All season, it felt like everyone was more excited for the Western Conference Playoffs, but the Eastern Conference had two exciting series to set us up for today. We also have another Zaza Pachulia special with a Game 7. If you missed it yesterday, Drew Dinkmeyer, Andrew Wiggins and I did a deep-dive pod on the action today and on the Eastern Conference Finals overall. The highlight of my week with some great opinions, stats and a lot more. As usual with a new series starting, I went in depth for the Game 1, but didn’t add too much for Game 7 because we kind of know what to expect.
Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics (-1), 6:40 pm ET
Team Totals: Heat 104.5, Celtics 105.5
Injury News: Gordon Hayward (ankle, more below) is out, Javonte Green (knee) is doubtful, Jaylen Brown is expected to be fine after his groin issue in Game 7, and Chris Silva remains out
Heat Expected Starters: Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Bam Adebayo
Celtics Expected Starters: Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis
Season series: 2-1 Boston (Miami played in a back end of back-to-back set in all three)
Player Absences: Marcus Smart (2 games missed), Jayson Tatum (1) Goran Dragic (1), Jimmy Butler (1), Kendrick Nunn (1), Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala only played one game with Miami because of trade
Playoff Offensive Rating: Heat 4th, Celtics 7th
Playoff Defensive Rating: Heat 4th, Celtics 1st
Season Defensive Rating: Heat 12th, Celtics 4th
Season Pace: Heat 27th, Celtics 17th
Spo Quotes: He said he will rely on his young guys, and he has the veterans around to help them through the new experiences for deep playoff runs. Spo said that he can’t really draw any conclusions from the season matchups with Boston because of multiple different people missing action. He said the Heat won’t “reinvent the wheel” when asked about defensive coverages.
Stevens Quotes: He said Miami is “probably the closest team in the East that we’ve seen to the Warriors with regard to their cutting and shooting.” He said Kemba’s knee “feels great” after two rounds. He said Tyler Herro and Dragic have taken it to another level in the bubble.
*In the last round of the playoffs, coach Erik Spoelstra knew what he had to do on defense: keep Giannis Antetokounmpo away from the rim. The Celtics offer so much more diversity in their offensive attack, so Spo won’t be able to funnel possessions to inefficient players or play types. He said that he’s not sure if he’ll be using zone in the Boston series. “Our man defense has been more stable during the playoffs, so we haven’t had to use it,” he said when asked about zone. Back on Aug. 4, the Heat used a zone D for 28 possessions (Butler out for that one), so it’s something that figures to be in the mix.
*Miami slowing down the Bucks was big. Their defense was big time, and they have most of the slow lineups in the pace ranks. On the year, the Heat were 29th in the league on offense in time elapsed before shot. Plus, they allowed the longest time elapsed per shot on the year.
*Miami has been awesome on perimeter defense at 11.2 wide-open 3PA allowed in the playoffs — they’re also the lowest in makes (3.6) and 3P% (31.7), for what it’s worth. They were in the middle of the road during the year, but again their new rotation has been locked in defensively. The Celtics have only put up 21.1 catch-and-shoot attempts per game in the playoffs for the second lowest among the 16 playoff teams (Blazers). They only had 22.7 in the Raptors series after the Raptors gave up a whopping 37.3 in their first series against the Nets.
*Boston’s interior defense has been ridiculous in the playoffs, keeping their opponents to 55.9% at the rim. That’s on par with the league-leading 55.2% from the Bucks on the season. The Heat and Celtics are both in the top three for at-rim shots allowed per game in the regular season, and they both have improved on their averages in the playoffs. Outside shooting is going to be crucial here.
*Goran Dragic had mentioned that the Heat have a little edge because Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk both played for coach Brad Stevens, but Spo kind of shot it down. Spo said that he doesn’t really care about plays for former Celtics Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley.
Celtics Player Notes
*Gordon Hayward did some non-contact, very-light drills and individual work. Coach Brad Stevens called it “good progress” on Hayward and added he thinks “he’ll play at some point in this series.” Although, don’t forget that Hayward is expected to leave the bubble for the birth of his son, so it’s hard to imagine him playing in more than two games in this series.
*After getting a tough matchup against a tough PNR defense, Kemba Walker gets another one. The Heat have been completely locked in on PNR defense, sitting at a playoff-best 0.66 points per possession (PPP) on 107 possessions. Plus, they’re also at third-lowest 12.0 possessions per game for a playoff-best 8.0 points per game. The Heat defense emphasized switching in PNR when they went to Jae Crowder in the first unit, and they were still pretty decent during the year at 15.7 PNR handler points for sixth lowest in the league. Matchup wise, we really don’t have anything on Kemba because he was mostly guarded by Kendrick Nunn (3-of-7 from field, two treys) and even Tyler Herro as the No. 2 guy (0-of-4). It’s not like the matchup is going to be much worse than what the Raptors did to Kemba with Fred VanVleet keeping him to 40.4 eFG%.
