Coming into the Eastern Conference Finals, there was a lot of buzz behind the Boston Celtics and their dominant 12.7 Net Rating since January, the #1 most important indicator of winning NBA titles, according to many basket-bloggers and NBA media.
For all the talk about the Miami Heat’s offensive concerns, in reality, both teams came into the series being almost complete mirror images of each other: two extremely switch-heavy, elite defensive teams who don’t score quite as well, with the Celtics and Heat ranking 1st and 4th, respectively, in defensive rating (and halfcourt defensive rating), and then 9th and 12th, respectively, in offensive rating.
The Heat also ranked just one spot below the Celtics in halfcourt offensive rating for the season. After 2 rounds of the Playoffs, the Heat had a better offensive and defensive rating in the halfcourt as well. For some reason, it felt like the Celtics were getting the benefit of the doubt from NBA media, whether on TV, print or on podcasts, with the majority projecting the lower seed to be the favorite.
However, ever since the first tipoff of the Conference Finals, there has been a wild point swing that ends up deciding the game, in every game of this series. Essentially, whichever team that put together the significant run(s) goes on to win the game every time.
In Game 1, there were 3 lead changes and 2 ties, with the Heat outscoring the Celtics by 25 in one quarter.
In Game 2, 1 lead change, 1 tie, with Boston having a +25 first half.
In both Games 3 and 4, there were no lead changes and no ties. In Game 3, the Heat had a +21 quarter. In Game 4, the Celtics had a +18 quarter.
All of this has led to the Heat and Celtics being tied 2-2 in the series, despite the Celtics winning 9 of 16 quarters overall compared to the Heat’s 3, (2 tied quarters), because that doesn’t actually count for anything.
Here’s what’s actually taken place on the court, statistically, beyond just the wild point swings.
Let’s get this part out of the way: in this series, the Celtics have a 33.9 free throw rate as opposed to the Heat’s 19.4, (30.8 FTAs per game to the Heat’s 21). The Celtics are at the free throw line 6.9 more times per game in this series than they were in the season, the Heat 0.7 fewer free throws than regular season. However, as Zach Lowe has pointed out, the Heat ranked 27th in opponent free throw rate this season. Their extra-physical defense leads to a lot of foul calls.
The Heat have done a good job holding onto the ball and forcing the Celtics into turnovers in the ECF. Despite the Celtics getting more assists per game and having the higher AST% for the series, the Heat have the superior assist to turnover ratio. The Celtics turn the ball over 15.3 times a game (16.1 TOV%), to the Heat’s 11.5 turnovers a game (12.1 TOV%). The Heat are deflecting the ball 21.3 times per game to the Celtics’ 14.
The Celtics have a 7.7 Net Rating for the series.
The Celtics have been the superior team in transition, (139.5 to 132.5 offensive rating in transition), despite both teams getting out in transition at almost an identical percentage per game, (separated by 0.4%).
Although the Heat and Celtics have an identical amount of offensive rebounds per game, the Celtics sport the higher OREB% and DREB%, grabbing 7.3 more rebounds a game overall than Miami.
The Cetics are beating out the Heat in a couple of hustle stats: charges drawn per game (in which Heat were 1st in total charges drawn this season) and loose balls recovered (on both ends).
Oddly enough, the Heat have a 25 Net Rating in 3 mins of clutch time this series (within 5 points, within 5 minutes left), if that means anything to you. Miami and Boston ranked 15th and 26th, respectively, in clutch Net Rating this season.
The Celtics’ defensive field goal percentage for the series is 3.2% lower (better) than the Heat’s, with the Celtics’ DFG% being almost identical to what it was during the season while the Heat’s is 1.7% worse than what it was this season.
Despite the turnover disadvantage, the Celtics have been the superior team in the halfcourt, posting a 102.5 offensive rating to the Heat’s 90.5, due to shooting about 38% from three and 47.6% in the mid-range, which is 2% and 6.6% better, respectively, than how they shot from those areas in the regular season.
They’re also at a 60.1% true shooting for the series, which is 2.3% higher than what it was during the season. Whereas the Heat have a 53.4%, an entire 5% lower than their regular season number.
This has come as a result of the Heat shooting about 32% from three and 40% in the mid-range, which is 6.7% and 2.3% worse, respectively, than they did in the regular season.
More importantly, where the Heat are taking their shots from has drastically changed in this series compared to what happened this season. The Celtics came into the Playoffs giving up the 2nd lowest percentage of shots at the rim and the 3rd highest percentage of mid-range shots, while giving up the lowest percentage of shots made in the mid-range.
They’ve stuck to their principles, with the Heat taking 9.3% more shots in the mid-range in this series than they did in the season, which has coincided with taking 4.9% fewer threes and 4.3% fewer shots at the rim.
The Celtics’ shot profile in this series is very similar to what it was during the season, taking 1% more of their shots from three, 1.6% fewer shots in the mid-range and 1.2% more shots at the rim against the Heat.
If you’re an optimistic Heat fan, you might think there could be a clear regression to the mean coming for the Celtics and on the other side of that coin, progression to the mean for the Heat.
If you’re a pessimistic Heat fan, you say all of this points to the Celtics executing their gameplan and outplaying and out-adjusting the Heat through 4 games.
All in all, the Heat return to Miami having done what they needed to in Boston, securing one gutsy ass win on the road, coming back to a best of 3 series, with 2 of those being at home, including Game 7, if needed. The Heat, despite all the noise, chaos, data and injuries, are in control of whether or not they return to the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons.
So for Heat fans anxiously awaiting demise, trying to get out in front of the pain of defeat and despair ahead of Game 5, in an eerily similar fashion to the paranoia pre-Game 5 of Heat-Sixers and other decisive Heat Playoff games in the past, in the words of Pat Riley ahead of the 2019 offseason where he, Andy Elisburg and the Miami Heat organization were able to trade Hassan Whiteside, draft Tyler Herro and finesse the Philadelphia 76ers out of an elite player and their best playoff performer, all without having cap space, prompting them to a Finals run and an ECF run in 3 seasons:
“There’s no obstacles. Well, there are lots of them, but there are none.”