A professional basketball team doesn’t start a high-stakes playoff game 0-for-14 from the field without some help from its opponent. The Miami Heat came out ice cold in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, clanging jumper after jumper off the rim for almost nine minutes, in the process digging an 18–1 hole out of which the team would never climb. The reason for Miami’s reliance on midrange jumpers in the first quarter was probably in part due to exhaustion, but a more significant reason hit the Heat in the face like a brick wall: Boston’s long and large defenders gave up absolutely nothing in the paint.
Boston has had the size advantage in this series from the start. Not just in literal height, though they certainly have that too; Al Horford and Williamses Grant and Robert are bigger than any regular Miami contributor, save Dewayne Dedmon, who is bad. It’s more that that trident, alongside the long-winged Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, plays big in ways no Heat player can really match. Bam Adebayo comes closest, but he’s more of a gap-filling offensive player than a true wrecking ball in the paint. The rest of the Heat’s regular rotation relies on speed, shooting, and finishing around the rim.
Normally, that set-up can successfully blitz teams out of games, and it special successfully blitzed the Celtics in this very series. However, Ime Udoka deserves credit for instituting a new game plan in the first quarter of Monday night’s game. The Celtics’ bigs went under every screen, particularly when Jimmy Butler had the ball, and dared Miami to either drive into a mass of limbs or settle for long jumpers. The Heat decided on the latter, and the cold shooting did the rest to give Boston a lead it only built upon until the fourth quarter, when it had gotten insurmountably large.
With Robert Williams back in the lineup after missing Game 3, the Celtics were able to start him and Horford together against a Heat lineup that featured four perimeter players, plus Adebayo. From Miami’s first possession, it was clear that this was a different challenge to unlock. Kyle Lowry ran a pick-and-pop with Adebayo, who probably expected to be able to take Horford off the dribble. Instead, Williams came over to block the left-hand dribble, forcing Adebayo to stop and look for the open man long enough for Horford to poke the ball away:
During Miami’s dreadful stretch in the game’s first 8 minutes and 40 seconds, the team only got one clean look in the paint, a missed Max Strus layup around six minutes in. Otherwise, it was a barrage of bricked jumpers. These were difficult shots, which allowed Boston to grab every rebound and push the pace on the other side. The Celtics didn’t even play particularly well on offense on Monday. They probably should have been up more than 18–1 by the time Miami scored its first field goal, and for the game, Boston shot only 39 percent from the field (23.5 percent from three). As embarrassing as the 20-point loss was for the Heat, it was even scarier as a glimpse at what might happen as the series moves back to South Beach for Game 5.
Erik Spoelstra and his charges will have to figure out how to get easier baskets against the best defense in the league, and they’ll have to do it quick as this turns into a three-game series. Specifically, Miami will have to solve its Horford problem. The 35-year-old center was immense on Monday, stuffing four shots while playing stellar on-ball and help defense. Robert Williams is also a problem, though the oft-hobbled big man limped off the court in the third quarter and never returned. His status for Game 5 is unclear right now, and his absence would allow Miami to match Adebayo up with Horford and pull him out of the paint.
That being said, Marcus Smart missed Game 4 with an ankle sprain, and he could be back by Wednesday’s game to provide yet another irritant to Boston’s defense. Miami will (probably) not shoot as poorly as it did on open shots on Monday again, but neither should Boston. For the Heat to win this series, they will have to get back to running in transition and deploying actions to let Butler—also hobbled with knee inflammation; this series is a war of attrition—do what he does best: drive into the paint and either create or finish.
Butler, and the rest of the Heat, will also need to get into the paint for another reason: to draw fouls. Boston had a 38–14 advantage in free-throw attempts on Monday. Boston was able to use its size to grab offensive rebounds and go straight up, drawing fouls in the process, while Miami was left with clean jumpers that don’t draw any contact. After all, it’s hard to win while giving your opponent 24 more points from the line.
Miami’s problems aren’t unsolvable, and the team might have stumbled into a solution in the bench-vs.-bench showdowns that took up most of the otherwise useless fourth quarter. Duncan Robinson, despite being a total negative on defense, has to play more to open the floor and drag players out of the paint. The $90 million dollar sharpshooter went 4-of-8 from three, and Miami will likely need something like that going forward, given that Strus is the only real three-point shooter in the starting lineup. Tyler Herro’s potential return on Wednesday should also help, even if he has been subpar throughout this series; when on his game, he’s the only player on Miami aside from Butler who can take over a quarter and stymie Boston scoring runs with key shots.
As for the Celtics, the main worry heading into Game 5 is health. If Williams misses any more time, or if Smart isn’t ready to go, the scales could tilt back to Miami. If those two are able to play at anything resembling 100 percent, the advantage will stay with the Celtics. In a series full of horrendous quarters for each team in turn, it’s tempting to chalk the first quarter of Game 4 up to a quirk of this inscrutable match-up. This feels different, though, because Boston finally got into its strengths and so thoroughly dominated Miami’s ability to get to the basket that it can’t help but carry over. If it does, this season could be, and probably should be, over earlier than anyone on the Heat would have wanted.