*Jayson Tatum torched Kyle Lowry in the playoffs with 33 points on a 77.1 TS%, but he didn’t fare well against OG Anunoby. Generally, Tatum has done great against the small guys per the matchup data (feel free to check it out here), but this time we know it won’t be a small on him with a combination of Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo on him. We don’t have much data on Crowder on Tatum at 4-of-7 from the field (one trey) in 25.3 partial possessions. Based on the comments from Goran Dragic, we can probably expect Tatum to be prioritized defensively. “Tatum, if you look, he’s got around (him) Kemba and Brown. He’s the leader of that team, no doubt. We need to prepare for him, but we cannot just throw out the whole defense at him and forget about other guys.” He’s going to have to shoot difficult shots, but that’s nothing new. Tatum blossomed into a terrific pull-up 3-point shooter, making 42.2% of them in the playoffs and 40.4 in the regular season (third among 59 qualifiers with 2.0 attempts per game, J.J. Redick, Paul George). The Heat can’t allow Tatum to continue to thrive from beyond the arc, so they might be forcing him to drive more. Tatum was extraordinarily efficient on drives in the 76ers series, but the Raptors did limit him a bit. It’s going to be really tough and guys will have to get their own shots, which has been an area Tatum has really improved at 61.3% of his buckets coming unassisted in the playoffs (52.9% on season).
*Duncan Robinson should be on Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart for most of his minutes, which bodes well for both. A little bit of luck involved here, but it’s interesting that the top five guys Duncan has guarded in the playoffs have turned in a 8-of-18 line from beyond the arc (even includes Justin Holiday ’s 0-of-4) against an outstanding 3-point defense from Miami. For Marcus Smart, he was already getting a team-high 3.6 wide-open 3PAs per game in the playoffs. We know the Heat should emphasize Kemba and Tatum, so Jaylen could have some additional opportunities on the offensive end. The Heat have really done well at limiting easy buckets early in the shot clock, and Jaylen is third in the playoffs in transition possessions per game (Giannis, LeBron). Jaylen has been able to use his teammates more to get shots, sitting at 68.3% assisted on his makes (60% on season).
*Daniel Theis should have every opportunity to get minutes in this series. The Heat run a lot of offense through Bam with plenty of screens to set up downhill drives, Bam roll-man buckets or extra passes to get 3-pointers. Much like the last Raptors series, it’s a tough matchup on paper for Theis, but the volume should help his playing time. Robert Williams will back him up, most likely.
*As we wait for Gordon Hayward, the other bench players likely won’t make a big impact. There could be some Grant Williams as a PF/C, and Stevens will probably throw Semi Ojeleye out there at times. There probably won’t be as much Brad Wanamaker in this series against a team that isn’t as guard dependent on creating offense.
Heat Player Notes
*Jimmy Butler was still able to be successful against a team that takes away his strengths like the Bucks. He was able to get to the line 11 times per game against the Bucks, and he lit it up the paint at 24-of-42 for 67.8% of his shots. He also only had nine mid-range shots (14.5% of shots). Butler has still not clicked as a driver at 33.3% from the field on his drives, but at least he improved in the Bucks series at 44.8% (he was the second worst in efficiency on scoring off drives in the first round, Khris Middleton). Against a fantastic defense, Jimmy’s one-man scoring style will be essential.
*This should be a good series for Bam. After going against a surprisingly effective Myles Turner down low and a Bucks defense that really likes to drop coverage, he gets a switch-happy Celtics defense. Bam had mentioned that over the weekend. “They try to do a lot of switching,” Adebayo said. “So a lot of times, a lot off dudes get cross-matched and I get that easy basket, or just being aggressive and get a foul. You just got to be real detailed.” He went to the line 7.3 times per game in the season series, and we really saw his offense take off late in the Bucks series. Bam also said he expects a lot more individual defense. “I feel like this [series] is going to be a lot of guard-your-yard time,” Adebayo said “You got help defense, but you, yourself, have to get that stop. And I feel this is what this series is going to be like, just one-on-one basketball, you’ve got to win your matchup. You’ve got to make shots tough. You’ve got to contest shots. You’ve got to make it hard for them. We know if any of those guys get in a flow, they can go off for 30-plus.” Bam is already first on the team in potential assists, and he’ll be stuffing the stat sheet in a variety of ways.
*The Bucks didn’t really feel like defending Goran Dragic as he routinely was getting uncontested looks all season. There was so much drop coverage that allowed Dragic to get some great looks. Dragic ran a lot more PNR in the playoffs at 10.1 possessions per game, which is up from 6.5 in the regular season. It’s certainly going to be a lot tougher on him after outstanding guard defense from the Celtics, and as mentioned above he has Stevens’ attention.
*We know that coach Brad Stevens is going to go after Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson when he can, and Heat players have known that since the playoffs started, including Herro. “It’s no secret who they’re going at, they’re going at me and Duncan [Robinson],” Tyler Herro said during the Pacers series. We can probably assume that the Heat will be leaning on the terrific lineup of Dragic, Herro, Jimmy, Jae and Bam, which has been the best lineup in the bubble at +38.0 in net rating (min of 31 minutes, 34 qualifiers). Herro is playing 11.3 minutes per game in the fourth quarter to lead the playoffs (min four games) and he’s played a full fourth five times. There’s no reason to think Herro will be limited early in this series.
