When the Celtics arrived in Orlando for the NBA’s restart, they probably thought that any route to the Finals would go through Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Milwaukee had the league’s best record and its MVP, and it was determined to make up for last year’s loss in the conference finals.
But once the Suns improbably went 8-0 in the seeding games, it became clear that expectations and realities should all be altered in the bubble. The Heat swept the Pacers in the opening round and then crushed the Bucks in five games in the conference semifinals, with Antetokounmpo missing the final one with an ankle injury.
The Celtics beat the Raptors, 92-87, in Game 7 on Friday night to advance to face the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Game 1 will tip off on Tuesday. The Heat will be entering the series on a week’s rest, having wrapped up its series against Milwaukee earlier this week.
While Miami is playing as well as any team, there is little doubt that this is a favorable path for the Celtics. These teams met twice in the regular season, with Boston winning both times despite missing key personnel. On Dec. 4, Boston grabbed a 112-93 win without Gordon Hayward or Marcus Smart — the Heat did not have Goran Dragic — and on Jan. 28 it took a 109-101 victory despite the absence of Jayson Tatum.
But the bubble Heat are a new team, and the Celtics saw that up close. In an Aug. 4 seeding game, Miami defeated the Celtics, 112-106, with Hayward and Jaylen Brown combining to go 0 for 10 on 3-pointers and Smart limited to 15 minutes due to foul trouble.
Since the regular-season matchups Miami acquired former Celtic Jae Crowder and veteran forward Andre Iguodala, bolstering its defensive presence. The Heat are the only Eastern Conference team that ranks in the top five in both offense and defense during the postseason.
Six Miami players are averaging double figures in scoring, led by Jimmy Butler, who is tallying 21.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game. Miami thrives when it surrounds Butler with 3-point marksmen he can spray passes to when defenses overload on him. It is shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc while attempting 37.1 threes per game.
Miami’s Bam Adebayo took 18 free throws when these teams met last month and has established himself as an elite defender and a true All-Star. But he is just 6 feet 9 inches, and he is flanked by 6-6 wings, giving Boston at least a bit of a respite after going against the long, massive front lines of the 76ers and Raptors in the first two series.
Former Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk has a complementary role on this Miami team, in large part due to the emergences of Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. But he has been effective in the postseason, with Miami outscoring opponents by 20.5 points per 100 possessions with Olynyk on the floor.