The Celtics and Heat will play Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night. Miami leads the series, 2-1. Here are five things to watch.
Gordon Hayward was expected to have his playing time limited when he returned for Game 3 after missing more than a month with a sprained right ankle. Then he came off the bench and played 31 minutes, more than coach Brad Stevens had planned. Even though Hayward hardly filled up the stat sheet, his impact was obvious and the offense ran more smoothly. Now Hayward has had a chance to dust off the cobwebs, and he could be in for an even larger role. Look for him to once again come off the bench, but his presence and playing time will continue to shrink the rotation, especially if the Celtics remain effective with small-ball groups.
The Heat’s zone
In Games 1 and 2, Miami’s zone defense slowed the Celtics, but much of the damage was self-inflicted, with careless decisions in relatively simple situations. Boston’s zone offense was better in Game 3, but the Heat will bring it back anyway. Miami has started all three games of this series in a man-to-man defense before switching after being stuck in an early deficit. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will have some counter for Boston. He could adjust the zone — remember how Toronto used a box-and-one on Kemba Walker — or he might just opt to spring into it earlier in the game.
Enes Kanter takes heat for his inability to defend opposing big men in pick-and-roll situations, but slowing Bam Adebayo has been a teamwide issue for Boston. Miami is averaging 1.41 points per possession on Adebayo pick-and-rolls in these playoffs, the third most in the NBA among players involved in at least two per game. Keep an eye on how Boston’s perimeter players offer help from the weak side.
A power punch
Yes, the Celtics are down, 2-1, but it doesn’t really feel that way. They’ve had double-digit leads in the second half of all three games. Two of them were completely erased, but the most recent one held up. Much like in the Toronto series, when the Raptors used an improbable buzzer-beater and a double-overtime escape to make the matchup feel more even than it was, there’s a sense that the Celtics are simply the better team, despite the tense endings. If Boston seizes control early once again and soars to a win, a 2-2 series will feel considerably more lopsided than that.
Former Celtic Kelly Olynyk was having a productive postseason for the Heat before this series. Over the three games, he is 3 for 15 from the field and 1 for 8 on 3-pointers and has mostly been a nonfactor. The Heat were outscored with Olynyk on the floor in all three games, for a total of 22 points in 36 minutes. The Celtics are familiar with Olynyk’s tendencies and strengths, but Miami needs a spark from an unlikely source, and he could fit the bill.