Jimmy Butler was four bounces away from the conference finals last year, and when he left the Philadelphia 76ers for the Miami Heat, few thought he’d get that close anytime soon. One popular take was that winning was less important to him than being the go-to guy.

Before the season started, though, Butler told Andrew Sharp, then of Sports Illustrated, that he believed in his new team. “Truthfully,” he said, “I think we can compete for a championship. I do.” He acknowledged that the stars would need to align, but insisted that “nobody on this roster is scared of anybody.”

At the time, it was easy to dismiss this as typical Butler bluster. The same was true when, before, the playoffs started, he told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that he thought the Heat could win a title and he didn’t care what anybody said. 

Butler is now in the conference finals for the first time in his career, and Miami is there for the first time since LeBron James left. Their opponents, the Boston Celtics, are overwhelming favorites, but Butler and the Heat are surely comfortable with that. Here are our writers’ picks:

Series prediction, picks

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

Bill Reiter: Celtics in 6

The Celtics can match the Heat in every respect. Defensive intensity? Check. Depth, particularly if Gordon Hayward returns from injury for the series? Check. Star power? Absolutely. Jayson Tatum’s emerging greatness is every bit a match for Jimmy Butler’s postseason heroics. Experience? Yes. While both teams are young, many of these Celtics have been to the conference finals before. This will be a hard-fought series between two well-coached, balanced teams. But the Celtics, along with the Los Angeles Clippers, were one of only two teams in the regular season to boast a top five offensive and defensive rating, and they have difference-makers across the board. Marcus Smart’s D, Kemba Walker’s positive impact on this team on and off the court, the combo of Tatum and Jaylen Brown — all of it adds up to a trip to the Finals for what much of this strange season has been one of the game’s most underrated teams. 

James Herbert: Celtics in 6

The Heat are talented enough to win this series, and the Celtics’ defense will be tested here. Between the playmaking of Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo and the Adebayo-Duncan Robinson two-man game, there is a lot to worry about. The Celtics are a much more flexible defensive team than the Bucks, though, and Grant Williams’ series-winning switch against Fred VanVleet at the end of Game 7 could be a sign of things to come. I suspect, too, that Boston, which ranked fourth in offensive rating in the regular season but scored at around the same rate as the Knicks and Cavaliers in the second round, will look better on offense against Miami. The Celtics should have Gordon Hayward back at some point, and while the Heat have some awesome defenders, they also have more weak spots than Toronto did. 

Colin Ward-Henninger: Celtics in 7

The analysis leans toward Boston in this one. The Heat exposed the system and stubbornness of the Bucks, and they will see much more versatility and many more adjustments from Brad Stevens and the Celtics. In Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker, Boston also has the individual shot creators that the Bucks so sorely lacked against the Heat defense — you can also throw in Gordon Hayward if he’s back in time to make a significant impact. That being said, it’s ultimately going to come down to execution, where the Heat are as elite as any team left in the field, plus they have a proven closer in Jimmy Butler. Between Stevens and Erik Spoelstra, this could be the best-coached series of the postseason, so most of the games will likely come down to a few possessions. Boston clearly had a talent edge against the Raptors and they went seven games, so I expect this series to do the same.

Brad Botkin: Celtics in 7

To me, this is Kemba Walker’s series. The Heat thrived against Milwaukee by squeezing down on Giannis’ penetration and still recovering out to shooters, but Walker can render the rotational brilliance of Miami’s defense moot if he’s hitting pull-ups right off the initial ball screen. Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler cancel each other out, but I do like Tatum’s ability to create more offense farther out on the floor, which I think will be important with all the like-sized matchups and switching in this series. Gordon Hayward probably coming back adds yet another playmaker to a Boston offense that I think, ultimately, just has a few more dependable pieces. Bam Adebayo, to me, is the third-best player in this series, but Boston has the versatile bodies to thwart a lot of his two-man actions with Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. All this said, the margin between Boston and Miami, all these factors notwithstanding, is pretty thin. Miami is playing so tough. I think this series goes the distance. 

Jasmyn Wimbish: Celtics in 6

While the Heat have looked unstoppable in the postseason, much of their success was predicated on mismatches against both the Pacers and the Bucks. Jimmy Butler was undoubtedly the best player — on both ends — against Milwaukee, and Goran Dragic used a myriad of screens to get anything he wanted at the rim, and from deep. The Bucks were considered the best defensive team in the league during the regular season, but they were significantly exposed against Miami. The Celtics, on the other hand, have the best defensive rating in the postseason thus far (101.9), and are limiting opponents to just 30 percent from long range in the first two rounds, which is the best of any team in the playoffs. Defense aside, though, the Celtics don’t just match up well against the Heat, they have the advantage in several positions. Miami is going to have a difficult time guarding Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and, oh yeah, Boston could also be getting Gordon Hayward back in this series. The Celtics just have too many weapons, and although Miami is rolling right now, this surprise team will have met its match against the Celtics. 

Michael Kaskey-Blomain: Celtics in 7

This series has the potential to go the full seven games as both teams are extremely well-coached, and both have been playing excellent ball in the bubble. Both teams are dominant defensively, so to me the difference will come on the offensive end. On the end of the floor, the Celtics have the edge as they have three players capable of getting their shot at any time, and in turn scoring 30-plus on any given night. This will be extremely important down the stretch of games when the teams are forced to play in the halfcourt. At that point, it seems like the Celtics will have an easier time generating offense, and when two teams are as evenly matched everywhere else as the Celtics and Heat are, that could prove to make the difference.  

Jack Maloney: Celtics in 6

What the Heat have done in the playoffs, and specifically against the Bucks, is very impressive. They’re a super tough, well-coached team with a true star leading the way in Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic has returned to his All-NBA form and they can really shoot it from outside. Heading into the postseason, no one predicted that the Heat would still be standing at this point. However, all that being said, the Celtics are just a little bit better team — especially with Gordon Hayward potentially coming back. They have three guys (four when Hayward returns) who can create both for themselves and others, which makes their offensive attack more versatile and unpredictable than any team the Heat have faced so far. And on the defensive end, the Celtics have been excellent in the playoffs, leading all teams with a 101.9 defensive rating. Boston isn’t going to show up and dominate this series — Butler simply won’t let that happen — but it should win.   

Sam Quinn: Celtics in 5

Miami’s win over Milwaukee was based on matchup advantages that don’t exist against Boston. The Celtics are far better on offense than they showed against Toronto’s stellar half-court defense, and the more forgiving Heat are going to struggle to contain them (especially Kemba Walker). Jae Crowder logically isn’t going to continue shooting 40 percent on over eight 3-point attempts per game, and Milwaukee had quite a bit of success neutralizing the Duncan Robinson-Bam Adebayo dribble hand-off, and once the Celtics scout it properly, they should as well. There are just too many weak links for Boston to pick on in this series, and if these games are close, the Celtics have the best player in the series in Jayson Tatum. The Heat should regress to something closer to the No. 5 seed they were all season, and the Celtics should dispatch them comfortably. 

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