Going into the Eastern Conference Finals, no one would blink if you told them the series would go to Game 7. However, most people would find it hard to believe that Boston Celtics they would achieve this by losing the first three games, then picking up three more wins to tie the series.
Erik Spoelstra is the big bad wolf of the coaching world, capable of making changes that shake a team’s offensive and/or defensive systems to the core. As such, we will likely witness the battle of the ages as two conference rivals face off in the second Game 7 in as many years.
With that in mind, here are three things to watch as the Celtics try to claim four straight wins over the Miami Heat.
Could Jayson Tatum be ‘that guy’ for a second series in a row?
In Game 7 of the second round, Jayson Tatum put the Celtics on their backs en route to a historic scoring night. Now the Celtics need their all-star player to do it again, this time against Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, not James Harden and Joel Embiid. The main difference is that Miami’s two best players are unlikely to run out of steam.
Nevertheless, Tatum played with Butler in Game 6, getting whatever he wanted wherever he wanted. Word is that the biggest stars will rise to the occasion, and there will be few opportunities bigger for the Celtics than the one they are in right now.
Fortunately, Tatum is more than just a shooter. Over three games of Boston’s revival, we’ve seen the 25-year-old provide solid assist in defense, ball defense, trap play and rebounding at both ends of the court. To defeat Rush, you need versatility and a willingness to fight battles on many fronts.
However, with Tatum shooting on all cylinders and leading the charge, the Celtics have more than one chance to go down in NBA history as a squad that made a great breakaway.
Will the Celtics avoid a mental breakdown?
So far, this postseason story isn’t too far from the one we saw in the regular season: Boston tends to shut down for long stretches of games. We saw the Celtics lose focus in Game 6 as their defense lost half a step and their offensive execution became difficult. Suddenly, Boston found themselves relying on a last-second tip to force Game 7, despite having controlled the game for 42 of 48 minutes.
There can be no such slip-up on a Monday night. The Heat will wait for Boston to take their foot off the gas, and as soon as they smell blood in the water, they will ramp up the intensity and want to drive away. Sure, part of staying focused will be on Joe Mazzulli’s shoulders as he’ll have to run a near-perfect game in terms of time-outs, match management and rotation decisions.
But in truth, most of Boston’s problems are directly related to the playing staff – after all, they are on the pitch. If the Celtics can focus on the prize and not let the weight of the moment get to them, they should be there or around when we enter coupling time.
Control offensive glass
Much of what has fueled the Celtics’ resurgence in the last three games has been their dominance in offensive glass. As such, continuing to win the battle in offensive dungeons must be a legitimate priority.
After all, teams can’t get out of a shift if you absorb all the rebounds from off-target shots, and given the intermission defense has been a struggle for the Celtics in recent years, inhaling all the loose balls you can is a solid strategy. Sometimes, however, a rebound is a gift from the basketball gods, as a friendly or unfriendly rebound can be the difference between a second chance or a foot race across the court.
Still, with an elite jumper like Robert Williams and a positional savant at Al Horford, the Celtics should expect to leave behind a solid rebounding record.
I’ll be short and sweet. win the game. Make history. Avenge last year NBA finals loss.