Celtics, who are in the NBA Finals, defeated Heat with a picture-perfect defense, but has that prepared them for their next Test?


Celtics, who are in the NBA Finals, defeated Heat with a picture-perfect defense, but has that prepared them for their next Test?

Six days before the Boston Celtics won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals away, they desperately needed to win Game 4 at home. Trailing 2-1 in the series, they had a disheartening defeat that saw Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler play zero minutes in the second half.

During coach Ime Udoka’s pre-game press conference last Monday, a reporter asked about an unusual statistic that had become a topic of conversation: The Celtics had lost just two quarters in three games. Udoka said the most important thing wasn’t exactly how many 12-minute periods they lost, but “to be consistent and not fall off a cliff like we did in those two quarters where our offense doesn’t flow.” . Boston had conceded 39 points in the first quarter in the third and dropped the exact same number in the first quarter of Game 3.

“More than anything, we want to keep teams in the mid-to-low 20s per quarter,” Udoka said.

That Mid to late 20s. That’s an absurd goal in the NBA by 2022. This is a league where the Oklahoma City Thunder, their worst offensive team, averaged 103.7 points per game, or about 26 points per quarter.

However, it has proven sensible for the Celtics. In their four wins against Miami, their defense allowed 26 or fewer points in 13 of 16 quarters. One of the other three came in Sunday’s 100-96 clincher — the Heat scored 32 points in the second quarter of Game 7 thanks to Butler’s brilliance and Boston, who kept sending them to the free-throw line. The other two were fourth quarters of blowout wins.

Of the 28 quarters that made up the series, Miami only managed more than 26 points nine times, including those two time-consuming periods. The Heat are also an elite defensive team, and they had chances to overcome that until the last minute, but their offense — above average in the regular season — got thunderous far too often.

“We just couldn’t control the game,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. “A lot of it was Boston. We didn’t stop crunching and ended up trying ourselves. We just couldn’t make enough games over the course of the game. It felt like we were grinding from an 8-point deficit to a 10-point deficit for most of the game.”

This is what Boston’s defense is doing. The second round against the Milwaukee Bucks was similarly suffocating: Another seven-game streak, another 19 quarters in which the Celtics conceded 26 points or fewer, another four wins in which the opposition only conceded that number three times. The Bucks averaged 99.4 points per 100 halfcourt games in the regular season, which ranked sixth in the league according to Cleaning The Glass, and only managed a terrible 81.9 per 100 on the halfcourt against Boston. (For reference point, Oklahoma City finished and the bottom-ranked Detroit Pistons the season: 88.6 per 100.)

In the Heat’s four losses in the Conference Finals, they averaged 85.2, 65.7, 58.8, and 75.9 points per 100 yard games, respectively. Just before Sunday’s tip, ESPN aired footage of Udoka in the locker room and urged the Celtics not to let Miami get easy buckets early, be disciplined, watch the ball and protect defensive glass. In the playoffs, when Boston has avoided the stupid things and forced its opponent to try to score against a seeded defense, it has always performed well whether at home or away.

In Game 7, the Celtics “hit all the goals that we wanted to hit,” Udoka said. They ended up with 13 turnovers, and only three of those resulted in a heat transition opportunity. They won the rebound fight, giving up just nine second chance points. Miami shot 6 for 30 from 3-point range. After cutting Boston’s lead to three with about 11 minutes remaining, the Heat missed nine straight shots and remained scoreless for more than four minutes.

“Defense is our identity,” said Udoka. “It was there and held us, got us through the tough times where the offensive didn’t click. Games where the offense doesn’t click at the level it should, we can always count on that. And that was the case tonight. We got big leads, shrunk it, and we continued to get stops when needed.”

With perfect defensive possession down that stretch, Miami’s Kyle Lowry spent most of the 24-second shot clock looking for an advantage, eventually giving Victor Oladipo a chance to attack the basket with a dribbling handover. However, when Oladipo took off, Al Horford was right there with him. Oladipo tried a reverse layup, but Horford blocked him with his left hand and immediately secured the rebound:

Miami got a stop after that, and then it looked like an early offensive. Bam Adebayo passed it to Butler, but when Jaylen Brown went under the screen and Horford scored a drop, Butler decided not to attack right away. Adebayo put up another screen, Butler rejected it and Brown stuck with him on his ride and then stuck with his pump fakes. This forced Butler into a desperate, heavily contested knight:

A few minutes later, the Heat conducted a touchline out-of-bounds play for Max Strus. It worked, I think, in the sense that it was able to produce a 3 pointer. But look at Tatum, switch to him, hang in there and contest the shot, and then look at how far Strus is from the basket when he gets into his shot – it’s a deep, difficult one , uncomfortable look:

Horford spoke proudly after the game of the Celtics chasing shooters around the perimeter. He said it was difficult guarding Strus and called Lowry “very cunning”. When Miami’s offense is at its best, it attacks you with a mix of mismatch hunting, transition play, movement and shooting. For much of Game 7 it felt like the only thing that worked for the Heat was Butler’s Hero Ball. For example, if Butler couldn’t create anything, possession could end up with Derrick White switching to Lowry and forcing a terrible turnaround 3:

In such a close streak, the Heat will surely wonder if the game and shooting from Tyler Herro, who played just seven minutes in Game 7 and missed the previous three games with a groin injury, could have made a difference. However, Boston would have picked him on the other end because they don’t believe in letting poor single defenders off the hook. If a good offensive player damages your defense and thereby helps the Celtics build their defense, how much does that player really help your offense? These are the kind of wacky questions Boston forces opposing teams to consider.

Throughout the playoffs, it’s been the same story for the Celtics: they’re fearsome defensively, and while they’ve had a few setbacks, slips and sloppy stretches, they tend to find themselves before it’s too late. This was true in every first-round game against the Brooklyn Nets — one of the closest shots in NBA history — and it was the case in both subsequent series.

“It’s hard to win in this league, especially in the playoffs,” Brown said. “Things could be different every night but a good team can react. A good team is able to give their best every night. There were a couple of games that we felt we got away from, and instead we carried it like luggage, we carried it like an experience badge that helped us prepare for the next game.”

For Brown, Game 7 was “the greatest test, not just of the year, but of our careers.” And now that they’ve passed, their reward is even greater. The Celtics have been the most balanced team in the NBA for months and showed against Miami that they like to win games in the mud. The Golden State Warriors are fairly balanced themselves, however, and the trio of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have previously messed up excellent defenses. The Heat have veteran improvisers in Butler and Lowry, and they try to free their shooters and go off the post, much like Warriors, but nobody does Golden State stuff with the speed, shooting, and sheer condemnation of the Golden State.

In the finals, that mid-to-late 20s goal might be absurd even for Boston. However, the way the Celtics see it, they should be stronger than ever because of what they just survived.

“Very confident going in,” said Udoka. “I know it is another difficult challenge. I think Miami will help us prepare for some of the off-ball action and the shooters that they have. But we know it’s a high-level team, an execution team that has a lot of great shooters, great players overall, guys I know well. And we’re up for the challenge.”

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