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For the first time in NBA history, the Eastern Conference Finals will not feature one of the top-two seeds. The fifth-seeded Miami Heat will take on the third-seeded Boston Celtics in what has been a very interesting playoffs to this point. Here is my take on how this conference finals will play out.
How we got here
The Celtics got here by sweeping the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, followed by winning a seven-game thriller against the defending-champion Toronto Raptors. Jayson Tatum has emerged as a star, averaging 25.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown have added offensive firepower, and Marcus Smart has been probably the best defender in the league during the playoffs. During the seeding games, the Celtics lost Gordon Hayward to injury, but he is expected to return at some point during this series.
The Heat have gotten to the conference finals by dropping only one game. They swept the Indiana Pacers in a series that was closer than the score suggests, as they pulled away in the fourth quarter of just about every game, demonstrating a certain mental toughness. In the second round, they beat the title-favored Milwaukee Bucks in five dominant games. Bam Adebayo averaged 17.2 points and 12.0 rebounds per game in the series going right at Giannis Antetokounmpo. Miami has been a well-balanced scoring team, with multiple players shooting threes at extremely high efficiency. They were the nightmare matchup for Milwaukee, and they now find themselves one step away from the NBA Finals.
The Celtics and Heat have allowed the fewest and second fewest points per game thus far in the playoffs, so this series could be a defensive battle. The Heat have been very good from beyond the arc, as this was the recipe for their success against the Bucks. To counter, the Celtics have allowed opponents to shoot only 30% from deep in the playoffs, the best mark in the league. The Celtics will be able to take away the Heat’s identity with their defense. Marcus Smart will be put on Goran Dragic, who has really been the offensive motor thus far for Miami. The only exploitable matchup the Heat have is Bam Adebayo, who has undoubtedly been great, but if you have to rely on him to produce most of your offense, you’re probably in trouble. On the other side, the Celtics have a ton of offensive weapons, and the Heat don’t quite have enough to stop them all. Especially with Hayward coming back, he may be the missing piece that gives Boston enough depth to consistently create offense in this series. I think that the Celtics will control this series similarly to how they controlled the Raptors, and win in a convincing six-game series.
The Celtics will win in six games.
Celtics 4-2: This is the favored outcome at +420. I missed last round by betting on the Celtics in six, but I also bet on Celtics in seven. They had opportunities to get it done in six, as game six went to double overtime. In this series, I think the Celtics do get it done in six, but again, I’ll sprinkle some on Celtics in seven at +440 to be safe.
Bam Adebayo over in points/rebounds: Everyone knows the Celtics biggest struggle is against opposing centers. Serge Ibaka was able to expose this a little in the last round, but Marc Gasol has been horrible since the restart and he let the Celtics off the hook. The Celtics have probably grown comfortable with not getting exposed in this way, but Bam Adebayo will not give them this benefit. He averaged 17-12 in the last series, he should be around these averages again, if not a bit higher.
Goran Dragic under in points: Dragic has been fantastic up to this point, as he has averaged 21.1 points per game in the playoffs, up five points from the regular season. How has he done it? By getting into the lane and finishing with floaters and at the rim. He’s also hit some threes, but this has not been his go-to move. In this series, he faces Marcus Smart, the best on-ball defender in the league. He is the hardest player to get by, so I don’t think Dragic will be able to get into the lane at nearly the rate he has up to this point. His point lines should stay around 20, and I think he’ll average closer to 15 in this series.