Celtics-Heat preview: Does Miami have a chance against Boston without Jimmy Butler?

The Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Boston Celtics (64-18) will face the eighth-seeded Miami Heat (46-36) in the first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs. This is their fourth postseason meeting since 2020. Miami beat Boston in the 2020 and 2023 East finals. The Celtics bested the Heat in the 2022 East finals.

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How the Celtics got here

The Celtics fell behind 3-0 to the (again) eighth-seeded Heat in the 2023 Eastern Conference finals and forced a Game 7, avoiding complete embarrassment, only for Jayson Tatum's ankle to dash their hopes of history. They dug themselves the hole and laid in it, a familiar characteristic of Boston's latest contender.

Something had to change, and Celtics executive Brad Stevens made big moves, swapping Marcus Smart — the heartbeat of that iteration of this team — for one-time All-Star center Kristaps Porziņģis and filling Smart's role with two-time All-Star guard Jrue Holiday. Boston freed Tatum and Jaylen Brown to assume leadership of a wonderfully constructed rotation, and a 64-win team lined up behind the All-NBA wings.

Tatum, Brown, Porziņģis, Holiday and Derrick White formed the most balanced starting unit in the NBA, waxing opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions. They pushed five-time All-Star turned sage veteran Al Horford to the bench, where Payton Pritchard and Sam Hauser extended the depth to eight strong.

The Celtics clinched a playoff berth on March 14, the East's No. 1 seed on March 25 and homecourt advantage through the postseason on April 4, building a 14-game lead over the entire conference. The end result was a net rating (+11.7) exceeded only by Michael Jordan's juggernaut 1990s Chicago Bulls.

How the Heat got here


The Heat lost a heartbreaker to the Philadelphia 76ers and lost Jimmy Butler to a sprained right MCL in their play-in tournament opener, and then needed an undermanned win over the Chicago Bulls to secure the No. 8 seed for a second straight season. This time, it will be even more difficult to win three straight road series to reach the Finals, since Butler's knee sprain will sideline him for weeks (if not more).

Miami let Gabe Vincent and Max Strus, a pair of key contributors, walk in free agency but wanted to improve last season's roster, which finished the 2022-23 campaign with a negative net rating. They eyed Damian Lillard in a trade that never came to fruition, instead pulling the trigger on a midseason swap of Kyle Lowry for Terry Rozier. The former Celtic's arrival yielded a year-over-year net gain of two victories.

For good reason. Everyone in the rotation played fewer than 65 games, except All-Star center Bam Adebayo, sharpshooter Duncan Robinson and rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr. The rook was a revelation, despite the roller coaster, as was Robinson, who added sauce to his game beyond a 40% clip from 3. Head coach Erik Spoelstra patched together the rest with underdogs, zone defense and second-year center Nikola Jović.

We had reason to believe Miami would emerge as a serious threat again. The Heat lugged a MASH unit to the playoffs, elevating Jaquez, Jović and Haywood Highsmith in the process, adding Rozier and reincorporating Tyler Herro from a foot injury, just in time for the play-in tournament. Then, the bottom fell out. Rozier suffered neck spasms in the weeks before the end of the regular season, and Butler suffered his injury in the play-in opener. At some point, even the Heat reach a breaking point. Is this it?

MIAMI, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 11: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics and Tyler Herro #14 of the Miami Heat look on during the third quarter of the game at Kaseya Center on February 11, 2024 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
Boston and Miami will face off in the playoffs for the fourth time since 2020. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Head to head

The Celtics swept their regular-season series with the Heat, 3-0.

The Heat were without multiple rotation players in all three games, including Butler in the third. Boston also seemed intent on punishing Miami for last season's conference finals.

Still, the Heat did what they always do against the Celtics, closing a talent gap with poise. (Except the second game, when Boston owned Miami, 143-110.) What changed was the Celtics' late-game execution. They beat the Heat in the fourth quarter of their first showdown, 32-23, as Brown and White totaled 26 points on 9-of-14 shots in the final frame of the only comeback they needed against Miami this season.

Remember, Brown's meltdown cost Boston the conference finals. He could not stop turning the ball over and stood no chance of leading the Celtics once Tatum suffered an ankle injury in Game 7. The additions of Holiday and Porziņģis afforded Boston the cushion it needed against Miami. Each of the Celtics' five starters averaged 16-plus points (for a combined total of 102.3 per game) against the Heat this season.

Then again, the Heat somehow transform into a juggernaut of grit every postseason, regardless of who takes the court, so analyzing any amount of their regular-season meetings is inherently a fool's errand.

Matchup to watch

Kristaps Porziņģis vs. Bam Adebayo

The Heat bullied the Celtics in last year's conference finals, but Porziņģis gives Boston a wrinkle it did not have a year ago. He has 6 inches on Adebayo and can shoot over the top of Miami's defensive anchor, either around the basket or from beyond the arc. Porziņģis is also a massive lob target if Adebayo roams onto Boston's plethora of paint-attacking guards and wings.

According to the NBA's tracking data, Adebayo spent 16:45 defending Porziņģis this season, more than anyone but Myles Turner and Mitchell Robinson. In those minutes, Porziņģis scored 41 points on 16-of-29 shooting (55.2 FG%), as the Celtics scored 136.4 points per 100 possessions. Those are absurd numbers.

Adebayo also has the ability to physically overpower Porziņģis. The officials will determine how much on defense. Offensively, Adebayo will leverage his muscle and agility to find open looks, and he must make them to give Miami's 21st-rated offense (113.3 points per 100 possessions) a shot against Boston's best.

Closing lineups

Boston Celtics
The Celtics will close with their starting lineup, which, as we have said before, boasts the NBA's best defensive backcourt (Holiday and White), the league's top wing duo (Tatum and Brown) and a 7-foot-3 Latvian unicorn (Porziņģis). Did we mention that Horford can replace Porziņģis or play alongside him in lineups just as versatile and/or even bigger? They are an embarrassment of riches among their top six.

Miami Heat
Butler and Adebayo would be the only mainstays of Miami's closing lineup, except Butler might not be available at all in this series. If Caleb Martin plays anything like he did in last year's conference finals, he will join Adebayo. There are choices between Herro, whose defense is a question, and a healthy Rozier; Robinson, whose shooting forces the Celtics to bend in his direction, and Jaquez, who has yet to experience the playoffs; and Highsmith, who was a bit player last season, and whoever else. For all of Spoelstra's preparation, he could still choose right every time and face an uphill battle without Butler.


Celtics in 5. The Celtics are too deep, and the Heat are too shallow, given the added injury concerns. When you have to worry about White, Holiday and Porziņģis going off — without even accounting for Tatum and Brown's offensive advantages on the wing — you are operating from an overwhelming deficit.

Series schedule (all times Eastern)

Game 1: Sun., April 21 @ Boston (1 p.m., ABC)
Game 2: Wed., April 24 @ Boston (7 p.m., TNT)
Game 3: Sat., April 27 @ Miami (6 p.m., TNT)
Game 4: Mon., April 29 @ Miami (TBD)
*Game 5: Wed., May 1 @ Boston (TBD)
*Game 6: Fri., May 3 @ Miami (TBD)
*Game 7: Sun., May 5 @ Boston (TBD)

*if necessary