The Boston Celtics came into the Eastern Conference finals as betting favorites against the Miami Heat. They led by 14 points in the fourth quarter of Game 1, and by as many as 17 in the first half of Game 2. They were ahead by five points in the final five minutes of both games - but they trail the series 2-0.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra credited his team's disposition more than its schemes after Miami's 106-101 Game 2 win, and it's true the Heat have proven unflappable, resilient, and nearly impossible to put away. But there are also a bunch of tangible reasons they're giving the Celtics so many problems.
Bam Adebayo has established himself as one of the most versatile players in the NBA, and the most important player in this series. For starters, his defense is completely changing the shape of Boston's offensive attack. He can make standout plays - like his incredible, game-saving block on Jayson Tatum's dunk attempt in Game 1 - but oftentimes his mere presence is enough to make the Celtics re-think what they want to do.
In the postseason, opposing players have shot just 2-of-11 when trying to score on Adebayo one-on-one following a switch, according to Synergy. The Celtics' ball-handlers have had no success against him, and have had to ditch their comfort food (i.e. using center Daniel Theis as a screener) and change their pick-and-roll diet. Tatum has started to wave off Theis' screens and try his luck in isolation instead.
Kemba Walker, perhaps too accustomed to seeing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka in pick-and-roll coverage, keeps trying his hand at attacking Adebayo. As fleet-footed as the third-year big man is for someone his size, you'd think that one of the quickest, shiftiest guards in the league could still get the better of him in space. Nope. Walker got absolutely nothing out of the 1-5 pick-and-roll in a disastrous Game 1 performance, and while he was slightly more successful in those scenarios in Game 2, he's generally had a far easier time either going one-on-one and getting to his step-back, or attacking downhill when Adebayo is off the floor.
Even when they've avoided pulling him into the central action, the Celtics have had to deal with Adebayo as a helper. They've shot just 50% at the rim against him.
Adebayo has been almost equally impressive at the other end of the floor. In Game 1 especially, Miami's halfcourt offense subsisted on his playmaking from the elbow and the high post, cycling through a series of rapid-fire read-and-react options until something shook loose. Most often, that meant a Celtics defender jumping to the high side in anticipation of a handoff or pindown out of Miami's split action, and the Heat player then darting backdoor. As soon as that happened, Adebayo was ready, delivering passes on time and on target:
The Heat have shot 9-of-13 from 2-point range off of Adebayo's passes in the series.
In Game 2, Miami used him more as a finisher than an initiator, and that worked out just fine, too. In a torrid third quarter that completely flipped the game, he scored 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting entirely off of timely cuts and pick-and-roll dives, as the Heat turned a 13-point deficit into a seven-point lead.
Through two games, the Heat are plus-20 in Adebayo's 78 minutes on the floor, and minus-12 in his 23 minutes on the bench.
Though the Heat played more zone defense than any team in the league during the regular season, they didn't play a single possession of it through the first two rounds of the playoffs. But after watching Boston struggle against Toronto's zone in the conference semis, Miami returned to the well, zoning up for more than a third of its halfcourt defensive possessions in the series.
Boston actually had decent success against the zone in Game 1 (16 points on 16 possessions) and in the early portion of Game 2, but the Heat made some tweaks and tightened things up considerably in the second half. Time and again, the Celtics tried and failed to puncture it. All told, they scored 25 points on 32 possessions with six turnovers against the zone in Game 2, according to Synergy.
One key adjustment Miami made was amping up the pressure at the top of the zone, sending multiple bodies toward the ball, and forcing the Celtics to swing it around the perimeter rather than dribbling into space. The Heat were able to do that while recovering out to shooters, either contesting 3-pointers or running the Celtics off the arc and then immediately having another defender rotate to the nail before forcing Boston back out to the edge:
They also keyed in on Boston's attempts to pick-and-roll its way through the zone. This is how it looked in the second quarter compared to the fourth:
In the fourth-quarter play, with Walker going right rather than left, Jae Crowder was able to squeeze in and show aggressively from the wing, denying Walker a chance to stroll into the middle. That allowed Adebayo and Tyler Herro to stay home on Jaylen Brown's cut, whereas in the first play Smart had been allowed to creep undeterred from the corner into the dunker spot as all eyes were locked on Walker.
One of Boston's late-game counters was a somewhat curious decision to have Marcus Smart flash to the nail and operate in the middle of the zone - the place you'd typically have a big man who's used to being a high-post playmaker, or someone who's a threat to score from the mid-range. As the middleman, the 6-foot-3 Smart couldn't see over the defense and was reluctant to try and drive or shoot despite the ample space the Heat were affording him:
On top of that, stationing Smart at the nail rather than on the perimeter took away another 3-point shooting threat, without making use of non-spacers like Theis or Grant Williams who are perfectly capable of making reads and acting as side-to-side connectors from the middle.
Jimmy Butler has been a masterful game manager in this series. He spent most of the first two games on cruise control, seemingly preserving his energy for the stretch run - when he's simply taken over at both ends of the floor. Miami's winning formula can be boiled down to keeping the game close until crunch time and then letting Butler carry them across the finish line.
There was his power-stepping, and-one layup over Tatum that held up as the game-winner in Game 1, and before that, his go-ahead corner three with 22 seconds left in regulation.
