grinding the pace, the Celtics still need to make concerted effort to play fast and push. Run off misses, run off makes, and run when you do get a rare turnover. Jaylen Brown hasn’t had much success in this series, but he did well in transition in Game 4.
If the Celtics play Miami’s game by allowing them to slow the pace, it will feed into the Heat defense. Runouts and semi-transition can still be generated against a team playing safe and slow, there’s just less of them, which makes the ones you do get all the more important. Jaylen Brown is the Celtics biggest threat to exploit these types of possessions and it might just be what gets him going.
All in all, the Heat are in an enviable position. Miami will undoubtedly want to increase the variance in every Cs performance by doing these two things. By packing the paint on defense, they’ll try to limit the Celtics from getting into a rhythm and keeping the pressure on with consistent scoring. On the offensive end, they’ll try to limit easy Celtics baskets with a slow tempo designed to cut down turnovers and get back on defense.
The Miami Heat have plenty of margin for error, which they will exploit by playing consistent, smart basketball. You can guarantee Erik Spoelstra and Jimmy Butler won’t let the Heat beat themselves. The Celtics have a historic task ahead of them, one that will require a bit of luck to complete, but it has to happen at some point, right?
Celtics in 7.