Nylon Calculus: Previewing the NBA Eastern and Western Conference Finals

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /
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Oct 15, 2021; Miami, Florida, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) dribbles the ball around Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) during the second half at FTX Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 15, 2021; Miami, Florida, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) dribbles the ball around Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) during the second half at FTX Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

The halfway point of the 2022 NBA Playoffs provides an opportunity to analyze the play of the four remaining teams and to prognosticate how each will perform in their respective conference final series.

The two teams with the best records on the eastern side of the bracket meet in the conference championship, which should be a masterclass in team defensive principles.

Boston — the best defensive team during the regular season — has maintained its stellar defensive rating in the postseason against formidable offensive opponents in Brooklyn and Milwaukee. The Celtics have been strong in each of the defensive Four Factors through the first two rounds, including defensive rebounding, which was a minor weakness during the regular season.

They’ve also remained the league’s best half-court defense in the postseason. But in transition, the Celtics have slipped to worst among all postseason teams, per Cleaning the Glass. While this is largely due to their second-round matchup with the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who thrives offensively in transition, fastbreak points will be worth monitoring in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Miami’s defense has continued to improve in the postseason against the Hawks and Sixers, allowing both opponents to average 105 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. That qualifies the Heat as the second-best postseason defense thus far, which has largely been due to them forcing the second-most turnovers and limiting second-chance opportunities.

The Celtics will look to force their own turnovers against the Heat to fuel their offense, as Miami had one of the league’s worst turnover rates during the regular season and has continued to cough up the ball at an above-average rate in the playoffs. (Kyle Lowry’s absence from practice on Sunday and doubtful status for Game 1 could play a factor as well.)

More so than other elite shooting teams, Miami’s offense thrives off of corner 3-point attempts. In particular, P.J. Tucker and Gabe Vincent will serve the role of floor spacer to afford Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro room to create off the dribble.

In the regular season, the Celtics limited opponent 3-point attempts overall and emphasized eliminating corner attempts. But in the playoffs, they’ve allowed opponents a higher percentage of shots from beyond the arc and especially in the corner. Will they do the same against a Heat offense that weaponizes these shots?

While these in-game decisions may not be congruent with Ime Udoka’s game plan, both show the Celtics with strong help abandoning the weakside corner. The shooters, Pat Connaughton and Wesley Matthews, were a combined 22-57 (38 percent) from beyond the arc in that series, which gives further weight to the argument of intentionality. Boston’s willingness to provide Miami with catch-and-shoot opportunities from these spots could spark the Heat’s halfcourt offense.

Offensively, Boston has largely limited turnovers throughout the first two rounds, which could lead to trouble for a Miami team that has been mediocre in the halfcourt. Boston’s also shot the ball well, spotlighted by Jayson Tatum’s incredible efficiency in their second-round series against Milwaukee.

Marcus Smart’s questionable status for Game 1 means that the Celtics will be without one of their four outside offensive threats. If Miami is able to hold the other two non-Tatum shooters — Jaylen Brown and Grant Williams — to league-average efficiency then the Heat should have an advantage offensively.

The Heat have realized their own struggles beyond the arc on the road during these playoffs. Miami shooters have made only 26 percent of their road attempts from outside, a five-game sample, per Cleaning the Glass. To win this series, Miami will need to win at least once in Boston, as the Celtics proved in their previous series how capable they are of winning elimination games on the road.

With Boston peaking defensively in its last two games, the Heat will need to develop an offensive game plan to help Jimmy Butler find his rhythm to start the series. Will the Celtics be fine with single coverage using Tatum or Brown on Butler, particularly in the post? If not, the other shooting threats for the Heat will need to knock down semi-contested opportunities.

Miami may need to revise its defensive game plan to run Celtic shooters off the 3-point line, particularly if they continue to knock down shots as they did against the Bucks. Bam Adebayo’s All-Defense-level interior presence grants the Heat the opportunity to mix up their defensive coverage.

Because Boston has already proven it can win big games on the road, the Celtics should be favored to advance if they’re able to make outside shots. If Smart’s unable to play extensively throughout the series and Brown or Williams isn’t able to shoulder some of the offensive load for Tatum, Miami could make this an ugly and long series.