The Celtics were hopeful that they’d be able to spend Saturday resting and recovering and starting to plan for an NBA Finals matchup against the Warriors. Instead, they were back on a flight to Miami for the third time in the last two weeks, forced to keep their season alive in Game 7 on Sunday night after failing to finish off the Heat at home in Game 6.
“We’ve been a resilient group, overcome a lot of things this year,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Just in general nothing has been easy, and that’s just how the season has gone. It’s almost like we have to take the harder route at times and put ourselves in that situation due to some of the things we’ve done in this series.”
The Celtics advanced to these conference finals after toppling the Bucks in Game 7 during the last round. They’ve once again left themselves no margin for error. Here are seven things to watch in this latest win-or-go-home matchup.
When the Celtics have won during these playoffs, they’ve won big. Their last seven wins have come by 8 points or more, including romps by 25 and 20 points in this series against Miami.
But when games actually get close, the results have been less encouraging. Boston has played seven playoff games in which the score was within 5 points in the final three minutes, and it’s been outscored by 29.4 points per 100 possessions in these situations. It has also turned over the ball more than 20 percent of the time during these moments. It’s a small sample size, but the Celtics have to show they’re prepared to thrive in the clutch.
Freeing up Tatum and Brown
Miami’s defense continues to swarm Jayson Tatum and, to a lesser extent, Jaylen Brown. This is nothing new. Udoka has encouraged both players to make the right reads out of double teams early in games so that the secondary options can put pressure on the Heat’s defense and create openings for the two stars later in the game, when they are needed most.
But that approach failed in Game 6, when the rest of the team combined to go 3 for 18 in the first half. That allowed the Heat to feel comfortable smothering Tatum and Brown in the second, and the duo attempted a total of just seven shots after halftime. That just won’t work.
“Miami, that was their job, to try to take it out of their hands,” Udoka said. “Derrick [White] had it going a little bit, but we always want to stay aggressive and make the right play. At the same time, they are our scorers, they’re our leading scorers, and obviously in the fourth quarter, we need them to bring it home. So we’ve got to do a better job finding them, getting them the ball and putting them in spots knowing how the defense is guarding them.”
A fast start
In general, rowdy playoff crowds can provide a boost at the start of a game. But if things go sour, that edge can be negated quite quickly. During this series, home-court advantage has been virtually nonexistent, particularly early in games.
The Celtics have a minus-15.2 first-quarter net rating during their three home games, and a plus-15.5 mark in the three games in Miami. That’s one of the reasons the prospect of playing Game 7 on the road, a historically daunting task, does not seem so crushing.
“We’d like to get off to better starts, put some pressure on the opponent when they’re in that situation, similar to what we did against Milwaukee in Game 7,” Udoka said. “That’s our mind-set coming in. Obviously going into [Miami] we want to start better. We have confidence in going down there winning, too, but we have to get ourselves off to better starts, get ourselves easy baskets and not give them life early in the game.”
Miami had been undefeated at home during these playoffs entering this series, but it is 1-2 against Boston.
The Herro factor
Heat guard Tyler Herro, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, has missed three games in a row because of a strained groin. Coach Erik Spoelstra said prior to Game 6 that Herro has shown improvement but was still not ready to play. His status for Game 7 is unclear.
The absence of Herro, who is second on the Heat in points and assists per game, was glaring in Miami’s losses in Games 4 and 5, when the offense had no flow. But the Heat connected on 15 3-pointers in Game 6, and even if Herro is ready to return Sunday, it’s unlikely he would be fully healthy. The momentum of the Game 6 win combined with uncertainty about Herro’s health could give Spoelstra some reluctance about throwing him into his team’s biggest game of the year.
Derrick White’s impact
Although White has been valuable to the Celtics in many ways, his confidence as a scorer has appeared shaken at times since he was acquired from the Spurs in February. But his fourth quarter Friday night was his finest as a Celtic. He scored 11 of his 22 points and led a comeback that eventually fizzled. Momentum has shifted suddenly in these playoffs, both for teams and players, but if White can carry some of those good vibes into Game 7, it could be a difference-maker.
Jimmy Butler has been slowed by a knee issue during these playoffs and Kyle Lowry has dealt with a nagging hamstring injury. Both players were excellent in Game 6, but Butler played 46 minutes and Lowry played 37. It’ll be worth monitoring how they bounce back after those heavy workloads at the end of a long series. The Celtics should have an edge here.
Celtics guard Payton Pritchard has been held scoreless over a total of just 10 minutes over the last two games after pouring in 10 3-pointers over the first four. Miami guard Duncan Robinson was scoreless in five minutes in Game 6 after drilling seven 3-pointers over the previous two games — although some came in garbage time. Regardless, one hot streak by a role player can completely tip the scales in a Game 7. These are two prime candidates.