The 2020 NBA playoffs pick up again Tuesday with the Eastern Conference finals, featuring a thrilling matchup of two teams that pulled upsets in the previous round: the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat. (The East finals can be seen on ESPN and the ESPN App, including Game 1 on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. ET.)
What’s most underrated about this series? Who has the most at stake? And which team advances to the NBA Finals?
Our experts debate those points — including a split decision on who will win — and provide their keys to the series.
1. What are you watching most closely for the Heat?
Tim Bontemps: Bam Adebayo has to be the best player on the court. In the matchup between these two teams in the seeding games, Adebayo destroyed the Celtics inside. How Boston coach Brad Stevens tries to combat Adebayo’s size and strength inside will make for a compelling chess match.
André Snellings: The play of Adebayo. Jimmy Butler deserves the press he gets, but Adebayo’s new-age big-man play is what makes the Heat elite. Adebayo outplayed the larger Bucks frontline at both ends. Likewise, in this series he needs to overcome the smaller Celtics frontline and be the dominant big man on the court.
Jorge Sedano: How Miami defends this Boston team. They certainly can’t load up on Jayson Tatum as they did on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Jaylen Brown is too good, and Miami struggles to defend at the point with Goran Dragic and Kendrick Nunn, which should allow Kemba Walker to get loose more often than he did against Toronto.
Kevin Pelton: How much zone defense they play. After Miami played more zone possessions than any other NBA team during the regular season, Second Spectrum tracking hasn’t recorded a single possession of zone in the playoffs. That will presumably change against the Celtics, who saw a heavy dose of zone from the Toronto Raptors.
Tim MacMahon: How good will Dragic be? The 34-year-old point guard has been starting and starring in the playoffs, averaging 21.1 points and 4.7 assists per game. Dragic cooled off in the conference semifinals, shooting only 38.3% from the floor in the past three games. He had scored at least 20 points in the Heat’s first six playoff games, the second-longest string of 20-point performances in his career.
2. What are you watching most closely for the Celtics?
MacMahon: How will Daniel Theis deal with Adebayo? The Celtics don’t need Theis to put up big numbers, but he has to be a solid defensive anchor, and Adebayo presents unique problems as an elite finisher and playmaker. For what it’s worth, Theis was plus-33 in three games against the Heat this season, but Miami was still starting Meyers Leonard at center and Adebayo at power forward in the first two meetings.
Bontemps: Can Walker tear apart Miami’s defense? Walker had his way with Toronto’s defense until Raptors coach Nick Nurse applied a box-and-one. Walker returning to All-NBA form during the seeding games and playoffs has been a game-changer for Boston.
Sedano: How Boston’s 3-point defense competes against Miami’s great 3-point offense. Miami is shooting 38% on 3s in the playoffs, and while Duncan Robinson hasn’t been as productive, the threat of Miami’s 3s is a big part of its offense. How the Celtics defend Robinson, Tyler Herro and Miami’s 3-point attack will go a long way to determining Boston’s success in this series.
Pelton: How Brad Stevens handles the possible reintegration of Gordon Hayward midseries. If Hayward is rusty, how quick will Stevens’ hook be? And does he take minutes away from Marcus Smart after Smart’s excellent series against Toronto?
Snellings: The play of Smart. When he has it going from long range, it both spreads the court and allows him to utilize his latent point guard skills to make plays for his teammates. Smart is also the leader of the perimeter defense and emotional leader of the team, and his edginess and ability to disrupt Butler will key the Celtics’ effort.
3. What is most underrated about this series?
Sedano: Pat Riley vs. Danny Ainge. The history between the two architects is juicy, dating back to when Riley coached the Lakers and Ainge played for the Celtics. It includes a melee that broke out between their teams (Knicks and Suns) in 1993. Plus, who can forget when Ainge lobbed some criticism at LeBron James (then a member of the Heat) and Riley responded by saying, “Danny Ainge needs to shut the f— up and manage his own team. He was the biggest whiner going when he was playing, and I know that because I coached against him.”
Bontemps: Boston got here without Hayward because of the ankle injury he suffered in the Celtics’ first playoff game, and is expected to get him back. He averaged 17.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists while shooting 50/38/85 this season. Adding Hayward back into the mix would give Boston another long, versatile player at both ends — and it would mean fewer minutes for Boston’s relatively thin bench.
