The Boston Celtics Have an Outside Shot … if They Have an Outside Shot

There are several ways to interpret the Eastern Conference finals, an astonishing series between the Celtics and Heat that nearly ended on Tuesday before Boston (momentarily) kept its season alive with a resilient victory in Game 4.

The matchup has been defined by unforced turnovers, sloppy fouls, questionable lineup decisions, timely offensive rebounds, and meticulous late-game execution.

There have been blown defensive assignments, aimless switches, and half-hearted closeouts, compounded by crisp ball movement, purposeful cuts, and relentless energy. All-NBA member Jaylen Brown has been bad, while Miami’s undrafted bench troop has run around with its hair on fire. And for meaningful stretches, one side has played harder than the other.

All that, and so much more, has factored into the Heat’s commanding 3-1 series lead. But even after all those elements are considered, Miami would not be on the brink of an NBA Finals appearance without some remarkably unanticipated shotmaking—and missing—by both teams.

The 3-point line is an overwhelming variable that can drown out defensive mistakes and trivialize hustle plays. And coming off a season in which the Celtics were much better at converting those shots than the Heat, the 3-ball should still play a major role in deciding who advances.

In the first three games of this series, Miami took 92 3s and made an eyebrow-searing 47.8 percent of them. Before this series started, only 13 teams had ever drilled over 50 percent of their 3s on at least 20 attempts in a conference finals game. The Heat joined that club in Game 1 and Game 3.

They were at a more pedestrian 34.6 percent in a gutsy Game 2 win, but the Celtics could muster only a dreadful 10-for-35 (28.6 percent) effort themselves. In the first three games overall, Boston made 29.2 percent of its 106 attempts. They’ve manufactured a whopping 37 more catch-and-shoot 3s but have only made 34.9 percent of them compared to Miami’s 46.6.

Again, how a team fares from the outside is not the be-all and end-all, but any disparity that dramatic is a mathematical advantage that’s very hard to overcome, particularly for a team that’s now 37-2 when over 40 percent of its 3s go in. Bricks are deflating. Makes are a shot of adrenaline.

The script flipped in Game 4. “I think we just missed shots that we typically were making. Sometimes it’s just how the game goes,” said Heat wing Caleb Martin, who’s looked like a superstar in this series. “You miss a couple, they go on a run and they hit a couple shots, and it’s like the gates kind of open for them and the basket got a little wider for guys. Sometimes it just happens.”

A roster that finished the regular season second in 3s taken and made, and sixth in 3-point percentage, finally kissed the net. The Celtics went 18-for-45 (40 percent), while the Heat cooled off at 8-for-32 (25 percent). Some of that’s luck. But some of it’s also because Boston’s defense was locked in on a game plan that wanted to limit as many open looks from the outside as it could—which couldn’t be said about the preceding three games. After the Heat went 16-for-31 from deep in Game 1, Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla wasn’t pleased with his team’s focus.

“That kind of goes back to some of our game plan execution as far as taking away certain personnel,” Mazzulla said. “[Kyle] Lowry hit one in transition, which he’s great at. [Kevin] Love hit one in transition, which he hunts. We lost sight of [Max] Strus a couple times. I know he hit a deep one. I think it’s more about personnel tendencies and game plan execution.”

In Game 4, Boston made Miami uncomfortable by running shooters off the line, abandoning matchups to offer a contest, shrinking the floor, and consistently giving multiple efforts:

“I would tell you in every game they missed a lot of shots and tonight they made shots,” Jimmy Butler said. “But we didn’t do our job in making them miss those shots either.”

Miami’s turnovers also killed it. Several directly led to open-floor opportunities against a backpedaling defense that had no chance of scrambling against a pass-happy Boston attack that was shot ready. A few of those instances can be seen below, along with some breakdowns in the pick-and-roll, including Love dropping on the wrong side of a screen against Jayson Tatum, who as the game went on got off the ball quicker against double-teams and didn’t lose his composure driving into a crowd:

“I did feel like they got some clean looks, definitely cleaner looks than they got the first two games,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But you have to give them credit. That’s who they have been all season long. So it takes extraordinary efforts and focus and a commitment to be in the right spot and to get them off the line, but also make those second, third, fourth, fifth efforts. Whatever is necessary to get it done.”

Boston allowing so many wide-open looks has been a part of Miami’s blistering success. But even if you take those gifts off the table and focus on lightly and heavily contested 3-point tries, Heat shooters have still sizzled with a 63.7 effective field goal percentage that’s the second-highest mark any team has had against a single opponent in these playoffs, according to Second Spectrum.

Dig deeper, and what the Heat have done so far is even more impressive. Miami’s shot quality (which measures what an average player would make launching those same shots) is 49 percent, which is the second lowest split in these playoffs against one opponent. The only team with a higher quantified shooter impact (which measures the gap between effective field goal percentage and shot quality) in a series is … the Heat, in their first-round upset of the top-seeded Bucks.

The deluge comes after a regular season in which the Heat finished 27th in 3-point percentage, and sans Tyler Herro, who shot a team-high 37.8 percent on 8.0 attempts per game before breaking his hand in the team’s playoff opener. Martin (35.6 percent in the regular season to 46.2 percent in the conference finals), Gabe Vincent (33.4 to 50.0), Duncan Robinson (32.8 to 42.1), and Love (29.7 to 62.5) have all caught lightning in a bottle.

On the other side, Al Horford (44.6 to 31.6), Malcolm Brogdon (44.4 to 21.4), and Jaylen Brown (33.5 to 12.0!) have fallen off a cliff. Going forward, the law of averages is on Boston’s side, but in a sample size that may be just one more game, that either means nothing or can help spell one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history.

Boston’s margin for error is slim. The Heat are disciplined enough to overcome an off shooting night by taking care of the ball, winning the possession game, keeping the score close, and then letting Butler carry them home. But they’re less likely to do all that if things normalize on both sides from behind the 3-point line.

During his walk-off interview after Game 4 with TNT’s Allie LaForce, Tatum was asked about his team’s inconsistent shooting. “I think, you know, all series I think we’ve been generating good shots,” he said before allowing a small chuckle. “You know, it’s a make-or-miss league, sometimes they just don’t go in. But tonight we played with pace, purpose, we were getting stops, we was getting out in transition. You see layups and free throws go in, the jump shots start to feel a lot easier.”

A few minutes later, Mazzulla echoed his superstar’s sentiment, while also crediting his team’s play during pockets of the game when shots weren’t going in. “We had like an empty-possession stretch in both halves where we continued to defend at a high level,” he said. “So, I think it’s a combination of defending at a high level regardless of if those go in, but obviously when they go in, they help. It makes things a little bit easier for us.”

The Celtics can’t rely on the 3-ball to bail them out. But despite how much variance and human fallibility those shots can have, the Celtics also aren’t likely to win without them. The relatively good news, for Boston, is if any team is ever going to come back from a 3-0 deficit and win a playoff series, it might as well be one that endured such historic misfortune from behind the 3-point line. The table is wobbly, but it’s also set for Boston to do just that.