It’s got to happen. Maybe it’ll be Wednesday, maybe Friday; it might even take until a Game 7 on Sunday. But one of these nights there has to be a halfway-decent basketball game in the Eastern Conference Finals. Through four contests the series between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics has been a confusing, gruesome, and deeply alienating affair. It’s tied at two games apiece but doesn’t really feel very close: the Celtics have outscored the Heat by 30 points over four games, with Miami winning only 3 quarters out of 16. We might say these have been games of runs, but they’ve more accurately been games of run, singular: each contest has featured a single extended stretch of one team effectively overwhelming the other out of competition. It’d be at least moderately more interesting if any of these onslaughts had actually occurred in the fourth quarter, but none of them have. Most recently, the Celtics opened Monday night’s game with an 18–1 run that saw Miami miss its first 14 shots. By halftime the Celtics were up 24, and the game was over.
There are a lot of crazy stats floating around about this series, but my favorite might be one that I heard on the most recent episode of Brian Windhorst’s Hoop Collective podcast: Through its first four games, this series has seen a grand total of four lead changes. Games 3 and 4 had zero lead changes between them. I would not say an abundance of lead changes is strictly necessary for a compelling sports experience, but it certainly doesn’t hurt! What we’ve been given instead are modest expanses of brute dominance clashing against galling ineptitude—the 14 straight bricks to open Game 4, or Boston committing 23 turnovers in Game 3—that have then left us with hours of exsanguinated, drama-free basketball.
The Celtics probably feel good about their chances, given the aforementioned point differential and the fact that their Game 1 loss came when they were missing two key starters (Marcus Smart and Al Horford, the latter of whom briefly landed in COVID health and safety protocols). But that optimism presumes that this series will begin conforming to the niceties of conventional basketball logic. It also neglects what might be Miami’s greatest strengths, namely their discipline, intelligence, and ability to exploit other teams’ mistakes, attributes that become only more valuable if the series continues to be played in a key of discombobulated chaos.
This is the third time in the past 10 years that the Celtics and Heat have met in the Eastern Conference Finals, a frequency that has quickly given this matchup the feel of one of the NBA’s great rivalries. This is a fairly recent development: The first time these two teams ever played each other in the postseason was in 2010, when the Celtics won a first-round series in five games. They have played each other four times in the playoffs since then, including the current series, and the Heat have won every subsequent matchup. As storied hardwood rivalries go, Celtics-Heat is an arriviste, and a distinctly lopsided one at that.
This isn’t to say that it hasn’t produced some memorable series. The 2012 Eastern Conference Finals was a classic, as Boston’s aging Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen (plus a prime Rajon Rondo) snatched a 3–2 series lead in Miami against the celebrated “Heatles” team of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. (Meme-savvy NBA fans may remember this one as the “good job, good effort” game.) Then in Game 6 James went for 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists in a season-saving win in Boston, a tour de force that still ranks as one of the greatest performances of his career. Miami won the series in seven games and then won the Finals, netting James his elusive first title and his first of four Finals MVP trophies. The two teams met again in the Orlando “bubble” of 2020, a series probably more memorable for its location than the play on the floor. It still did produce some moments, chief among them being Heat center Bam Adebayo’s titanic block of a Jayson Tatum dunk attempt in the closing seconds of overtime in Game 1. The Heat dispensed with the Celtics in six games before going on to lose to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals.
Even though they’re less than two years removed from that series, this is a very different Celtics team. Stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have taken huge developmental strides, with the latter blossoming from rising star in 2020 to one of the very best players in the game in 2022. Grant Williams and Robert Williams III, both of whom were marginal rotation players in 2020, have matured into critical pieces, particularly on defense. And crucially, the 2020 team also lacked Al Horford, who’d left Boston for Philadelphia in free agency the previous offseason and returned to the team in a trade last summer. In Game 4 the defensive combination of Horford and the Williamses helped limit Adebayo—who ravaged the Celtics back in 2020—to a mere five field goal attempts.
The Celtics are the more talented team in this series. They’re younger, they’re more athletic, they’re more explosive on offense and more suppressive on defense. Both teams are physically battered, but the Heat are dealing with nagging injuries to Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Tyler Herro, and P.J. Tucker, four of their most important players. Butler’s health in particular is critical; if the knee injury he suffered in Game 3 continues to hobble him as it appeared to in Game 4, the Heat are likely sunk. Still, if the Celtics lose this series—and they very well might—it’s likely they’ll have lost it on the mental side of things, where poor decision-making and a tendency toward befuddlement in the face of the Heat’s aggressiveness have plagued their two losses so far. The mental side of things, of course, is where the Heat want to play. Right now it’s a three-game series and anything feels possible, even—just maybe—a halfway-decent basketball game.