Celtics-Heat preview: Jayson Tatum vs. Jimmy Butler, breaking down defenses, predictions and more

If it feels like the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics are always in the Eastern Conference finals, well, there is a reason.

The Celtics have reached the conference finals four times in the last six seasons but have yet to get to the NBA Finals during that stretch. This is Miami’s seventh trip to the conference finals dating to 2011. Every time, the Heat went on to the finals, including in 2020 when it dismissed the Celtics inside the NBA’s bubble at Walt Disney World.

Will Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Al Horford finally get over the hump? Our Celtics beat writers Jay King and Jared Weiss join senior national writer Joe Vardon to break down the Eastern Conference finals below.

Who is the best player in the series? 

King: Jayson Tatum. When the Celtics met the Heat two years ago, I’m not sure that was the case. Tatum has matured since then. He’s stronger. He’s more committed to finding open teammates. The Bucks threw him off his game early in the second round, but he eventually solved their pressure defense to save the Celtics in Game 6 and set the table for them in Game 7. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are great, but Tatum just applies a different type of stress on a defense because of the way he can shoot.

Vardon: Tatum is the most talented player in this series. He’s longer than Butler and is a much better 3-point shooter. To borrow an Erik Spoelstra phrase, Tatum is definitely “ignitable.” Outside of Luka Dončić, Butler may be having the best playoffs of any individual. He’s fourth in scoring (28.7 points to Tatum’s 28.3), leads the league in steals (2.1 per), and is in the top 20 in rebounds and assists (so is Tatum). What Butler does that I am not sure Tatum can do it, or maybe can but hasn’t, is control the entire pace of the game, on both sides. Butler did that against Philadelphia, the way LeBron James used to do it (multiple times, against the Celtics), and Kawhi Leonard did in the 2019 NBA Finals. Kyle Lowry has barely played in these playoffs, so Butler is orchestrating the Heat offense, and he is a brilliant defender.

Weiss: Butler has been better than Tatum so far and maybe the best player in the postseason, but he also has faced a much easier defensive challenge while Tatum is coming off a series against an elite Bucks defense. Miami doesn’t match up quite as well and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tatum finally start tearing up the paint with efficiency again. With Kyle Lowry hurt, they don’t have enough personnel to affect Tatum’s driving tempo throughout the night the way Jrue Holiday and Wesley Matthews did. Meanwhile, Boston has four defenders who match up well with Butler and they can pressure-switch across the board on him so he can’t just waltz into the paint like he usually does. Jimmy Buckets may still be the better player in general by a hair, but Tatum should be the top dog of this series if his shot doesn’t abandon him.

Jimmy Butler. (Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)

Who is the toughest player in the series?

Vardon: I love this question because this series could easily harken back to the 90s, if the officials allow it. One of the teams was even built by Pat Riley of Schenectady! The Celtics are the NBA’s top defense and the Heat have the fourth-rated defense. Marcus Smart is the new NBA Defensive Player of the Year. P.J. Tucker drinks battery acid in the morning. Players on both sides will have to be separated, I am guessing, 3.5 times during this series. If I say Butler, does that cement him as the answer to the first question? I have a ton of respect for Smart’s game, but man does he seem to wind up on the floor a lot. I like Tucker here. Tough guy Tucker.

King: Can I say Udonis Haslem? If he doesn’t count because he probably won’t step foot on the court, this series still has so many options. Butler and Marcus Smart are both about that life. Adebayo pounds on people for fun. Kyle Lowry plays as hard as anyone. Grant Williams and Al Horford will stand their ground against any bruiser. Even the coaches would scrap if necessary. Please know that this choice was impossible, but I will pick Tucker because he looks like he could pop a basketball with his bare hands. He has never even averaged eight shots per game but will give any offensive player a hard time.

Weiss: I’ll introduce Grant Williams into the mix, just because nobody has taken as many bruises as him this postseason. He had a collision with Giannis Antetokounmpo 10 times a night that registered on the Richter scale, has become one of the better verticality contesters in the league against high-speed drivers, and he spends the rest of the game hand-checking and grappling box outs to the floor. Smart and Butler are going to be frenetic, presuming Smart is healthy, and Tucker will battle his disciple Williams to decide who gets the heavyweight belt. I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes to Williams.

Al Horford. (Brian Babineau / NBAE via Getty Images)

Who is the smartest player in the series?

King: Lowry. He finds about five different ways on each possession to tweak it in his team’s favor. Even when he’s not scoring a lot, he just finds ways to help a squad. A left hamstring injury, which limited him against Philadelphia, stands out as a major potential issue for the Heat. Gabe Vincent filled in well enough during the second round, but just doesn’t strike much of a threat. The Heat also have Victor Oladipo but will need to keep shooting around Butler and Adebayo to have a chance of scoring against this Celtics defense.

Vardon: How about Al Horford? He’s 15 seasons in, a three-time All-Star, played in 135 playoff games and been a part of three previous conference finals. He understands how to move without the ball, he’s an excellent screener, and of course a versatile defender. He was a huge factor for Boston early in the previous series against Milwaukee. I love Lowry and would agree (Lowry is an NBA champion!), but I am not sure if or when he will play in this series because of his lingering hamstring strain.

