The Celtics led by 14 early in the fourth quarter, and that should have been a big enough cushion with how well they’ve defended in these playoffs. But it wasn’t, because the Celtics stagnated offensively and allowed the Heat to score critical early-clock buckets.
> Game 2: Heat vs. Celtics, 7 ET on ESPN
Amazingly, these are the only two teams that haven’t trailed by 15 points during these playoffs, another reason to believe that this will continue to be a closely-contested series. Here are three things to watch for in Game 2:
1. All eyes on Walker, Robinson
Heading into the 2020 Eastern Conference finals, we were among those who pointed to Boston’s Marcus Smart and Miami’s Tyler Herro as potential “X factors” for their respective teams.
But once a series is underway, underperformers are the ones who get outsized attention. And one game into the Celtics-Heat showdown, the guys capable of giving more are Miami’s Duncan Robinson and Boston’s Kemba Walker.
Both had strong regular seasons to whet their teams’ appetites for the playoffs. Both have had their moments so far in the Orlando bubble, even early in the postseason. But both are sputtering.
And the first one to get on track could pull his team right along with him.
Robinson’s emergence in his second season caught rivals by surprise. Undrafted out of Michigan in 2018, signed as a two-way player, Robinson averaged 13.5 points and shot 44.6 percent on 3-pointers, starting 68 games for the Heat. He’s at 10.1 points in 10 playoff appearances, though, and his accuracy from the arc has dipped to 38.2 percent. Over Miami’s past seven games, Robinson has missed 33 of 48 3-pointers, including a 2-for-7 night in Game 1.
A possible explanation is that the Robinson scouting report is complete and good teams do not neglect him in their game plan. It didn’t help Tuesday that the Miami wing got in early foul trouble — defending without fouling is vital to the Heat’s formula — and Herro’s play has boosted the rookie as an option for some of Robinson’s minutes anyway.
“Sometimes you do all the right things and the ball doesn’t go in,” Robinson told The South Florida Sun-Sentinel Wednesday. “It requires adjustments on myself, also, to be more aggressive and also to make some.”
The Celtics similarly are searching for answers with Walker, or at least ways to shake him loose. Over their past seven games, the point guard has shot 20.4 percent on 3-pointers (10-for-49) and 38.8 percent overall. In Tuesday’s Game 1, he wasn’t having his usual success blowing by defenders, either.
Boston center Daniel Theis talked Wednesday of how teammates might help Walker.
“We got to help him [get] easy looks, especially me,” Theis said. “I’ve got to get him open more on screens when he’s got the ball, and even other guys, we’ve got to get them open.
“Something where he is off the ball, you have to set the screen for him so he’s coming off screens and maybe a catch-and-shoot 3 instead of just iso and an off-the-dribble, step-back 3. Especially in the beginning of the game. We need him out there and we need him to be aggressive.”
Walker was hardest on himself after the opener, talking about how “terrible” he played in going 1-for-9 from the arc, 6-for-19 overall, and only showing a familiar spark later in the game (10 points in the fourth quarter plus overtime).
That glimmer was enough for Celtics coach Brad Stevens to double-down on Walker. “I don’t lose any sleep over Kemba,” Stevens said. “Nobody cares more than Kemba. Nobody wants to play better. We are constantly going to the drawing board to figure out how we can make his life a little bit easier from our own perspectives. So we’ll keep riding.”
— Steve Aschburner
2. Breaking out the zone
Zone defense has seen an uptick the last couple of seasons and no team played more zone defense this season than the Heat, according to Synergy play-type tracking. And then the Heat didn’t play any zone against the Indiana Pacers or Milwaukee Bucks in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
But the Celtics struggled against multiple Toronto zones in the conference semifinals. Over seven games, Boston scored 90.3 points per 100 possessions (93 on 103) against the Raptors’ different zones and 109.2 points per 100 possessions otherwise.
So the Heat broke out their zone late in the first quarter on Tuesday, and they played it for 14 of the Celtics’ 99 possessions of Game 1.
The results were mixed, but the Celtics generally handled the zone better than they did for most of the Toronto series. They scored 16 points on those 14 zone possessions, a rate (1.14 points per possession) better than their marks from all but one game in the last round (10 points on eight zone possessions in Game 5).
A few of the empty possessions came when the Heat went to zone as the Celtics were taking the ball out of bounds with a short shot clock.* And there were a few really good looks against the zone — a wide-open corner 3, an open pull-up jumper, and another open 3 from top of the arc — that Walker just missed.
* This includes the possession in which Adebayo blocked Tatum at the end of overtime. It’s tough to distinguish whether that was a zone or the Heat switching everything, even non-screen exchanges before the inbounds pass.
Marcus Smart made a long, pull-up 3 in one of those short-clock situations, but the Celtics’ other five scores against the zone came when they were able to get into the paint via the dribble or pass.
One of those was a timely cut from Brad Wanamaker, leading to an open 3 for Tatum…
We’ll probably see more zone in this series. But Celtics were basically as efficient against zone on Tuesday as they were otherwise (98 points on 85 possessions, 1.15 per). Fourteen possessions is a small sample size, but we might not see longer zone stretches than that going forward. The Heat’s man-to-man defense is a little like a zone in that they’re switching most screens to keep the ball in front of them.
— John Schuhmann
3. Tough-to-guard SLOB
On three different occasions in Game 1, the Heat ran a sideline out-of-bounds (SLOB) play that you’ll see a few teams run (here are two examples from the Milwaukee Bucks). It’s fairly simple, with Adebayo flashing to the strong-side elbow and the inbounder (usually Jimmy Butler) getting a back screen from another guard coming up from the strong-side block.
But it forces defenses to make a tough decision in how it guards the back-screen (shooters make the best screeners) and it has a lot of options without even involving the two guys on the weak side of the floor.
Here are several examples of the play from the Heat, with the three Game 1 instances at the end:
Early in the third quarter, Walker switches the back-screen from Dragic. So Butler seals Walker under the basket, gets the entry feed from Adebayo, and drops in an easy jump hook.
Midway through overtime, Tatum wants to avoid that mismatch, so he stays attached to Butler when Jae Crowder sets the back-screen. But Walker still gets pushed into the paint and Crowder is left alone on the wing for a huge 3.
Later in OT, Walker is already guarding Butler, so Herro doesn’t bother with the back-screen and vacates the area. But before Adebayo can get the ball to Butler, Smart comes over from the weak side and rescues Walker. That causes Butler to hesitate and the Celtics force a tough 3 from Herro as the shot clock expires.
— John Schuhmann
L2M Report: Celtics relaxed after wrong call
One, however, might not have.
There was Derrick Jones Jr.’s erroneous foul on Marcus Smart before the Celtics inbounded the ball with 22 seconds left in regulation. There was Tatum’s uncalled traveling violation with 7.3 seconds left, before he launched and missed a 3-pointer at the end of that final quarter, tied 106-106. And there was a wrongly assessed foul on Goran Dragic with 32.7 seconds remaining in overtime.
The foul that Smart sold when Jones bumped into him was the result of Walker pushing the Heat player into his teammate. Because the clock hadn’t started, the Celtics got one free throw (made by Tatum) and the Celtics again got to inbound.
But that free throw tied the score at 106-106. That’s when Boston settled for Tatum’s isolation shot on its final possession — and then complained afterward that their offense had gotten too stagnant.
Had the Celtics still trailed 106-105, they almost certainly would have gone quicker, getting more action to get a closer shot or create contract to get to the line for the tie or lead. Smart’s free throw seemed to lull them, as far as objective and energy.
— Steve Aschburner