This will be the 145th Game 7 in NBA history. The home teams are 108-32 (.771) in Game 7s, a record that does not include the four Game 7s that took place in the 2020 bubble. But as of the 2016 Finals, the road team has won six of the last 10 games 7 bubble free.
The Celtics have already won a Game 7 in these playoffs, knocking out the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks two weeks ago. It will be the 35th Game 7 in franchise history, but only the eighth Boston has played on the road. They are 3-4 in the last seven games, with one of those losses coming to Miami in the 2012 Conference Finals.
This is the 11th Game 7 for the Heat, who are 6-2 in Game 7 at home. Of course, the Game 7s of 10 or 20 years ago have little to do with the one that will be played on Sunday evening.
Here are five keys to the first Game 7 conference final since we had two in the 2018 playoffs…
1. Limit errors
The first step to success for the Heat and Celtics is controlling what they can control. Rollovers have been a problem for both teams in this series, but those aren’t the only mistakes that can be made on offense. And avoiding defensive breakdowns is key too.
The Celtics erased a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit in Game 6 on Friday and took a three-point lead. But poor execution at both ends of the court in the final 3½ minutes prevented them from closing the series.
With the score tied at 99, Marcus Smart took one of the game’s worst shots, an iso pull-up against PJ Tucker. That was all the Celtics had left after taking way too long to get into their initial offense.
As Jayson Tatum also slowly moved up the floor, Smart crossed the halfway line with 17 seconds left on the shot clock. And the Celtics continued to move slowly, Tatum’s ball screen for Smart unfolding with just seven seconds on the clock. Tatum rolled under Kyle Lowry’s switch, but Jimmy Butler scored the roll and Smart had no passing angle to Jaylen Brown (the guy Butler was guarding)…
The Celtics therefore had nothing to do with five seconds left, and Smart decided his best shot was a pull-up 3 with Tucker in position to contest the shot.
The score was still tied 30 seconds later when the Celtics suffered one of their worst defensive breakdowns in the series. Max Strus screened the ball for Butler and Derrick White just sniffed his pick-and-roll coverage, allowing Butler to drive to the rim for a bucket-and-1 that gave the Heat the lead for good. …
Then the Celtics doubled down on their mistakes. Tatum blindly rotated into a double team, returning the ball. And, instead of staying in front of the ball, the Whites committed a transition foul with the Heat in the bonus.
(The last two minute report deemed it an improper call, saying White’s contact with Tucker was incidental. He probably should have defended with his feet instead of his hands.)
That made it a two possession game, and Boston would have no more chance to tie or take the lead.
The Celtics gave themselves a chance to win Game 6, then they fumbled with errors at both ends of the field that were entirely avoidable. Similar mistakes by either team in Game 7 would be even more damaging.
2. Great players making great plays
Speaking of Butler’s performance — 47 points (16 for 29 FG, 11 for 11 FT), nine rebounds, eight assists, four steals, one block and just one turnover — Heat coach Erik Spoelstra , said: “Sometimes you just need your best players and your guy to make plays.
The Heat may need another big game from Butler on Sunday. And while that might not come in the form of 47 points, it could be a similar combination of making the open jumpers the Celtics give him, getting to the edge (or the line free throws) even when they beg him to shoot…
… and create havoc defensively to give the Heat easy opportunities in transition.
The need for top players to ramp up certainly doesn’t just apply to the Heat. And the Celtics will likely need more Tatum and Brown than they did in Game 6.
Of course, Tatum and Brown being limited to just eight points overall in the fourth quarter on Friday (1 for 2 from the field, 6 for 8 from the line) didn’t stop them from running away from the moment. This was a Heat defense that wasn’t going to allow big players to make big plays.
The Celtics, as they have been in every series, were looking for mismatches, and Strus was the primary target most of the time. But the Heat wouldn’t allow Tatum and Brown to go one-on-one. In the second half of game 6, they were quick to send double teams…
…or, at a minimum, shade towards those one-on-one matchups so Tatum and Brown would see more defenders if they got past the former.
Being aggressive against this kind of defense is not easy. And the turnover pictured above isn’t the only turnover Tatum has had trying to attack in the teeth of the defense. (Here is a second and a third.)
Most of the time, he was doing the right readings…
And the Celtics scored 57 points on 47 possessions (1.21 per) in the second half of Game 6, so it’s not like the Heat’s extra-aggressive defense was super effective. Still, it will be interesting to see, both early and late in Game 7, how aggressively the Heat send multiple defenders to Tatum and Brown. A similar approach to Sunday’s jump will have the other Celtics making plays and shooting.
3. Shooting and Late Execution
This is a make-it-or-miss-it league, and according to Second Spectrum tracking, the team that got the best quality shots (Miami in games 1 and 5, Boston in 2, 3, 4 and 6) is only 3-3 in this series. Game 7 could simply come down to which team makes the most shots they get, whether good or bad.
And sometimes a contested shot late in the clock (like the Smart 3 above) is all you get. In Game 3 (which they won by six points), the Heat made three hard knocks on the stopwatch buzzer…
These 3 shots hit by the Heat at the stopwatch buzzer were… lucky. pic.twitter.com/SvYZk7k6rE
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) May 22, 2022
When they lost three in the fourth quarter of Game 6, Kyle Lowry landed what was probably the biggest shot of the series so far, a late 3 in a crowd that saved a possession that went wrong. nowhere.
A few minutes later, Butler hit an even harder shot late in the clock to put the Heat up six in the final minute.
In their three wins, the Heat are 21 for 49 (43%) in the final six seconds on the shot clock. In their three losses, they are 8 for 37 (22%). The Celtics don’t have as big a differential, but they also took a bigger percentage of their shots in the last six seconds of the clock.
There will be late situations for both teams on Sunday, and finding ways to convert them into points will be huge.
4. Tyler and Time Lord Status
Health has been a factor throughout this series. The Heat looked like the most exhausted team in Game 5, but Butler and Lowry apparently found their legs two nights later.
Tyler Herro has missed the last three games and is questionable for Game 7. Herro provides the Celtics with another defender to target. The Heat allowed more than 122 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in this series, and he hasn’t been able to make up for it with his offense, shooting 1 for 14 3 points in the three games he played. But Herro can be flammable on the other end, and he’s a player who can salvage some of those goods that aren’t going anywhere.
Smart (right ankle) and Robert Williams III (left knee) are listed as questionable for Boston. Both played in Game 6, although Williams did not play in the fourth quarter. He’s had some pretty incredible defensive moments in this series, but also moments where he was caught off guard. In the third quarter on Sunday, the two Butlers (on a drive) and Victor Oladipo (with hindsight 3) were able to score against Williams in isolation.
The good outweighed the bad, and the Celtics were at their best defensively in this series with Williams on the ground, allowing only one point per possession. If he moves well and doesn’t get caught off guard (this would apply to #1 above), he can have a big impact.
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