Weiss: Butler is the star who blows me away more than anyone in the East with how he reads the game. Joe mentioned his pace control earlier, which is that superstar emotional intelligence trait that separates All-Stars from champions. His kick-out reads are borderline elite, but it’s the simple plays he creates out of seemingly nothing that makes him so special and impossible to solve. He forces his way into the defense and then comfortably lives there, seeing wide-open windows through microscopic openings. Against Philly he also showed how deadly he can be as a short roller, which could really expose Boston if they get aggressive with their switches. Then, on defense, he knows his personnel better than anyone and can defend any phase of an action from point of attack to help-side digs to straight-up stuffs at the rim. There have been few players in our era who play at their own pace the way he does, and the rest of the game has to follow suit around him.

Which bench will have the better series?

Vardon: The Heat has the best bench. The Sixth Man of the Year is in Miami, in Tyler Herro and Oladipo has officially revived his career in these playoffs. That’s two bona fide, turn-a-game players who don’t start. Miami’s most prolific 3-point shooter (which is saying something – the Heat was the NBA’s top-3-point shooting team) is Duncan Robinson, and he comes off the bench. Caleb Martin has seen minutes and Dewayne Dedmon is Miami’s backup big. Not all these guys will play, especially if Lowry’s leg is right, which would mean another starter-caliber player (Vincent) comes off the bench, too. This is Miami’s biggest advantage in this series.

King: The Heat, but I don’t think the mismatch will be severe. If Robert Williams is healthy, Grant Williams could slide back into the second unit, joining Derrick White and Payton Pritchard off the Celtics bench. Herro and Oladipo should get more buckets than those guys, but Grant Williams will supply defense and shooting, White will do his all-around thing and Pritchard will space the floor whenever he’s on the court. I’m interested to see whether Spoelstra relies more on Robinson than he did in the last round. He was on the outskirts of the rotation last series, but the Heat could need more shooting to stretch out Boston’s defense.

Smart’s mid-foot sprain (he’s questionable for Game 1) could impact the Celtics’ depth. If he misses time, White will likely start, leaving the backcourt behind him pretty thin. Especially given the way the bruising Butler could target Pritchard in this series, Smart’s injury could end up hurting the bench more than the starters.

Weiss: It seems pretty clear it’s Miami on paper, but then you consider Robinson’s regression to DNP city and Grant Williams returning to the bench as Jay mentioned and it gets a lot closer a lot quicker. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lowry comes off the bench if and when he eventually returns, since Vincent has been such a good fit with the starting unit. You can’t have a worse bench with Lowry being a part of it. Even still, I’ll give the nod to Miami, just because Herro has been such a great offensive player.

Who wins and why?

King: The Celtics in six. If they don’t, it’s because Spoelstra and the Heat’s physical defense found ways to tear apart Boston’s flow. That could happen. Where the Bucks big men sagged in the paint, the Heat will switch more and rough up the Celtics’ ballhandlers. Especially if Lowry is right (maybe a big if), Miami just has a long line of disrupters, plus a wizard in Spoelstra calling the shots. Butler, as Joe mentioned earlier, can really control a game. He won’t beat himself, but the Celtics are much bigger and stronger than they were two years ago, when they didn’t have enough against Miami in the bubble. They should be able to handle Butler and Adebayo better than they did back then. I don’t think the Heat will be able to consistently puncture the Celtics’ defense. Even if Smart misses time, White can handle that role, though his outside shooting will be an obvious weak link for Spoelstra to build a defensive strategy around.

Vardon: The Heat totally neutralized Trae Young in Round 1. James Harden had one good game, and Joel Embiid, playing the last four games of the second round, was limited by numerous injuries, didn’t have that dynamite, MVP-caliber game. As previously mentioned, Miami’s bench is superior, and Butler has it going. I’ll also add that Spoelstra has an absurd amount of experience on this stage, which matters on the edges. The average NBA consumer knows very little about Vincent or Max Strus, two undrafted players the Heat have turned to who have both proven to be legitimate playoff contributors. But there is something bothering me when I think about the Heat and their chances in this series. The Celtics’ top scorer is of course Tatum, and he’s on a wing. Their second-most dynamic player is Jaylen Brown, and he’s also on a wing. This is a new area for Heat opponents as far as defensive design goes. I don’t know if Miami can withstand the pressure Tatum and Brown can apply, while also having to deal with the things Horford and Robert Williams can do. Miami has also shown to be vulnerable to extended shooting slumps. The Celtics, with their defense, can cause them. This is going to be a better series than maybe some people realize, but my gut tells me Boston in six.

Weiss: What makes this series exciting from Boston’s perspective is that Miami is the next iteration of opponent completeness in the evolution of the Celtics’ playoff run. The Heat do not need to be carried by an MVP like Brooklyn and Milwaukee did, so Boston will have to do so much more than just fixate on one player and recover consistently. Miami is a deep, flexible and comprehensive juggernaut that will challenge the Celtics from all angles and force them to make adjustments that take them out of their comfort zone. Miami will blitz on defense much more often and much more effectively than the Celtics have seen before. Bud did a good job managing the series last round, but Spoelstra is the best coach in the game.  Boston has shown they have great ball movement and a couple of killers who can take over at any moment, but can they keep that up all four quarters against a team that can outshoot them? I think so, but just barely enough to beat perhaps the most polished and poised team in the league. Celtics in seven.

(Top photo of Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum: Winslow Townson / Getty Images)

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