Butler's finishing kick in Game 2 might have been even more impressive. Here's what he did in the last four minutes, which began with the Heat trailing by five and ultimately produced a 10-point swing:
Butler has recorded 12 deflections in the series. Nobody else has more than seven. In 15 minutes of crunch time, he's put up 12 points on eight shooting possessions, two rebounds, two assists, three steals, and just one turnover. The Heat have outscored the Celtics by 16 in those 15 minutes.
Goran Dragic's game seems to be trending in inverse correlation with the color of his hair. After appearing to be on the downswing for the last two seasons while battling injuries and inconsistency, the graying 34-year-old is playing some of the best basketball of his career in the bubble. He's been the best point guard in the conference finals so far, and it hasn't been particularly close. He's averaging a series-high 27 points on 66.4% true shooting.
On top of his dead-eyed 3-point accuracy (6-of-13 from deep) and incredible finishing at the rim (10-of-13 in the restricted area), Dragic has been able to collapse the Celtics' defense time and again with his explosiveness off the dribble. He's roasted Theis on switches and found creases to get downhill coming off of screens, creating all kinds of looks for his teammates in the process.
One of the primary ways he's attacked is by taking over the left sideline. The Celtics have tried to force him away from the middle of the floor, even when that means shading him toward his strong hand, and he's taken advantage by turning the corner and drawing help at the rim on the drive:
But a lot of it's just been good old-fashioned shot-making. Down the stretch of Game 2, he drew a pair of free throws to give the Heat the lead, and followed that up with a pair of nasty step-back jumpers, including a dagger three over Theis to beat the shot clock and put Miami up five with just over 90 seconds to play.
It's enough to make you forget the Heat actually tried to deal Dragic to Dallas in the offseason as they tried to work out a three-team trade for Butler. They should thank their lucky stars the Mavericks said no.
Walker works hard on defense, and there have been plenty of times this series when the Celtics have managed just fine with him switching onto bigger players. But the Heat have mostly been productive when Butler has hunted Walker, whether that's meant scoring on him directly or opening things up elsewhere due to Boston's reluctance to concede the switch.
On the first play below, Butler sets a back screen for Dragic, and rather than switch, Brown directs Walker to fight through and stick with Dragic, which results in an easy two. On the second play, the Heat run a sideline out-of-bounds action they'd run earlier in the game, which had resulted in a Butler layup when the Celtics switched and he sealed Walker under the basket. This time, Tatum tries to stick with Butler to avoid the same fate, but Butler still manages to drag Walker with him, leaving Crowder wide-open above the break for three:
Boston has done a pretty good job of rescuing Walker from bad matchups with scram switches, but the Heat are going to keep targeting him and forcing the Celtics to either scramble or live with the mismatch. They can also do what they did in the third quarter of Game 2, which is just put Walker in the pick-and-roll repeatedly. In that disastrous frame, Walker continually found himself behind the play after the initial screen, leaving his big man to play one-on-two.
The Heat have done plenty to make Boston uncomfortable, but the Celtics have also shot themselves in the foot more than a few times.
Let's start with their third quarter on Thursday night, in which they surrendered 37 points thanks largely to some awful pick-and-roll coverage:
Some of those breakdowns happened because Walker tried to chase over the top, while Theis treated the play more as a switch. In general, Boston's bigs overcommitted to the ball-handler, and no help arrived behind them when they stepped to the ball. The reason nobody came to tag Adebayo from the weak-side corner is that it was mostly occupied by Duncan Robinson, whom you simply can't abandon.
Still, there were at least a couple occasions in which a defender on the back end could've disrupted the roll. Smart should've abandoned Butler in the corner on the first play, and Tatum should've stepped up sooner on the second while guarding Butler in the dunker spot.
The Celtics also could've responded a bit sooner by downsizing and switching those actions, which is the unsolicited advice Draymond Green offered on Twitter:
The Celtics ultimately adopted that tactic in the fourth quarter and held the Heat to just 22 points.
There have been other head-scratching miscues, like Theis' decision to go at Adebayo one-on-one, Tatum's questionable shot selection down the stretch of both games, Brown getting back-cut while napping off-ball, and the Celtics playing a drop coverage against Robinson for basically the entirety of Game 2, allowing him to step into a three any time his defender lost track of him, which turned out to be six times.
The Celtics' inability to work their way inside late in Game 2 was particularly frustrating because they were in the bonus for the final 8:31 of the fourth quarter. After the Heat committed their fifth foul, Boston shot just two free throws. The Celtics also committed 20 turnovers and conceded 11 offensive rebounds. The Heat haven't looked any of those gift horses in the mouth - they've punished Boston's every mistake.
The Celtics can be way better. They can avoid the kind of defensive breakdowns they suffered in the third quarter of Game 2, and be more prepared with counters for Miami's zone. It's not like they're getting badly outplayed as it is - they've led for more of the series than they've trailed. And for what it's worth, each of the last two East champs have come back from 2-0 down to advance. All is not lost.
But the the Celtics' margin for error has evaporated. The Heat are already doing enough to hurt them; they can't afford to keep compounding the damage by hurting themselves.
Joe Wolfond is a features writer for theScore.