So You're Saying There's A Chance?
On Monday, the Denver Nuggets managed to do what the Miami Heat could not on Tuesday: they put the finishing nail in the coffin of their opponent and booked a trip to the NBA Finals. The Nuggets’ win improved the record for teams with 3-0 series leads in NBA playoffs to now 150-0. The Miami Heat may take small solace in that fact as they hope to prevent breaking that streak, despite dropping Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday - the first game of the series in which they were favorites. Despite their 11-4 SU record so far in these playoffs, Miami has only been a favorite in 3 of 15 games they have played in so far this postseason. They may not be a favorite again for the rest of this series.
The Heat lost a nine-point lead in the second half in Game 4 and are now forced to play Game 5 in Boston on Thursday night. The Vegas market has upgraded Miami since Game 1. However, the small uptick in their power rating might not be as much as one might expect considering their dominance at times throughout the first four games of this series. Vegas makes Miami an 8-point underdog in Game 4, after making them 9 and 10-point underdogs respectively in Games 1 & 2, indicating around a 1.5-point net upgrade for Miami over the course of this series.
Considering the 150-0 trend discussed earlier, many might be surprised to see that Vegas has priced Miami as only -280 favorites to win the series, offering Boston at +230. That means Vegas gives Boston a ~30% chance to achieve what would be an NBA first – winning a series after losing the first three games.
On paper, this projection is justified. Until Game 4, Boston was favored to win each match in the series, with the Celtics laying between 4.5 and 10 points in each game. Looking back in the NBA's betting history, only two teams have won three consecutive games of a series where they were 4-point or greater underdogs in each game: the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals this year and the Heat in their 2020 campaign in the Bubble against the Bucks. The Heat closed out the 2020 series in five games and will have the chance to do the same on Thursday night. A win would earn Miami their 7th trip as a franchise to the NBA Finals.
Historically, clean sweeps in the Conference Finals are a rarity, especially in the Eastern Conference. The Denver Nuggets' sweep over the Lakers marked the 12th such victory in the Western Conference Finals, whereas the Eastern Conference Finals has only witnessed five sweeps in 54 iterations. With the Celtics securing a win in Game 4, we are assured that a sixth sweep will not occur in 2023.
Looking back at the previous NBA series, Miami Heat will not join the 92 teams that completed a 4-0 sweep after leading 3-0. Of the remaining 58 teams, here's how the series unfolded:
44 times, the trailing team managed only the one victory, bowing out in five.
11 times, the trailing team won one more game, forcing a game 6.
And in only three instances, the series stretched to a decisive Game 7. The most recent instance was in 2003 when Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks secured victory at home to advance to the Western Conference Semis.
As we all know, no team has ever come all the way back to advance.
What Was Different for Boston in Game 4?
Facing the specter of a clean sweep, the Boston Celtics entered Game 4 determined not to go down without a fight. This determination was exemplified by Jayson Tatum and Al Horford, who expressed their commitment to meet this challenge head-on, refusing to let a singular difficult week define their legacy.
“I think when your backs are against the wall, you have to rely on one another,” Al Horford told reporters after his team extended the series with a 116-99 Game 4 win. “Through ups and downs this year, as a group, we’ve remained together. It shouldn’t be no different right now.”
The Celtics’ resiliency manifested as they managed to overturn a nine-point deficit in the first half and repeated the feat early in the third quarter. The team played some of their best basketball of the playoffs in these crucial moments.
Overcoming adversity is a familiar narrative for the Celtics, a team that has weathered many storms - from the end of the Kyrie Irving era to surviving the Ime Udoka scandal just before training camp. They've bounced back from crushing postseason losses and twice faced potential elimination this season. However, they stand at a crossroads; a loss in Game 5 could flip the script, inviting calls for drastic changes, including firing the coach.
The Celtics outscored the Heat 66-43 in the second half of Game 4. Miami's offense faltered while Jason Tatum took control during crucial moments. The critical juncture may have been spurred by Celtics Coach Joe Mazzula calling an uncharacteristic timeout. Mazzula, who has been criticised throughout the season for not using his timeouts, said that he viewed the moment as a critical time to focus on the small details.
"I just told them we can't start the quarter off not getting a 50/50 ball and just keep your poise and execution, and I thought the guys had a great awareness, too, intentionality to what we were running,” said Mazzulla postgame.
Boston responded with an 18-0 run over the next four minutes immediately afterward.
During the critical timeout, Marcus Smart was vocal, rallying his teammates. During a post-game press conference, he elaborated on his motivational speech. “Just telling them to keep going. This is a pivotal point for us right now. We got to turn it up a little bit more. If you’re tired come out the game, get somebody else in there that’s fresh and that can keep it going. We gotta continue to go and do whatever it takes to win this game tonight,” Smart revealed. This instance serves as a testament to the turning points and momentum shifts in a game that are often fostered in the crucible of a well-timed timeout.
