The Miami Heat were one game away from seeing their season end. Now they’re onto the Eastern Conference Finals. But the Boston Celtics stand in their way.
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The Eastern Conference Finals Preview is here. The Heat and Celtics meet starting Wednesday in a best-of-seven series to determine the NBA’s Eastern Conference champion for 2023. These two teams may best embody the story of the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
A month ago, the Heat stood one loss from seeing their season end. However, a late comeback against the Chicago Bulls earned them the No. 8 seed in the East. After upsetting top-seeded Milwaukee and outlasting the New York Knicks, Miami is the hottest team in the East.
Meanwhile, the Celtics were one loss away from ending their season as recently as Sunday. But Jayson Tatum’s historic Game 7 performance sent NBA Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid and the 76ers packing, giving the Celtics a chance to prove what many have suspected all along: that they remain the best team in the East.
Like the Western finals between the Nuggets and Lakers, this series is a rematch of the 2020 conference championship played in the ‘bubble’ during the initial COVID outbreak, and it’s the same exact matchup we had to settle the East one season ago.
Can Miami repeat their improbable run from three years ago, or will it be Boston atop the East for a second straight year?
Eastern Conference Finals: Miami Heat Preview
There’s no question that Jimmy Butler’s been the MVP of the 2023 NBA Playoffs – so far.
Butler’s 31 points led Miami to their play-in victory over Chicago to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs, but those stats don’t officially count toward playoff totals.
And that’s just fine, because a 31-point performance would actually bring DOWN Butler’s postseason average, which stands at 31.3 per game. He played the best five-game series in recent memory, submitting a 56-point game and another contest with 42 points as the Heat dispatched title favorites Milwaukee.
After missing game two vs. the Knicks with an ankle injury, Butler came back strong as the Heat eliminated New York in six games. He’s scored at least 19 points in every contest so far and represents the Heat’s best chance to pull yet another upset.
Alongside Butler are veterans Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love, looking for one more title run in their mid/late 30s. Bam Adebayo is the team’s main inside threat, while Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, and Duncan Robinson provide Miami with the chance of getting hot from three on any given night.
Shooting guard Tyler Herro went down with a hand injury in the first game of the playoffs, and his return at any point this series is questionable.
If Herro does come back, he’s one more option to add to Miami’s best chance of pulling the upset – hot shooting and an ability to frustrate teams defensively with their versatility.
That, and Butler. A couple more 40- or 50-point performances certainly wouldn’t hurt.
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Eastern Conference Finals: Boston Celtics Preview
There’s plenty to say about the Celtics’ season, between rookie coach Joe Mazzulla, Jaylen Brown’s journey to an All-NBA selection, and the season-long goal of avenging last year’s Finals loss.
But game 7 against Philadelphia established that if Boston is to accomplish their goal, it’ll be because Jayson Tatum finally ascended into superstardom.
Tatum’s 51 points on Sunday set a new record for NBA Game 7s as the Celtics authoritatively seized a back-and-forth series from their longtime rivals.
Two straight first-team All-NBA selections have Celtics fans wondering when Tatum will enter the perennial MVP conversation with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid. For now, however, they’ll settle for Tatum making up half of the NBA’s best 1-2 perimeter duo with Brown.
Marcus Smart provides the defensive energy for Boston, and his 16 points per game added to the streaky shooting of Malcolm Brogdon forces opponents to pick their poison if they double Tatum? Philadelphia didn’t, and it was their undoing.
Tatum struggled in games 4 and 5 against Philadelphia but heated up in the fourth quarter of game 6 before his historic Game 7. When he drives aggressively to the hoop on offense, it opens up all kinds of options for the rest of the Celtics shooters.
On the inside, Robert Williams seems consistently on the verge of a breakout, while Al Horford brings just enough to the stat sheet to make him more than a valuable locker room presence.
The X Factor: Coaching
If Butler comes back to Earth, this represents Miami’s next-best chance to come away on top.
In 15 years leading the Heat, Erik Spoelstra’s been to the NBA Finals five times, winning two titles. Maybe it’s because he coached LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but Spoelstra’s consistent excellence seems to be taken for granted as too many experts forget his name when discussing the NBA’s top bosses.
For my money, as the San Antonio Spurs and Gregg Popovich continue to fade Spoelstra’s become the league most consistent winner. Year in and year out he seems to get the most out of an ever-changing cast of characters in Miami, finding a way to keep the Heat competitive regardless of matchups or odds.
Boston’s Joe Mazzulla may be blessed with the NBA’s deepest roster, but questions of consistency, interest, and the remnants of Ime Udoka’s unceremonious dismissal made for a sometimes rocky first year in Boston.
Mazzulla was promoted from interim to full-time coach on February 16, and three months later he’s matching wits with Spoelstra on the big stage. A Boston victory would rocket Mazzulla into that upper echelon of NBA coaches.
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Heat vs Celtics Prediction
I’m about to live dangerously and give Jimmy Butler bulletin-board material.
But it’s hard to see how Miami stays with the Celtics over seven games. With no Victor Oladipo and possibly no Herro, Butler and Adebayo may have to carry too much of a scoring load to propel Miami to The Finals.
I think the Heat’s age is overstated as a factor – Boston’s survived a six-game and a seven-game series, and Miami should be the fresher team.
Home-court advantage hasn’t meant too much in these playoffs, and Miami hasn’t enjoyed it in either series.
Odds Preview for Eastern Conference Finals (FanDuel):
|Boston Celtics (-550)||Miami Heat (+400)|
I think -550 is a crazy price for most series in professional sports – let alone an Eastern Conference Final. Heck, if you’re feeling it, I can’t tell you NOT to bet Miami at these odds.
As far as an actual pick, however, and a wager to go along with it? Let’s take the Celtics to win by betting that the series goes exactly six games.
FanDuel is offering a “Miami vs Boston Series Correct Score” wager of 4-2 Boston at +360 odds.
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Eastern Conference Finals MVP: If you’re like me and believe in the “Tatum is becoming a superstar” story, he’s a -180 favorite to come away with this award.
Jaylen Brown’s the second pick at +310 and could be worth a look as he should have the advantage on offense no matter who the Heat cover with. Curiously, Marcus Smart’s odds aren’t listed but I wouldn’t recommend him below +550 or so (if those odds do come available.)
If you’re a Miami believer, Jimmy Butler at +440 is a no-brainer.
Heat vs. Celtics FAQ
When does the Heat/Celtics series start?
Game 1 tips off at 8:30 ET on Wednesday, May 17.
Where can I watch the Heat/Celtics series?
The games will air on TNT.
How did the Heat and Celtics fare head-to-head this year?
The Heat and Celtics split four regular-season meetings in 2022-2023, with each team winning once on the other’s home court. The best of the games? Miami’s 120-116 overtime win in Boston on December 2.
What is the playoff history between the Heat and Celtics?
Only four teams have a winning record all-time vs. the Boston Celtics in the playoffs, and Miami’s the team who’s done it over the most games.
The Heat hold a narrow 16-14 advantage over Boston in the postseason. Miami’s won three of the five all-time series between the squads, but Boston holds the most recent win, topping Miami in seven games in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.