Both teams entered the 2020-21 season with aspirations of getting at least that far again, but as they meet Wednesday for the first time this season (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN app), they both are still rounding into form.
The Celtics are 5-3, thanks almost solely to the stellar play of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who both look like surefire All-Stars this season. Miami, meanwhile, enters Wednesday’s game at 3-3, and has had one of the league’s worst offenses.
Despite the up-and-down start, both teams can take solace in the fact that the season is just two weeks old. ESPN’s BPI still projects both the Celtics and Heat to finish in the top five of the Eastern Conference, right where they were a season ago. However, if the early returns mean anything, both teams remain very much a work in progress.
With Gordon Hayward now in Charlotte, having left Boston as a free agent, and Kemba Walker laid up as he continues to strengthen his ailing left knee, the Celtics look a lot different than they did at the start of last season. With that has come some growing pains.
“This is what I anticipated,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Saturday. “We’ve got a lot of questions to answer. There’s a lot of new, a lot of people playing new roles, new responsibilities, [and there’s] new pressures that come with that.”
With Walker sidelined, Boston entered the season needing someone to pick up the scoring slack behind the team’s star young wing tandem.
So far, no one has.
While Brown (26.9 points per game) and Tatum (26.3) are off to strong starts, Marcus Smart (12.6) is the only other player on the team averaging over 10 points per game. Boston’s current preferred starting lineup — Smart, Brown, Tatum, Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson — has been outscored by over 16 points per 100 possessions in 74 minutes, per NBA.com’s stats page, by far the worst of any lineup that has played that many minutes this season.
It has predictably struggled offensively (101.9 points per 100 possessions) while providing none of the defensive heft (118 points per 100 possessions) it was designed for.
“I was hopeful that lineup would be very good defensively,” Stevens said. “I’m still hopeful of that.”
The Celtics haven’t been able to turn to their bench for instant offense, either. Veteran backup point guard Jeff Teague has started the season hot from 3-point range (7-for-12, though he’s taken only seven since going 4-for-5 in Boston’s opener) but is shooting an abysmal 9-for-36 on 2s and now has a sprained ankle. Young center Robert Williams III is shooting 75% from the field, which also happens to be the same percentage of his 28 shots that have come at the rim. Rookie Payton Pritchard has proven his draft report to be correct as a quality long-range shooter, but his inexperience as a creator has led to him being used most frequently alongside Teague, playing off the ball.
Still, Pritchard’s play, including his 23 points and eight assists in 32 minutes off the bench in Monday’s emphatic victory over the Toronto Raptors, has become a critical factor for a Boston team that still isn’t whole.
“They’re missing an All-Star point guard,” said one scout, “and a rather thin bench has gotten thinner and even more unproven.”
Some of these issues will be alleviated when Walker returns, though his timeline remains uncertain. Until then, the Celtics find themselves relying on superlative performances from both Brown and Tatum every game to have enough scoring to win, a burden that will only grow heavier as this compacted season wears on.
Tatum, who made his first All-Star appearance a year ago, is shooting over 40% from beyond the arc and has established himself as Boston’s go-to player in the clutch. He already has two go-ahead baskets in the final three seconds of games this season, after making one over his first three NBA seasons combined.
Brown, meanwhile, has established himself as an early-season favorite for Most Improved Player. He is shooting 58.1% from the field — fourth best in the league among players taking at least 10 shots per game — and a career-high 42.9 percent from 3, all while fully embracing the much larger load that’s been placed upon his shoulders because of Walker’s injury and Hayward’s departure.
Nevertheless, Brown knows it’s not enough to do that for eight games — at least not if Brown wants to return to the conference finals for the fourth time in his five-year career.
“It’s not about if you can do it once, it’s what you can do over and over and over again,” Brown said. “It’s about being consistent, so, keep continuing to make the effort. Continuing to adjust is going to be key for us. I think we’ll be fine down the line.”
The Heat heard throughout the NBA’s restart last season how their organizational culture made them the perfect team for the bubble, and they proved that talk right by reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since LeBron James left six years ago.
But as the 2020-21 season began with teams back in home markets, many around the league wondered if Miami would ride its momentum or prove to be just a bubble fluke.
“I thought it was a situational overachievement,” said another scout. “They were not that good. Butler played out of his mind, Herro played out of his mind, they were all kumbaya, but they were not quite that good. I thought they maximized whatever they were going to maximize.”
So far, however, the Heat’s problems have been less about where they’re playing and more about who they’re putting on the court.
The loss of Jae Crowder — who signed a three-year deal with the Phoenix Suns — has been noticeable. Crowder connected on 56% of his 3s in the seeding games and 40% in the first two rounds of the playoffs, allowing Miami to effectively space the floor around Adebayo inside.
The Heat have tried to fill that hole with Maurice Harkless (who is attempting less than one 3-pointer per game this season, and making just 25%), Meyers Leonard (who played just 31 minutes in the 2020 playoffs after starting 49 regular-season games) and Andre Iguodala (who at 37 years old is shooting a career-low 30% from the field, and has missed all five shots he’s taken inside the 3-point arc).
Things finally began to click Monday in a blowout win over Oklahoma City when the Heat turned to Kelly Olynyk, who posted 19 points and eight rebounds. While the Thunder rank as one of the league’s worst teams, it still marked a vast improvement over what Miami was getting previously at the power forward spot.
And the Heat, who currently rank 26th in the NBA in offensive efficiency, need all the production they can get.
“The way we execute and the way our offense flows and makes reads, it does take a little bit of time,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’re not just running a spread pick-and-roll with Jimmy [Butler] every single time. … With a short turnaround, I anticipated there would be an adjustment. I hope there’s not a long adjustment with this.”
Butler, meanwhile, has been banged up to start the season, missing two games and a large part of a third with a sprained ankle, and is averaging only 10.8 points per game. Still, several scouts and executives said they had no worries about Butler returning to form, pointing to his injury and heavy workload in the bubble as obvious reasons behind his slow start.
The Big Face Coffee proprietor thrived in the postseason playing alongside Goran Dragic, who has returned to a bench role after starting during most of the 2020 playoffs. Currently Miami is starting second-year guard Tyler Herro next to Duncan Robinson in the backcourt to get a sense of how effective that tandem can be long-term. Dragic is playing less than 24 minutes a night off the bench, but as he showed in last season’s playoffs, the 34-year-old is capable of carrying a heavier load when Miami needs him to.
For now, while the season remains young, the Heat will continue to experiment.
“I think you’re seeing throughout the league, even with teams that brought back the majority of their players … the first month of the season, you’re trying to figure it out,” Iguodala said. “I think we’re just working through it, trying to be smart about it. We’ve got a lot of depth, so a lot of moving parts, depending on the game.”
There have been some successes. Miami has immediately put rookie big man Precious Achiuwa into its rotation, slotting him in as Adebayo’s backup. He’s shooting 64% from the field on a steady diet of shots at the rim, a role similar to the one Montrezl Harrell parlayed into Sixth Man of the Year honors for the LA Clippers last season. And, on Miami’s first offensive play of the season, Herro and Adebayo ran a pick-and-roll that finished off with an Adebayo dunk, a chemistry that they’ve continued to show over Miami’s first few games.
“We’re not going to figure this out in two days,” Adebayo said last week. “Coach is doing the best job he can to figure the lineup out, but also make sure our offense is flowing and is doing what it’s supposed to do. We’re going to be all right.”