'Offense wins games, but defense wins championships'
The 2022 iteration of the Eastern Conference Finals features the first- and fourth-ranked squads in terms of defensive efficiency, with the Celtics leading the way at a rating of 106.2 and Miami close behind at 108.4. Sandwiched in between the two are the current favorites to hoist the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy in the Golden State Warriors (second, 106.6) and the recently eliminated while humiliated Phoenix Suns (third, 106.8).
Elite defense is expected from these two combatants. After all, we just watched the Celtics limit Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks to a mere 81 points in Sunday's Game 7 win, while the Heat currently rank first in the NBA in postseason scoring defense at 97.5 points per game. However, the question we want to answer is whether these two defenses will set the tone for a run of unders in the Eastern Conference Finals ... or have the bookmakers over-adjusted the total, offering value in backing the over?
'Live by the 3, die by the 3'
After blowing a 14-point fourth quarter lead to the Bucks in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semi-final showdown, Boston faced elimination entering a Game 6 road date at Milwaukee. What happened next is rather simple to explain but extremely difficult to execute. The Celtics went nuclear from long range in Games 6 and 7, connecting on a wild 39 of 98 3-point attempts (39.7%), while the Bucks went Neptune-frigid from beyond the arc in knocking down only 11 of 62 3-point shots (17.7%).
Yes, you read that correctly. The Celtics attempted 36 more 3-pointers than the Bucks over the final two games of the series, drilling 28 more than their opponent in the process. Boston won Game 6 by 13 points and Game 7 by 28 points.
Enter cliché number two, as Miami and Boston (along with Golden State) concluded the regular season tied for the best 3-point defense in the league at 33.9%. The Heat already stifled Atlanta and Philadelphia from deep in their two previous playoff matchups, which is important to note because the Hawks (37.4%) and Sixers (36.4%) ranked second and seventh, respectively, in 3-point shooting this season.
Boston ranked a pedestrian 14th from long range (35.6%), which begs the question as to whether or not 3-point regression is on the horizon. Further, whether you believe it or not, Miami wrapped the regular season as the NBA leader in 3-point shooting at 37.9%. Live by the 3, die by the 3?
Series price: Boston Celtics (-175), Miami Heat (+155)
A good habit to practice involves converting American odds to implied winning probabilities prior to the commencement of your handicapping in order to present a different way of viewing the matchup in question. A number of sites offer calculators that can save you the effort of doing the math yourself. Just Google "odds calculator," and off you go.
Converting Boston's series price of -175 implies a win probability of 63.4%. Ask yourself, does Boston have a greater than 63.4 percent chance of advancing to the NBA Finals? If so, you may have identified some value. If not, you may want to stay away.
Conversely, converting Miami's series price of +155 implies a win probability of 39.2%. Do you believe the Heat have a greater than 39.2 percent chance of winning this series? If yes, you may have a bet. If no, you may want to look elsewhere for action.
I have plan for how to attack the series price, but it's predicated on what happens in Tuesday's Game 1.
Game 1: Heat (-1.5, 204) vs. Celtics
Game 1 opened with Miami installed as a 2-point favorite before the early action forced an adjustment south to -1.5. Additionally, the total has dropped from its opener of 206.5 to its current price of 204.
I'll be laying the -1.5 with Miami on Tuesday for three key reasons: First, the Heat enter the EFC on five days of rest while Boston will transition from a pressure-packed Game 7 against Milwaukee on Sunday to a road date in South Florida against the No. 1 seed 48 hours later. At this time of year, that type of rest advantaged cannot be overlooked.
Second, Miami's home-court advantage is no joke. The Heat won 29 home games during the regular season, which ranked first in the Eastern Conference and fourth overall. That success has carried over to the playoffs, where Miami is a perfect 6-0 straight up and 5-1 against the spread at FTX Arena, outscoring the Hawks and Sixers by a grand total of 102 points over just six contests (+17 points per game).
Finally, I'm predicting some 3-point regression for the Celtics in Game 1. As mentioned above, Boston shot a ridiculous 39.7% from deep over Games 6 and 7 of their series win against Milwaukee. Not only is that a damn near impossible rate to sustain, the Celtics are facing an elite unit in Miami that ranked first in 3-point defense during the regular season (33.9%). For comparison's sake, the Bucks ranked a below-average 19th in 3-point defense during the regular season (35.6%).
Should my Game 1 prediction of a Miami victory come to fruition, I'll then be betting on the Celtics to win the series at their new adjusted price down 0-1. The Celtics are the most resilient team in basketball, a character trait that finds itself on the Mount Rushmore of championship attributes. After starting the season 18-21, Boston went a ridiculous 33-10 to close out the year. After falling into 0-1 and 2-3 series holes against Milwaukee, Boston rallied each time to close out the best player on the planet in Giannis and the defending champion Bucks.
Miami, for all its success this season, is a flawed No. 1 seed that has struggled on the road during the playoffs, going 2-3 both straight up and against the spread against the Hawks and Sixers. For those of you who may have missed the first few weeks of postseason basketball, the Hawks and Sixers weren't exactly the sharpest of competition this season. Further, take a look at Miami's home/road shooting splits this postseason:
At home: 48.9% FG, 36.9%, 3-point %
On road: 43.6% FG, 26.7%, 3-point %
Without a shadow of a doubt, the Celtics are the best team Miami has faced this postseason. Between the Nets, Bucks and Heat, will this be Boston's toughest test this playoff run? I don't believe the answer to that question is yes.
Bonus Game 1 wager: Boston team total under 101.5 points
A prop to consider: Jayson Tatum under 28.5 points
Tatum is averaging a healthy 28.2 points per game this postseason, with seven of his 11 outings featuring 29 or more points. So why would I want to fade a bona fide superstar who is currently +275 to win Finals MVP?
For starters, Miami plays at a much slower pace than both Brooklyn and Milwaukee. The Nets and Bucks both ranked in the top 11 in pace during the regular season, while Miami ranked 28th. A slower pace means fewer possessions. Fewer possessions mean fewer shots. Fewer shots mean fewer points.
Additionally, Miami trots out a superior defense as opposed to what Tatum saw against the Nets and Bucks, who both ranked 14th or worse in defensive rating during the regular season, while the Heat ranked fourth. Throw in five days of rest and you are likely headed for a fantastic defensive effort from Erik Spoelstra's crew on Tuesday.
Finally, Tatum is headed for some shooting regression, whether he likes it or not. Over the last four games of the Milwaukee series, Boston's superstar knocked down a ridiculous 47.5% of his field-goal attempts (up from 45% during the regular season) and 37.7% of his 3-point attempts (up from 35% during the regular season). While not dramatically better than what he produced during the regular season, given the short turnaround, slow pace and elite defense he's set to face on Tuesday, there's a good reason to believe Tatum could struggle from the floor in Game 1. At least, that's what I'm betting will happen.