At the heart of the 'blow it up' discussions is the Celtics’ All-NBA forward, Jaylen Brown. Brown's strategic passing and solid defense played a significant role in the Celtics' Game 4 performance, making the most of the Heat’s help-heavy defense. Likewise, the team's ability to hold Martin scoreless in the second half and limit Butler's impact in the fourth quarter highlights.
What Was Different for Miami in Game 4?
While some may question whether this victory could provide Boston with enough momentum to truly compete in the series, Miami's star player, Jimmy Butler, is not worried. In his view, the problems that cost them Game 4 can be resolved with a few easy fixes: increased effort, fewer turnovers, and improved shooting accuracy.
“We’re going to listen to some music, drink some beers, have some wine,” Butler told reporters after Game 4. “At the end of the day, you fall back on your habits. How consistent are you going to be? Myself and my teammates we are going to do the same thing. We’re going to smile. We’re going to be in this thing together.”
Despite Butler's confidence, there's no denying that Boston's victory, marked by Tatum's phenomenal performance, brings a new complexity to the series. Previously perceived as a forgone conclusion, the Eastern Conference Finals now seem to hang in the balance. With 33 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists, Tatum has become the biggest complication factor for Miami. Tatum has now scored 30+ in four of his last games, averaging 32.4 PPG over that span.
Could this be the last game for Jaylen Brown in Boston?
Jaylen Brown – 7 for 16 from the floor in Game 4 - has picked a bad time to go cold. Despite a decent performance in Game 4, Jaylen Brown is shooting at just 39% in this series - his worst series shooting percentage since his rookie year. Brown’s standout regular season seems a distant memory considering these playoffs have shown, a marked decline, riddled with rushed decisions and noticeable anxiety.
Given this recent downturn, the Celtics management might find it challenging to justify offering a $295 million, 5-year deal that's within their reach. The new collective bargaining agreement further tightens the Celtics' fiscal leeway, adding another layer of complexity to Brown's contract situation.
Should the Celtics suffer an unexpected defeat to the 8th seed, it could instigate exploration of alternative paths. Recently, Michael Pina of The Ringer speculated potential trades that could see Boston swap Brown for players such as Zion Williamson or Karl-Anthony Towns. Of course, none of these guarantee a championship.
The Celtics could extend his contract, taking on the financial burden, or trade him for a higher-tier player. Whichever path they choose could shape the Celtics' future – and it’s a question that the Celtics would prefer to face next month, not as soon as Thursday if Boston drops Game 5.
Game 5 Preview – What to Expect?
Boston Celtics -8 vs. Miami Heat
As we pivot to Game 5, we can observe the minor and major adjustments the Vegas market has been making when assessing this match-up.
The first three games of this series all flew over the total, which caused the market to make major adjustments. Game 1 of this series opened with a total of only 210. In each game since, the market has ticked the totals up, reaching a high point of 217 before Game 4, which lead to the game going Under. For Game 5, we again see Vegas tweak expectations off the most recent data, with the total for Game 5 now lined at Over/Under 215.5.
Since 2002, NBA teams like Miami Heat who have won the first three games of a series, only to lose Game 4, have gone onto close out the series in 5 games in 21 of 28 occasions. These teams have gone 14-14 ATS in Game 5s. Remarkably, Miami stands as only the third such team to walk into Game 5 as an underdog, with no prior team being an underdog by more than four points.
Moreover, key player prop information might provide us with insightful clues. After an impressive 29-point performance in Game 4, Heat forward Jimmy Butler's Over/Under for Game 5 stands at 28.5 points, reflecting a 1-point increment compared to his Game 4 points prop.
On the Celtics' side, Jayson Tatum's Over/Under is set at 30.5 points. While he has exceeded this score in two of his last three games, he has only managed to go beyond 30.5 points seven times in the 17 games these playoffs.
One noteworthy element in Miami Heat's strategy is the status of guard Gabe Vincent, who was the top scorer for the Heat in Game 3 with 29 points. Vincent suffered an injury scare in Game 4, landing awkwardly after a jump shot. He had to retreat to the locker room, accompanied by the Heat medical staff, missing approximately three minutes of the game. Nevertheless, he made his way back onto the court, displaying a level of determination that didn't go unnoticed.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra praised Vincent for his tenacity, but confirmed that Vincent's condition would be evaluated on Wednesday. Spoelstra, at a post-game interview, noted Vincent's toughness and willingness to get back into the game. "Gabe is as tough as they come. He just wanted to — he said, ‘Let me retape it.’ We have a lot of guys in the locker room like that,” Spoelstra commented. "You know, all year long they have been putting themselves out there. So yeah, that's why he has so much respect in the locker room." This evaluation is key as the injury's progression overnight will determine his participation in Game 5.
Bearing in mind the wider context of the Eastern Conference Finals and the challenging journey both teams have been on so far, Game 5 promises to be a spectacle, driven by strategic plays, player prop performance, and the resilience of players such as Gabe Vincent. As the series unfolds, we eagerly anticipate how these factors will come into play, potentially shifting the course of the series, and we look forward to sharing our Game 5 analysis with you.