NBA Eastern Conference Finals preview

Breaking down a matchup of strength versus strength.

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The Eastern Conference playoffs have reached their final destination. We didn’t exactly get the matchup we anticipated, with the No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks and No. 2 seed Toronto Raptors both eliminated, but we’re left with a battle between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat.

Make no mistake, this should still be an amazing series. The Heat have been awesome offensively throughout the playoffs, ranking fourth in points per 100 possessions, while the Celtics have been the best defensive team in the postseason. This should be a matchup of strength versus strength, which always makes for an interesting series.

Let’s break it down to identify some potential betting value for the series and for game 1.

Boston Celtics (-1.5) vs. Miami Heat — 209.5 total

Series odds: Celtics -134, Heat +110

These two teams swept their respective first round series, but things couldn’t have gone much differently for them in the second round.

Let’s start with the Heat. They were pretty significant underdogs against the Bucks, but they sure didn’t play like it. They won each of the first three games before ultimately knocking out the conference favorites in five games. Giannis Antetokounmpo did miss virtually all of games 4 and 5, but the Heat looked like the superior team from start to finish.

Miami was able to take advantage of the one big weakness the Bucks had on defense: the 3-point shot. The Heat launched a whopping 45.3% of their total shots in that series from behind the 3-point line, and they shot 37.9% on those attempts (per Cleaning the Glass).

That is an elite combination of volume and efficiency from long range. To put it in perspective, only the Houston Rockets launched a higher frequency of 3-pointers during the regular season than the Heat did against the Bucks, and only four teams posted a better 3-point percentage during the regular season.

Can the Heat repeat their success from behind the arc versus Boston? It’s possible. They did post better accuracy numbers during the regular season (38.6%), and they were the second-best shooting team in the league in that category. Their frequency was a bit lower during the regular season at 38.7%, but expect this team to make a lot of 3s.

That said, the Celtics will present a serious test defensively. They put their elite defense on display against the Raptors in the second round, and they were ultimately able to limit them to just 100.6 points per 100 possessions. The Raptors showed a lot of heart in that seven-game series, but they just couldn’t come up with big buckets when they needed them.

Boston’s defense also put a stranglehold on the 76ers’ offense in the first round, although that wasn’t nearly as impressive. Overall, the Celtics have posted a defensive rating of 101.9 during the playoffs, which is the best mark in the league by +3.0 points. So what have they done to be so dominant on the defensive end of the court? Unfortunately, it looks like it’s been good luck more than anything.

During the first round, the 76ers had an effective FG% (eFG) of 45.2% but an expected eFG% 51.8%. During the second round, the Raptors had an eFG% of 48.8% but an expected eFG% of 54.5%. Basically, teams just haven’t been able to make any shots when facing the Celtics in the playoffs. Add it all up, and the Celtics expected eFG% against ranks just eighth during the postseason, while their actual eFG% against ranks first. That’s a pretty huge discrepancy.

Boston figures to outperform their expected eFG% allowed due to their excellent perimeter defenders, but that’s still a wide gap in performance. Their margin was much slimmer during the regular season, so they could be due for some regression. The fact that the Heat are one of the best shooting teams in basketball obviously won’t help matters. With that in mind, the Celtics are going to need to play better offensively in this series. Luckily, they do appear poised to make some progress in that department.

The Celtics have underperformed their expected eFG% during the playoffs, thanks mostly to a subpar shooting percentage from 3-point range. They’ve shot just 34.0% from behind the line, which is the fourth-lowest mark among all 16 playoff teams. The Celtics were slightly above average from 3-point range during the regular season, so they can definitely improve moving forward.

Kemba Walker in particular is someone who should be able to play better against the Heat. The Raptors made it their focus to take Walker out of the game, and they were pretty successful in that department. Walker averaged just 17.0 points per game and shot just 27.7% from 3-point range over those seven contests. He saw a ton of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Kyle Lowry, with each of those three players holding him to 33.3% shooting or worse while serving as his primary defender.

It will be interesting to see how the Heat choose to defend Walker. Miami used Kendrick Nunn as the primary defender on Walker for more minutes than anyone else during the regular season, and Walker shot 42.9% from the field and 40.0% from 3-point range in that matchup. Of course, Nunn hasn’t played much during the playoffs, so someone else will draw that responsibility to start game 1. Miami could use Jimmy Butler on Walker, which would leave Duncan Robinson and Jae Crowder to guard Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Speaking of Butler, he has transformed into a completely different player during the playoffs. He shot just 24.4% from 3-point range during the regular season, which made him one of the worst high-volume 3-point shooters in the league. He has increased that figure to 50.0% during the playoffs, albeit over a sample size of just 18 shot attempts.

So which Butler will we see in this series? He played very well in two matchups with Boston during the regular season, averaging 28.5 points per game on 53.1% shooting from the field and 42.9% shooting from 3-point range. Butler is a certified gamer, so I’m not expecting him to shrink from the moment. He probably won’t shoot 50% from behind the arc in this series, but I don’t think he’ll fall all the way back to his mark from the regular season either.

Ultimately, I’m expecting this to be a very competitive series. The Celtics match up much better with the Heat than the Bucks did, but it’s still hard to dismiss what the Heat have done in these playoffs.

I’m already heavily invested in Boston from a long term perspective — I have tickets on them to win the East at +500 and to win the title at +1500 — so I’m not necessarily looking to double down on them in this series. That said, I’m not looking to hedge either.

The X-factor in this series is the health of Gordon Hayward. He’s been ruled out for game 1, but the expectation is that he will return at some point before all is said and done. Hayward was the Celtics’ second-best player this season in terms of Net Rating differential, with Boston increasing their Net Rating by +4.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. Marcus Smart has filled in admirably for him — they probably don’t beat the Raptors without him playing as well as he did — but the Celtics are still at their best with Hayward on the court. If he returns early enough in this series, it could swing the betting value in favor of the Celtics.

For example, if Boston drops game 1 and it seems like Hayward will be back for game 2, that would be a situation where I would look to take the Celtics as underdogs for the series.

My favorite bet for game 1 is on the over. The total is low at just 209.5 points, and both of these teams should be very well rested. The Celtics have been off for the past three days, while the Heat have been off for six days, which should mean both of these teams have very well rested legs. Combine that with the fact that the Celtics seem poised for some defensive regression and some offensive progression, and I think we have a nice formula for the over.

The early betting numbers suggest that the sharps agree. The over is currently receiving just 38% of the wagers on the total in this contest, but those bets account for 62% of the money.

The Pick: Over 209.5 points (-112)

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