It has been 100 days since the Miami Heat defeated the Boston Celtics in the game six of the 2020 NBA Eastern Conference bubble at Walt Disney World Resort.
Both teams started the 2020-21 season with the intention of reaching at least this level, but when they meet for the first time this season on Wednesday (19:30 ET on ESPN and ESPN App), both teams are still in top form.
The Celtics lead 5-3, almost entirely thanks to the play of Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who both look like real All-Stars this season. Miami, on the other hand, enters Wednesday with one of the worst fouls of the league (3-3).
Despite this mixed start, both teams can find comfort in the fact that the season lasts only two weeks. ESPN’s BPI continues to predict that the Celtics and the Heat will finish in the top five of the Eastern Conference, exactly where they were last season. However, if the early return is meaningful, both teams remain in discussion.
With Gordon Hayward now in Charlotte after leaving Boston as a free agent and Kemba Walker lying in bed as he continues to strengthen his injured left knee, the Celtics look a lot different than they did at the start of last season. It caused growing pains.
That’s what I expected, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said on Saturday. We have a lot of questions. It brings a lot of new things, a lot of people in new roles, new responsibilities, [and] new pressures.
With Walker’s absence, Boston needed someone to score behind the tandem of young stars on the team.
Nobody knows yet.
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While Brown (26.9 points per game) and Tatum (26.3) got off to a good start, Marcus Smart (12.6) is the only other player in the team with an average of more than 10 points per game. Boston’s favorite starting team tonight – Smart, Brown, Tatum, Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson – were outnumbered with more than 16 points out of 100 possessions in 74 minutes, according to NBA.com statistics, probably the worst of any team to play as many minutes this season.
She fought predictably on offense (101.9 points per 100 possessions), but did not give the defensive weight (118 points per 100 possessions) for which she was designed.
I was hoping the formation would be very defensive, Stevens said. I still hope so.
The Celtics didn’t use their bank to launch a quick attack either. Veteran Jeff Teague started the season with a score of 3 points (7 for 12, although he only beat 7 out of 4 for 5 at the Boston opening), but he made a terrible 9 for 36 out of 2 and now has a sprained ankle. Junior centre Robert Williams III hit 75% of his shots off the field, which also corresponds to his 28 shots that landed on the edge. Rookie Payton Pritchard proved to be a good long-range shooter, but his inexperience as a playmaker led to him being used most often with Teague off the field.
But still, the game of Pritchard, which included scoring 23 points and eight assists in 32 minutes from the bench in Monday’s decisive victory over the Toronto Raptors, changed the game for a Boston team that has yet to win.
They are missing an All-Star point guard, said a scout, and the rather thin bench has become even thinner and even more untested.
Some of these issues will be resolved when Walker returns, although his timeline is still uncertain. In the meantime, Celtics will have to rely on the excellent performance of Brown and Tatum in each game to earn enough points to win – a burden that will only get heavier in this shortened season.
Tatum, who made his first All-Star appearance a year ago, draws more than 40 percent of his catch from outside the bow and has established himself as a clutch player in Boston. He has already scored two baskets in the last three seconds of a game this season and only one in his first three NBA seasons together.
Brown, meanwhile, turned out to be the favorite to be voted the most improved player. He hits 58.1 percent of the field – the fourth best player in the league with at least 10 shots per match – and 42.9 percent of his career from three points, while taking full advantage of the much heavier load placed on his shoulders by Walker’s injury and Hayward’s departure.
But Brown knows that’s not enough for eight games – at least not if he wants to return to the conference final for the fourth time in his five-year career.
It’s not like you can do it once, but what you can do over and over again, Brown said. It’s all about consistency, so keep trying. Further adjustments will be crucial for us. I think we can do it.
When the NBA restarted last season, we heard that Heat was the perfect team on the bubble because of their organizational culture, and they proved that for the first time since LeBron James withdrew from the NBA finals six years ago.
But when the 2020-21 season began and the teams returned to the domestic market, many in the league wondered if Miami was going in the right direction or if it was just a bubble.
I thought it was situational fatigue, another Scout said. They weren’t that good. Butler played hard, Herro played hard, they were all kumbaya, but they weren’t that good. I thought they’d exhausted everything they were going to do.
But so far the problems of the Heat have less to do with where they play than the people who put them on the pitch.
Of particular importance is the loss of Jae Crowder, who signed a three-year agreement with the Phoenix Suns. Crowder reached 56% of his three points in the sowing and 40% in the first two rounds of the playoffs, effectively allowing Miami to surround Bam Adebayo on the inside.
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De Heat has tried to fill that void with Maurice Harkless (who has less than one 3-point shot per game this season and hits only 25%), Meyers Leonard (who played only 31 minutes in the 2020 play-offs after starting 49 regular season games) and Andre Iguodala (who shoots 30% of the field at 37 and missed all five of his 3-point shots).
Things finally picked up in Monday to win over Oklahoma City when the heat brought on Kelly Olynyk, who took 19 points and had eight rebounds. Despite being one of the worst teams in the league, the Thunder is still a significant improvement over what Miami previously received in the top forward position.
And the Heat, which currently ranks 26th in the NBA in terms of offensive effectiveness, needs all the production they can get.
The way we carry out the attack and the way our attack unfolds and reads, it takes a little time, said batting coach Eric Spoelstra. Not only do we have a showdown with Jimmy every time. [Butler] … With the short transition period, I expected there to be an adjustment. Hopefully there will not be a long transition period on this point.
Butler missed two games and most of the third with a sprained ankle and an average of only 10.8 points per game. However, several scouts and managers said they weren’t concerned about Butler’s return to the gym, citing his injury and a heavy blister load as obvious reasons for his slow start.
The owner of Big Face Coffee shone at the end of the season next to Goran Dragic, who returned to the bench after the start of most of the 2020 playoffs. Miami is currently placing sophomore guard Tyler Herro next to Duncan Robinson in the backyard to get an idea of how effective this tandem will be in the long term. He plays less than 24 minutes a night off the bench, but as he showed in the playoffs last season, the 34-year-old is able to carry a bigger load when Miami needs him.
Although the season is still young, the heat will be experienced for the time being.
I think you see it all throughout the league, even in the teams that have brought back most of their players in the first month of the season, you try to understand, Iguodala said. I think we’re just working on it and trying to be smart. We have a lot of depth, so a lot of moving parts depending on the game.
There have been some successes. Miami immediately placed the big rookie Precious Achiuwa in the rotation and placed him as backup for Adebayo. He shoots 64 percent of the pitch in a regular shot-on-edge regime, a role similar to the one Montrezl Harrell played last season in appointing the sixth man of the year for the LA Clippers. And in the first offensive game of the season in Miami, Guerro and Adebayo did a pick-and-roll that ended with a dunk from Adebayo – an alchemy they also demonstrated in their first games in Miami.
You can’t find out in two days, Adebayo said last week. The coach does his best to find out the composition of the team, but also to ensure that our attack continues and does what he has to do. It’s gonna be okay.
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