Who will be the best player as Celtics face Heat? 5 crucial questions for Eastern Conference Finals

The Celtics and Heat tip off at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

Celtics Heat
Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler drives to the basket against Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

When the Celtics played the Heat on March 30 in a hard-fought, crucial game for seeding, ESPN announcer Mike Been was prescient on the play-by-play call. 

“Well, how much fun would a playoff series be between these two?” Breen enthused late in the third quarter. “A long ways to go before we think about that, though.”

The wait is over, Mike. The series is here. The Celtics and Heat will battle for a trip to the NBA Finals — a rematch of the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals in the Disney World Bubble.

Here are five questions about the series that need answering. 


Who will be the best player?

If the answer to this question is obvious and Jayson Tatum is head-and-shoulders above everyone else — or if Jaylen Brown, who is quietly averaging playoff career-highs in both points and assists, goes on a tear — the Celtics are in great shape.

But Bam Adebayo has given the Celtics fits before, and he does so in an incredibly damaging way. The Heat run much of their offense through him — circling shooters and cutters around him at the top of the key. Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, and Max Strus are all among the league’s highest-usage hand-off options, particularly during the playoffs, and Adebayo scores 1.03 points per possession as the pick-and-roll roll man.

Al Horford noted Adebayo’s versatility on Monday.

“Just can do a little bit of everything on the floor,” Horford said. “Great passer, really good instincts, finishes well around the basket. Just a really great player.”

Jimmy Butler, meanwhile, is averaging 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game in the playoffs while defending at a high level. He is yet to face a defense as staunch as the Celtics, but he has been a two-way force worthy of a late-season push.

What role will health play?


Kyle Lowry has struggled with a hamstring issue throughout the playoffs and will miss Game 1. Marcus Smart is questionable with a right mid-foot sprain. Robert Williams is back, but Tuesday will be his first game on the floor.

“I’m always going to be a little bit cautious with guys coming off a layoff without touching the court, but it’s a little bit different starting a new series as opposed to being injected into a Game 7 or Game 6 or whatever the case was before,” Udoka said.

The Heat are rested, and the Celtics are coming off one of the more bruising playoff series’ in recent memory — beating Giannis Antetokounmpo comes at a price.

Inevitably, health plays a role in any playoff series. Here’s hoping in this one, the health storylines are minimal.

How much of a shock to the system will the Heat be?

Udoka noted that the Celtics were shocked by the Bucks in Game 1 — turning the ball over and looking rattled against Antetokounmpo’s physicality. As the series wore on, the Celtics adjusted quickly.

“That initial moment of change, I don’t think we handled it the best against Milwaukee, and we want to do obviously a better job coming into Game 1 here tomorrow,” Udoka said. “So something we are very conscious of and talked about.”


The Celtics have now run out of teams against whom they will have home-court advantage. Stealing the first one on Tuesday would be a big boost.

Can a 2-3 zone fluster the Celtics?

The Heat have traditionally been one of the best teams in the NBA at running a zone defense, but there are plenty of advantages that can be created, and the Celtics might be well-suited to create them. For instance, the Heat have a tendency to help out of the corners with their more athletic defenders, but the Celtics can fill the corners with players like Grant Williams — the hero of Game 7. Meanwhile, spread pick-and-roll sets against a 2-3 zone can create slots for shooters, so if the Celtics put several shooters on one side, they might reliably be able to get really comfortable looks.

The Heat allow a lot of 3-pointers — fourth most in the NBA per game — but that’s partly because their zone seems to cause fits even for shooters. Opponents shot just 33.9 percent behind the arc — second only to the Celtics league-wide.

That’s a long way of saying something any rec league player could tell you: If you can hit 3s, you can break a zone. Still, watching two NBA contenders try to execute that simple concept will be much more entertaining.

“I felt we found our groove later in the year against it, where teams that tried it scored pretty easily and got out of it,” Udoka said. “So we have multiple sets we love to run against zones, and for us getting clean looks is sometimes differentiated between making and missing a wide open shot and they feel that’s a good possession for them, and if you make it they get out of the zone. So it’s something we’ll prepare for.”


Who will be the better coach?

From a narrative perspective, you can’t ask for a better coaching showdown: Eric Spoelstra — one of the best coaches of the last decade — against Udoka, who is one of the most promising young coaches in the league. Udoka keeps out-coaching much more experienced counterparts, but Spoelstra has built a monster of a system in Miami. This will be a proving ground moment for Udoka, who probably deserved more Coach of the Year buzz than he got (he finished fourth, Spoelstra finished third).

“One of the best coaches in the league, in my opinion,” Udoka said, when asked about Spoelstra. “It’ll be a task for us because he has his team well-prepared, hard fought, Heat Culture, and mentality.”

The series tips off on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN.


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