Heat vs. Celtics series preview, best bet

Brian Babineau / National Basketball Association / Getty

The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was in the 2020 bubble when the Heat ousted the Celtics in six games to extend Boston's semifinal woes. Will we see the same result this time around, or will the lower-seeded favorites exact their revenge?

Here's our preview and best bet for this series, with odds courtesy of theScore Bet:

No. 1 Heat (+135) vs. No. 2 Celtics (-165)

Heat 61-32 53-39-1 1-2 +4.5 (6th) +1.5 (-130)
Celtics 59-34 51-39-3 2-1 +7.4 (2nd) -1.5 (+105)

The Celtics have already vanquished the preseason favorite Nets and the defending champion Bucks. Their reward? A rematch with the top-seeded Heat, who look every bit as dangerous as the 2020 squad that bounced Boston in the conference finals en route to the NBA Finals.

Miami has followed a similar formula to the one that carried the team in the bubble two years ago: Jimmy Butler has been ultra-efficient, posting playoff career highs in scoring (28.7) and field-goal percentage (52.5%) with a league-leading 2.1 steals. Running mate Bam Adebayo (14.6 PPG, 59.4%) anchors a defense allowing just 97.5 points per game in the postseason - including 38.2 PPG in the paint - while the Heat's array of scrap-heap shooters have provided just enough juice to complement those two stars.

The Heat will face their stiffest test by far against these Celtics. Boston ended the campaign on a 28-7 run and outscored teams by a whopping 15.5 points per 100 possessions - more than triple the mark Miami set (plus-4.5) over the same period - while boasting the NBA's top offensive (120.2) and defensive rating (104.8) in that stretch.

We've seen Boston's defense flex its muscles this postseason, forcing All-NBA stars Kevin Durant (38.6%) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (45.7%) into some of the least efficient shooting numbers of their respective playoff careers. But the biggest revelation has been the rise of Jayson Tatum, who torched the Bucks' defense with 12 triples in the final two games of that series.

That metric is easily the biggest concern for the Heat ahead of this series: How do they stop the Celtics' assault from deep? In the conference semifinals, Milwaukee took away the paint and dared Boston's lesser shooters to sink wide-open 3-pointers to beat them. It was an entirely predictable strategy - the Bucks allowed opponents to take 44.8% of their attempts from beyond the arc, ranking second among all teams in the regular season.

The top-ranked team? The Heat, who ceded 45.6% of opposing shot attempts from deep while boasting among the stingiest paint defenses. That worked against the 76ers, who couldn't generate enough offense beyond Joel Embiid, but that's a risky approach against a Celtics unit that just drained 39-of-98 threes (39.8%) in a pair of elimination games to advance to this spot.

Conversely, Miami owns the lowest isolation rate (5.4%) of any of the 16 postseason clubs, instead relying heavily on pick-and-roll looks and off-ball movement from its array of capable shooters. That may need to change in this series, as the Celtics switch far more than any side in the field and are stocked with capable defenders at every position. That leaves few mismatches for Butler to attack one-on-one - and little room for the Heat's shooting specialists to capitalize on open looks.

Boston's depth was on full display in Game 7 when Grant Williams scored a career-high 27 points in a spot start, and backup point guard Payton Pritchard (14 points) hit a few big threes to put the game away. That depth will be tested with Marcus Smart (foot) and Robert Williams (knee) batting injury, but opposing second units have thoroughly outplayed the Heat - and that's even with Tyler Herro, fresh off winning Sixth Man of the Year, at their disposal.

Miami has proven its championship mettle in recent years and is capable of pulling off the upset here, especially if Adebayo can exert his will offensively against a versatile but undersized Boston frontcourt. And if the Celtics' shooters go cold, they'll beat themselves. Still, that's a big "if" after what we've seen through two rounds, and this is still too generous of a price for a team that has been the NBA's best for the better part of four months.

Best bet: Celtics -165

C Jackson Cowart is a sports betting writer at theScore. You can follow him on Twitter (@CJacksonCowart) or email him at cjackson.cowart@thescore.com.

Heat vs. Celtics series preview, best bet
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