*Duncan is a little riskier because the Celtics have so many ways to beat you. Coach Erik Spoelstra did kind of drop a hint that he could make some rotation changes, and you’d think Robinson is the most vulnerable because of his weaknesses on defense. Sure, the Heat could hide him a bit with zone coverages, but it’s a decent bet things unravel for him. Maybe we see more Andre Iguodala, Kendrick Nunn or maybe even Derrick Jones Jr. to help on defense.
*We know Jae Crowder proved himself as a lead defender on Giannis, and he’ll likely be the main guy on Jayson Tatum . However, he’s probably not going to have as much help defense to take away driving lanes because Tatum is just so good from a distance. Crowder has been consistently in the teens for his usage rate in each playoff game with one game over 20. He’s pretty much a one-trick pony with 8.3 of his 9.2 FGAs coming from behind the arc in the playoffs, and almost half of those treys are wide open (made 47.1% of them). He should close again, so there should be more minutes for him.
*There should be some opportunity for Andre Iguodala, and that would be at the expense of Robinson. Kelly Olynyk has a decent shot to get some overlap with Bam Adebayo and it could come in the minutes Jayson Tatum is off the floor. Kendrick Nunn was told he’d get minutes in the last series, but this series might be a bit tougher. Derrick Jones Jr.’s length could be helpful in this series, as well.
Matchup Helps: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Marcus Smart
Matchup Hurts: Duncan Robinson, Goran Dragic, Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter
Denver Nuggets vs. LA Clippers (-7.5), 9:00 pm ET
Team Totals: Nuggets 100, Clippers 107.5
Injury News: Will Barton and Vlatko Cancar remain out
Nuggets Expected Starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
Clippers Expected Starters: Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, Ivica Zubac
Nuggets Rotation Notes: Michael Porter Jr. played the full fourth again (for Millsap), Torrey Craig played the full fourth (for Grant)
Clippers Rotation Notes: Patrick Beverley barely played in the final 20 minutes (foul trouble), Reggie Jackson saw minutes for offense (more below), JaMychal Green saw some spot minutes at the five
Malone Quotes: He said the Nuggets won off their defense again, and it helps the offense (again). He said the third quarter is one of the best quarters he’s seen his team play in five years. He said Torrey Craig was “terrific” in Game 6, and that he Jerami Grant, Harris and Craig have been great on Kawhi. He said he loved Harris’ attacking mentality in Game 6. He said his favorite part about Jokic is when he sees an emotional Jokic, he knows the Nuggets are in a good place.
Rivers Quotes: Doc said he didn’t like the shots from the Clippers in Game 6 and didn’t put pressure on the defense (he’s usually likes the shots even in losses, for what it’s worth). Rivers said he “lost our pace” early in the game, and “that’s just not us.” He said he went with Reggie to try something new and that Reggie “has shown the ability to make shots.” He said JaMychal was terrific and he didn’t play his bad plus/minus on him. He was asked about how aware he is on lineup data, and he said he has like “a thousand coaches” and five analytics guys (this question came from someone who knows that Harrell has been getting shredded).
*Nikola Jokic has just been unstoppable as an offensive weapon. He’s sitting at 60.6 eFG% on his pullup attempts in the playoffs, which is up from 41.9 on the season and puts him in fourth in the playoffs among players with more than three attempts per game (Mike Conley, Seth Curry, Donovan Mitchell). He’s just been unbelievable in elimination games and it’s hard to bet against him from a stats standpoint. There’s not much left to say as we get ready for his 14th playoff game of 2020.
*It’s getting close to impossible to play Montrezl Harrell against Nikola Jokic, who continues to shred him with sky-high efficiency. The Clippers somehow have a -21.9 net rating in the minutes with Harrell and Jokic. Compare that to +12.9 with Zubac vs. Jokic. The Clippers may try to get more out of Zubac, and maybe more JaMychal Green. Although, Harrell will probably get out there and just have a short leash. This won’t help Lou Williams either despite how Beverley still has a minutes cap on him.
Jamal Murray had his most efficient game of the series at 73.3 TS%, but it was his lightest usage rate at 17.2. Murray was finally able to produce in the paint and had some output in fastbreak after two goose eggs in Game 4 and 5. The Nuggets figure to use MPJ down the stretch again, but the Craig minutes were a bit of a fluke after Grant struggles. Harris is set for huge minutes, assuming no foul trouble.
*We’re at Game 7, and nothing else really needs to be said about Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Marcus Morris. They’re all locked in, and Kawhi facing elimination should make him a super alpha despite how he’s struggled on pullup shooting lately.
Matchup Helps: Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Marcus Morris, Ivica Zubac
Matchup Hurts: Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams, Mason Plumlee