Snellings: The defense of Theis, who ranked second in the NBA in Defensive Real Plus-Minus this season, behind only Rudy Gobert. His positioning and hands in the post and ability to rotate and help choke opposing drives are vital. He helped Brown limit Pascal Siakam to 38.2 FG%, and this round he will have to slow down Adebayo and limit Heat penetration.
MacMahon: Jae Crowder established himself as a quality NBA player in Boston, and he took it personally when the Celtics included him in the Kyrie Irving trade. He’d love to be part of booting his former team from the bubble. Crowder wasn’t the headliner in the midseason trade the Heat made with the Grizzlies — when Memphis ended the strange Andre Iguodala saga by sending him to South Beach — but he’s made an impact for Miami. Crowder’s ability to play power forward allows Miami to go with a small lineup, and he’s shooting 40% from 3-point range in the playoffs.
Pelton: The ability for both teams to contend for a while. Weighted by minutes played, the Celtics have the single youngest rotation of any playoff team. And while the Heat’s rotation has been sixth oldest with veteran Goran Dragic replacing rookie Kendrick Nunn as a starter, Miami’s cap flexibility and core of young talent mean the future is bright.
4. Who has the most at stake in this series?
MacMahon: Nobody has to tell Butler, who is celebrating his 31st birthday Monday, how precious this opportunity is for him. It’s the first time in Butler’s career that he’s advanced to the conference finals. Butler, a five-time All-Star, has already boosted his reputation significantly by playing such a prominent role in the Heat’s success. Taking Miami to the Finals would be legendary stuff.
Snellings: Tatum can confirm the leap we saw in the Toronto series. Butler is playing with house money at this point — the Heat did not come into the season as contenders. But Boston has expectations, and Tatum is right there. Taking his team to the Finals at age 22 can put “Tatum” into one-name territory with other superstars.
Bontemps: The Celtics, who can get back to the NBA Finals for the first time in a decade. This is the third time in four years that the Celtics have made it this far, but it is the first time they will be expected to win. If they don’t, it can only be described as a disappointment.
Pelton: Would it be wrong to say the Bucks? If Boston comfortably handles Miami, that raises a lot more questions about the Heat’s series win over the Bucks. If Miami reaches the NBA Finals, by contrast, it’s a lot easier to rationalize what happened as the product of running into a hot team at the wrong time.
Sedano: Brad Stevens. His counterpart Erik Spoelstra already has two championships as a head coach. Spoelstra is certainly looking to add to his collection, but he’s more of a made man. Stevens was labeled one of the game’s most innovative coaches virtually upon arrival. Coaching his team to an NBA Finals would validate the praise and give the storied franchise a shot at an 18th NBA championship.
5. Which team advances to the NBA Finals?
Bontemps: Boston is the better team. Miami is a tough-minded, well-coached group led by two All-Stars in Adebayo and Butler. But Boston has Smart, probably the single-best player in the league to guard Butler, and Walker and Tatum are the most explosive offensive players in the series. It will be competitive and fun to watch, but my pick is Boston in 6.
MacMahon: Heat in 6. For all the praise heaped on Stevens, Spoelstra is the coach in this series who has proven he can take teams to the Finals.
Sedano: Heat in 7. Miami is rolling. Butler, Adebayo and Dragic have been steady leaders, and the additions of Crowder and Iguodala at the trade deadline were huge. Miami’s sharpshooting gives it an edge, too. Boston has an unbelievably talented core of Tatum, Brown, Walker, Hayward and Smart, but Miami’s superior depth will prove to be too much.
Pelton: Celtics in 7. I still don’t have a good feel for just how good Miami is, so I won’t be surprised if the Heat win this series. Nonetheless, I think the Celtics’ fleet of quality perimeter players should match up well with Butler and present challenges for the defenders Miami was able to hide against non-threatening Bucks wings.
Snellings: Celtics in 7. Both teams are full of grit, defensive hustle and heart. But the Celtics have a bit more scoring talent on the perimeter, especially if Hayward is able to return and contribute. Adebayo and the Heat have the edge in the paint, but I expect Theis to be a factor. Tatum, Brown and Smart have just enough to squeeze out another series win.