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MIAMI — The Eastern Conference finals will be decided by a win-or-go-home Game 7 on Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). And with the way this series has gone, there’s no telling what to expect.
This will be the 145th Game 7 in NBA history. Home teams are 108-32 (.771) in Game 7s, a record that doesn’t include the four Game 7s that took place in the 2020 bubble. But starting with the 2016 Finals, the road team has won six of the last 10 non-bubble Game 7s.
The Celtics have already won a Game 7 in these playoffs, blowing out the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks two weeks ago. This will be the 35th Game 7 in franchise history, but only the eighth that Boston has played on the road. They’re 3-4 record in the previous seven, with one of those losses having come at Miami in the 2012 conference finals.
It’s the 11th Game 7 for the Heat, who are 6-2 in Game 7s at home. Of course, Game 7s from 20 or 10 years ago have little to do with the one that will be played Sunday night.
Here are five keys for the first conference finals Game 7 since we had two of them in the 2018 playoffs…
1. Limit mistakes
The first step to success for both the Heat and Celtics is controlling what they can control. Turnovers have been an issue for both teams in this series, but those aren’t the only mistakes that can be made on offense. And avoiding defensive breakdowns is critical as well.
The Celtics erased a nine-point, fourth-quarter deficit in Game 6 on Friday and took a three-point lead. But poor execution on both ends of the floor in the final 3 1/2 minutes kept them from closing out the series.
With the score tied at 99, Marcus Smart took one of the worst shots of the game, an iso pull-up against P.J. Tucker. That’s all that the Celtics were left with after they took far too long to get into their initial offense.
With Jayson Tatum also slow-walking up the floor, Smart crossed the mid-court line with 17 seconds left on the shot clock. And the Celtics continued to move slowly, with Tatum’s ball-screen for Smart taking place with only seven seconds on the clock. Tatum rolled below Kyle Lowry’s switch, but Jimmy Butler tagged the roll and Smart didn’t have a passing angle to Jaylen Brown (the guy Butler was guarding)…
So the Celtics had nothing going with five seconds left on the clock, and Smart decided his best shot was a pull-up 3 with Tucker in position to contest the shot.
The score was still tied (because Brown missed two free throws) 30 seconds later, when the Celtics had one of their worst defensive breakdowns of the series. Max Strus set a ball-screen for Butler and (whether it was supposed to be a switch or a hedge and recover) Derrick White just whiffed on his pick-and-roll coverage, allowing Butler to drive to the rim for an and-one bucket that gave the Heat the lead for good…
Then the Celtics doubled up on their mistakes. Tatum blindly spun into a double team, turning the ball over. And, instead of staying in front of the ball, White committed a transition foul with the Heat in the bonus.
(The Last Two Minute Report deemed that an incorrect call, saying that White’s contact with Tucker was incidental. He still probably should have defended with his feet instead of his hands.)
That made it a two-possession game, and Boston wouldn’t have another chance to tie or take the lead.
The Celtics gave themselves a chance to win Game 6, and then they fumbled it away, with mistakes (on both ends of the floor) that were entirely preventable. Similar mistakes (from either team) in Game 7 would be even more damaging.
2. Great players making great plays
In speaking about Butler’s performance — 47 points (16-29 FG, 11-11 FT), nine rebounds, eight assists, four steals, one block and just one turnover — in Game 6, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “Sometimes you just need your best players and your guy to make plays.”
The Heat may need another big game from Butler on Sunday. And while that might not come in the form of 47 points, it could be some similar combination of making the open jumpers that the Celtics are giving him, getting to the rim (or the free throw line) even when they’re begging him to shoot…
… and creating havoc defensively to give the Heat easy opportunities in transition.
The need for the best players to come up big certainly doesn’t apply to just the Heat. And the Celtics will probably need more from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown than they got in Game 6.
Of course, Tatum and Brown being limited to just eight points total in the fourth quarter on Friday (1-for-2 from the field, 6-for-8 from the line) wasn’t about them shying away from the moment. It was about a Heat defense that wasn’t going to allow the great players to make great plays.
The Celtics, as they have been all series, were seeking mismatches, and Max Strus was the primary target most of the time. But the Heat didn’t permit Tatum and Brown to play one-on-one. In the second half of Game 6, they were quick to send double-teams…
… or, at minimum, shade toward those one-on-one matchups so that Tatum and Brown would see more defenders if they got past the first one.
Being aggressive against that kind of defense is not easy. And the turnover illustrated above isn’t the only one Tatum had while trying to attack into the teeth of the defense. (Here’s another and a third.)
Most of the time, he made the right reads…
And the Celtics scored 57 points on 47 possessions (1.21 per) in the second half of Game 6, so it’s not like the Heat’s extra-aggressive defense was super effective. Still, it will be interesting to see, both early and late in Game 7, how aggressively the Heat send extra defenders at Tatum and Brown. A similar approach from the jump on Sunday will force other Celtics to make plays and make shots.
3. Shot-making and late-clock execution
It is a make-or-miss league, and according to Second Spectrum tracking, the team that has gotten better quality shots (Miami in Games 1 and 5, Boston in 2, 3, 4 and 6) is only 3-3 in this series. Game 7 could just come down to which team makes more of the shots it gets, whether they’re good or bad.
And sometimes, a contested shot late in the clock (like the Smart 3 above) is all you get. In Game 3 (which they won by six points), the Heat made three tough shots at the shot clock buzzer…
These 3 shots the Heat hit at the shot-clock buzzer were … fortunate. pic.twitter.com/SvYZk7k6rE
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) May 22, 2022
When they went down three in the fourth quarter of Game 6, Kyle Lowry hit what was probably the biggest shot of the series thus far, a late-clock 3 in a crowd that saved a possession that was going nowhere.
A few minutes later, Butler hit an even tougher shot late in the clock to put the Heat up six in the final minute.
In their three wins, the Heat are 21-for-49 (43%) in the last six seconds of the shot clock. In their three losses, they’re 8-for-37 (22%). The Celtics don’t have nearly as big a differential, but they’re the team that’s taken a greater percentage of its shots in the last six seconds of the clock.
There will be late-clock situations for both teams on Sunday, and finding ways to convert them into points will be huge.
4. The status of Tyler and Time Lord
Health has been a factor throughout this series. The Heat looked like the more depleted team in Game 5, but Butler and Lowry seemingly found their legs two nights later.
Tyler Herro has missed the last three games and is questionable for Game 7. Herro provides the Celtics with another defender to target. The Heat have allowed more than 122 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in this series, and he hasn’t been able to make up for it with his offense, shooting 1-for-14 from 3-point range in the three games he played. But Herro can be flammable on the other end, and he’s a guy who can salvage some of those possessions that are going nowhere.
Both Smart (right ankle) and Robert Williams III (left knee) are listed as questionable for Boston. Both played in Game 6, though Williams didn’t play in the fourth quarter. He’s had some pretty incredible defensive moments in this series, but also some times when he’s been caught flat-footed. In the third quarter on Sunday, both Butler (on a drive) and Victor Oladipo (with a step-back 3) were able to score against Williams in isolation.
The good has outweighed the bad, and the Celtics have been at their best defensively in this series (allowing just a point per possession) with Williams on the floor. If he’s moving well and not getting caught flat-footed (that would apply to No. 1 above), he can make a big impact.
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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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