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What the Lineup Data Says About Who Holds the Edge in the Eastern Conference Finals

By: Taylor Bechtold

Amid unusual circumstances without fans on a neutral court, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Eastern Conference finals feature the third and fifth seeds.

After bouncing around from Chicago to Minnesota to Philadelphia in recent years, Jimmy Butler seems to have finally found a home in Miami. The five-time All-Star is averaging team highs of 21.8 points and 2.1 steals to go along with 5.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists to help the upstart Miami Heat sweep the Indiana Pacers before dispatching the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in a shockingly easy five-game series.

But Stats Perform’s lineup data shows he’s not the only one playing a leading role as the fifth-seeded Heat prepare to take on the No. 3 Boston Celtics in the East finals in Tuesday’s Game 1 in Orlando. This is a rematch of the 2012 East finals when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Miami took Games 6 and 7 to knock off a Boston team led by Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

Goran Dragic has quietly been one of Miami’s stars this postseason, turning back the clock to average 21.1 points, 4.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds while sinking 24 3-pointers in nine playoff games.

Seven of the Heat’s eight most-used lineups this postseason include Dragic and have a positive net rating. The only one that doesn’t? Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and no Dragic (minus-23).


PGSGSFPFCPoss.Off. RatingDef. RatingNet

Defensively, Boston has the best rating of anyone in the playoffs at 99.6. The club’s biggest challenge this round might be containing Butler and stopping Dragic from using screens to knock down shots. Marcus Smart figures to play a key role in trying to limit Dragic after helping hold Toronto’s Kyle Lowry to under 40% shooting in four of the last six games of the East semis.

Boston’s starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Daniel Theis has been its best defensive unit with a 104.2 rating over 643 possessions – almost 200 more than any other lineup between the two clubs. Dragic, however, was a problem for Boston in the season series, totaling 43 points on 12-of-26 shooting (46.2%) in his two games.


RankTeamPossessionsDef. RatingNet Rating

Miami has been consistently solid with a 125.4 offensive rating by the starters, a 121.4 rating when Herro replaces Robinson and a 131.6 rating when Herro replaces Robinson and Andre Iguodala enters for Crowder.

Jayson Tatum

But overall in the season series, the Celtics held the Heat to a 41.6 field-goal percentage – well under their 46.8% season mark – and a 32.2 3-point percentage – again, well below their 37.9 mark for the season.

Tatum has continued his breakout season in the playoffs, averaging team highs of 25.3 points and 10.1 boards while the Celtics cruised past the rival Philadelphia 76ers in a sweep before outlasting the defending champion Toronto Raptors in seven games.

As we noted earlier, Boston has leaned heavily on its starters: Tatum, Walker, Smart, Brown and Theis. In fact, the Celtics’ most-used lineups this postseason have featured Walker, Smart, Brown and Tatum with either Theis (plus-5.9), Robert Williams (plus-6.3) and Enes Kanter (plus-23.6) – all with positive net ratings.

That’s not likely to change, even though coach Brad Stevens said he hopes Gordon Hayward will be able to return from an ankle injury at some point during the series.


PGSGSFPFCPoss.Off. RatingDef. RatingNet

The Heat, who have the fourth-best defensive rating (104.1) in the postseason, have to believe they’re going to face a steady diet of those lineups.

Jimmy Butler

Although the rookie Herro has been criticized for his defense, Miami has posted an impressive 88.7 defensive rating over 110 postseason possessions – the third-most used lineup between the two teams – when Herro has entered for Robinson. That’s quite a disparity from the starting unit that has a 121.6 defensive rating, albeit in almost 350 more possessions.

During the regular-season series, Boston won a game on each team’s home floor before Miami claimed a 112-106 victory without Butler (ankle) in the bubble on Aug. 4. What we do know is that Brown has been a difficult matchup for Miami and the Heat struggled in the season series when it did attempt to play big with a minus-19.1 net rating and a minus-46.4 in the two lineups they used most with Bam Adebayo playing alongside Meyers Leonard.

In comparison, they had a plus-12.8 net rating and a plus. 14.5 in the two lineups they used most with Adebayo and Leonard overall during the regular season.


TeamPGSGSFPFCPoss.Off. RatingDef. RatingNet

Miami might prefer to have Crowder guarding Tatum and Butler on Brown in a perfect world after Brown averaged a team-high 24.7 points while hitting 9 of 22 from 3-point range in the three meetings. Walker could pose a problem should he start sinking pull-up jumpers, but Miami was able to limit him to just 31 points on 9-of-28 shooting (32.1%) in the last two matchups.

Though the Heat were able to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Milwaukee series, the Celtics actually have more weapons offensively – especially if Hayward returns. Two of Boston’s most effective lineups in the season series were when Hayward replaced Tatum (plus-23.3 net rating) and when Hayward entered for Smart (plus-21).

Considering both clubs’ talent offensively and toughness on defense, the Celtics could be looking at another long series with Tatum and Miami’s Butler taking the big shots down the stretch. Boston appears to hold a slight edge at both ends of the court, and for that reason, we’ll go with the Celtics in seven.


Data modeling and analysis provided by Matt Scott.

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