Surviving the Miami Vice

The term Miami Vice is usually a reference to a 1980’s television drama and the associated aesthetic of the time. In the context of the Miami Heat, vice discourse typically exists in the context of the team’s undeniably cool alternate jerseys (at least the black version qualifies as such).

But if you would indulge me in a bit of double entendre, I’d like to direct your thoughts to another vice: the simple tool that uses moveable jaws to hold objects in place. Most vices use a cranking mechanism to slowly and very strongly apply pressure to whatever exists inside their grasp.

It just so happens that a vice is actually an excellent analogy for the way the Heat play basketball. They overwhelm opponents with sustained competence. Every little mistake seems to result in crushing pain.

Give up a soft switch and leave the wrong defender on Jimmy Butler, and he’s feasting in isolation or drawing attention that leads to an endless series of driving and kicking until Miami finds an open three. Confuse your scheme away from the ball for just a moment and Max Strus is draining a three. Oh, you took a breath after defending Kyle Lowry or Gabe Vincent for 10 straight seconds. Look at that: they’re relocating for an open shot.

The same unrelenting style of play applies to the Heat’s defense.

Hesitate for just a second against the zone defense they threw at you and they’ll simply take the ball and start a fastbreak. Dribble for too long and the pressure they apply will swallow up even very good individual scorers, forcing clunkers with great frequency.

Even if you manage to navigate Miami’s intense ball pressure and aggressive help well enough to hunt out an open shot, its usually taken by someone the Heat have deprioritized in an area they’re comfortable surrendering.

Miami is incredible in its ability to consistently play with force, make smart decisions, and punish its opponents for making mistakes. The Boston Celtics learned that lesson the hard way through three straight losses to open the Eastern Conference Finals.

Imagine Boston as a soda can in that vice grip we talked about. It’s structural integrity can hold for a while, but now let’s add a small dent to that can then another and another. Before long, the vice will have turn the can into a crumpled piece of scrap metal. That’s what the Heat have done to the Celtics.

They’ve applied constant pressure, making right decision after right decision and letting Boston’s miscues slowly crush them into defeat. At least for the first three games that’s what Miami did.

The Celtics have emerged victorious in two consecutive contests. The secret to their success? Breaking the vice itself.

The Heat win when they can dictate terms, which they usually do through a combination of aggressiveness, physicality, and psychotic competitiveness (plus a dash of basketball superheroism from Butler). They force opponents into getting into their vice and then crush them slowly.

In its two victories, Boston has responded with an intensity and focus that’s put Miami on its backfoot. The Celtics have picked up their pressure and started acing switches off the ball that had previously been leaving the wrong people wide open.

As a result, they’ve forced the Heat into 16.0 turnovers per game, as compared to just 12.0 in the team’s wins. Boston has simultaneously cut down on its own giveaways, trimming their turnovers from 15.0 in losses to 10.0 per game in victories.

That’s not just resisting the vice. It’s jamming the crank so the vice can’t work in the first place.

Offensively, the Celtics ability to operate outside the conditions that Miami prefers has really come down to making shots (a bit reductive, but still true). There is nuance behind why Boston is canning more triples. It’s better figured out the Heat’s zone defense and for playing with greater precision and purpose attacking the basket and maintaining advantages.

But the primary point remains: making threes is good; missing threes is bad.

The Celtics got lots of good looks early in the series, too. They just couldn’t get them to fall. Boston is a nightmare to defend when its threes are dropping and there may be no greater microcosm for why Celtics fans should have a bit of hope despite the massive deficit that the team is trying to come back from.

The playoff version of the Heat play more consistently close to the best version of themselves than the Celtics do, and really, pretty much anyone in the league. The vice works because Miami has a high floor. But there is a level of play that Boston can reach and has reached over the last two games that the Heat can’t match. The number of threes they make has been a decent barometer for whether or not they’re hitting it.

The Celtics are attempting to pull off the impossible, coming back from a 0-3 hole in the Eastern Conference Finals is an insane task. But maybe, just maybe they can do it. Boston is a tidal wave when its firing on all cylinders at both ends. No vice can stop that.

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