As I prepare to make my Game 6 pick, I’ve got one question on my mind:
Are the Celtics for real?
Of the 150 teams in NBA playoff history to be down 3-0, only three have forced a Game 7.
If I’m right, the Celtics will be the fourth.
Spread: Celtics -2.5 (-110) vs. Heat +2.5 (-110)
Moneyline: Celtics (+140) vs. Heat (+118)
Total: Over 210.5 (-110) | Under 210.5 (-110)
Odds via Caesars
Shooting variance defines the game of basketball.
The NBA is a make-or-miss league, as they say.
Well, the Celtics weren’t making their shots.
Through the first three games of the ECF, the Heat shot 48% from 3 on 30 attempts per game, while the Celtics shot 29% on 35 attempts.
When you see that kind of disparity, it’s not surprising the Heat took a 3-0 lead.
But water always finds its level, and the Celtics are receiving all the regression luck and more.
Boston has hit 17 more 3-point shots than the Heat over the past two games, good for a 51-point differential from deep.
Predictably, the Celtics have stormed back.
It’s hard to predict shooting variance on a game-to-game basis, but I doubt the Heat will run as well as they did during Games 1 through 3.
And, beyond shooting variance, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the Celtics’ hopes.
First, the Celtics finally figured out the zone!
Erik Spoelstra was wise to run zone defense against a poorly-coached Celtics team, but Joe Mazzulla and co. finally busted that zone.
Using Jayson Tatum as the nail in the high post was the key.
Speaking of Tatum, his 11-assist performance defined Game 5.
The C’s superstar sparked ball movement among his team – specifically, the type of ball movement that Boston shows in wins.
The Celtics also stopped playing isolation-heavy hero ball, which was a godsend.
And props to Mazzulla for keeping Derrick White and Al Horford on the court for extra spacing.
Speaking of Mazzulla, he finally started calling timeouts when the Heat were streaking.
All of the Mazzulla criticism was deserved, but he made the correct adjustments against Philadelphia, and he’s starting to make the right adjustments here.
And finally, the Celtics tapped into their defensive identity.
I’m specifically talking about Marcus Smart, who tallied five steals in the victory.
While the Heat got “lucky” in the 3-point column through the first three games, the Celtics still played dreadful basketball.
And while the Celtics have been “lucky” in that same column over the past two wins, they’re also beginning to play like themselves – as in the best regular-season team in the NBA (by point differential and net rating).
ShotQuality is a website that attempts to cut through shooting variance by projecting scores based on the quality of shots taken and allowed, not if they went in.
By their metrics, the Celtics have won three of five ECF games played so far.
My point: If the shooting variance has finally evened out, it’s time to start believing in the deeper, more talented team.
The Heat’s coaching advantage may be shrinking, Jimmy Butler’s magic may be running out, and the Celtics are starting to click on all cylinders.
All else equal, the Celtics should win and cover in Game 6. I’ll make that bet.
Celtics -2.5 (-110) | Play to -4.5 (-110)