With their season on the line, the Boston Celtics outscored the Miami Heat 66-43 in the second half en route to a 116-99 win. Despite their triumph, the Celtics still need to win three more games in consecutive fashion if they plan on advancing to the NBA Finals for the second time in as many seasons.
So, the question now becomes: what can we learn from Boston’s Game 4 victory? In other words, did the Celtics unlock the blueprint for returning from a 3-0 deficit and making NBA history?
It All Revolves Around Tatum
While it hasn’t been this way so far in the playoffs, during the regular season, Jayson Tatum was widely viewed as the better player between him and Jimmy Butler (hence him finishing higher in MVP voting).
Coming into this matchup, Tatum didn’t have to play like the best player in the series in order for his Celtics to win because they were the better team (on paper) from top to bottom. But with Boston falling behind 3-0, it is paramount that Tatum lives up to his reputation.
After a couple of early miscues, Tatum did just that in Game 4, posting 33 points, eleven rebounds, seven assists, two blocks, and a steal on 72.1 percent true shooting with a plus-minus of +21 in 42 minutes of action.
More impressive than his raw counting measures, though, are the adjustments he made to the Heat’s hyena defense. In Games 1 through 3, Miami tried to exploit Tatum’s relatively loose handle (51st percentile in TOV% for his position, per Cleaning the Glass) by aggressively gaping his driving lanes to try and poke the ball free.
This strategy worked like a charm, as Tatum averaged four turnovers in the first three games. He had five in Game 4 but only one in the second half (as we said, he had a couple of early miscues). Tatum countered their aggressive approach by picking up his dribble earlier in his attack to avoid off-ball defenders disrupting him. From there, he would either explode at the rim or flow into a floater.
Another thing the Heat have been doing is sending two defenders his way in pick-and-roll (they call this “hedging” or “trapping” the ballscreen) to speed up his mental process. This plan was largely successful in the first three games, but in Game 4, Tatum was able to slow everything down in his mind and make the right decisions based on the layout of the battlefield.
Here are examples of everything we’ve been talking about:
If Tatum can continue to play with the poise and control he displayed in Game 4, he becomes the best player in the series, and in turn, he gives Boston a better shot of running the gauntlet.
A Battle of Energy and Mud
This will probably sound like an episode of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” but bear with me here. The Celtics are at their best when they are swinging the ball around in a constant state of drive-and-kick until they either produce a shot at the rim, free throws, or a catch-and-shoot three-pointer. Simply put, they are at their best when they have a lot of “energy” in the basketball.
On the flip side, Miami’s defense is predicated on aggressive, turnover-inducing tactics that are designed to either end the possession (by securing a steal) or stagnant it (by deterring teams from passing the basketball). The goal of their defense is to get offenses stuck in the “mud.”
Former NBA Assistant Coach and current co-host of The Dunker Spot Steve Jones Jr. does a great job of painting the picture of this battle in this tweet:
This is the battle, Boston's ball movement vs. Miami's rotations. Boston is working to keep the advantage, Miami is flying around to recover. Fun stuff from both sides. pic.twitter.com/Lk0lEAiG0l— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 24, 2023
In Game 4, Boston was able to win this clash of ideals more often than not. They climbed out of the mud hole that they were in during the first three games and re-ignited the energy in the basketball with pristine ball movement. If they are going to come back in this series, they need to stay out of the Heat’s mud and keep the ball inflated with energy (and air, of course).
Give Miami a Taste of their Own Medicine
Do you know what’s a great way of staying out of the mud? Staying indoors! And in this continuing metaphor of mud and energy, staying indoors is analogous to getting out and running in transition. After all, you never have to deal with a team’s set defense if you work so fast that the defense never has time to get set.
And the best way to consistently get out and run is to use your defense to kickstart your offense. This, of course, involves generating turnovers. Through three games, Miami has had the upper hand in this category, forcing Boston to average three more turnovers a game than them. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as Miami was second in opponent turnover percentage (TOV%) in the regular season. Creating turnovers is the hallmark of their defense.
However, in Game 4, Boston flipped the script on Miami, compelling them into five more turnovers than they coughed themselves. These turnovers led to, you guessed it, a boatload of transition opportunities.
Now, while the Heat were second in opponent TOV%, Boston was only 26th, so this kind of advantage may not seem sustainable. But last season, with eerily similar personnel, the Celtics were 11th in this same category. That means that they can channel this type of defense to offense gear when they are keyed in and focused.
The Basketball Gods are Finally Smiling at Boston
The main takeaway a lot of people had from this game is that the Celtics shot significantly better from three (40% on 45 attempts) than the Heat (25% on 32 attempts), and that disparity contributed greatly to their Game 4 win.
That is true, but there’s a bit more to the story than that. Through the first three games, Boston was at a massive disadvantage as it pertains to three-point percentage, with the Heat shooting 47.8% from beyond the arc and them shooting just 29.2%. This is especially shocking because the Celtics shot 37.7% from three in the regular season (good for 6th in the NBA).
Some will chalk this up to Miami’s defense and Boston’s execution faltering under the Heat of the moment (ha, get it). However, during their time of struggle, Boston shot just 32.6% on their 14.2 wide-open attempts per game (NBA.com). As a general rule, wide-open three-point percentage can be highly variable in small samples and has very little to do with the opposing defense’s performance.
With this in mind, in Game 4, Boston shot 47.4% on their 19 wide-open three-point attempts. This is much more in line with their regular season average of 41.2% (4th in the NBA). So, hopefully, this indicates that their stretch of bad luck has subsided and that their outside shooting percentages are regressing back to the mean.
In the end, the Celtics are going to need this return to normalcy, along with continued great ball movement, defensive intensity, and Tatum brilliance (and some good ole’ fashion Irish luck), if they plan on being the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-0 deficit.