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The Heat Beat Boston At Its Own Game

Tyler Herro #14 of the Miami Heat celebrates a three-point basket as he runs past Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics during the third quarter of game two of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs at TD Garden on April 24, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Winslow Townson/Getty Images

It's not often that the first basket a team scores in an NBA playoff game serves as an omen for what is to come. Fans are still filing into their seats, everyone is getting a feel for playing basketball again after a day or two off, and nothing is really going to matter for a few minutes. And yet, when Nikola Jovic hit a three-pointer just over a minute into Game 2 of the Heat–Celtics series on Wednesday night, just after Derrick White opened the scoring the other way with a floater, he set in motion a sequence of events that would see Miami take yet another game in Boston and tie this 1-versus-8 series at one game apiece by a final score of 111-101.

The Heat's strategy in Game 2 was surprisingly simple. After giving up 22 threes in Game 1, the visiting eight seed decided to (mostly) abandon the zone defense that Erik Spoelstra has built up as his trademark, instead taking away open threes at all costs, even at the risk of giving up easier jumpers from inside the arc. Going the other way, Miami's plan without Jimmy Butler was to hit an Uno reverse card on the Celtics, raining down a storm of threes of their own en route to a 23-of-43 night from deep.

Those 23 made threes are a new Heat playoff record, but the percentage (53.5) is just another day at the office in this particular match-up. The Heat's manager of basketball content Couper Moorhead dug up a fun stat after the game: In these two most recent postseasons, Miami has hit over 50 percent of its threes against Boston four times; in that time span, no other team has surpassed 50 percent from three in a game more than once, against any opponent. It's safe to say that Miami has been out-matched on pure talent both in last year's Eastern Conference Finals and in this series, but that doesn't matter when the Heat get this kind of production from deep.

Five Heat players hit half or more of their three-point attempts on Wednesday, led by Caleb Martin turning back the clock to his near–series MVP performance last season. He finished 5-of-6 from three amidst a barrage of boos, stemming from his late Game 1 collision with Jayson Tatum, which was either reckless (if you're a Heat fan) or dirty (if you support Boston). Jovic followed his early three with two others to finish 3-of-4; Rookie Extraordinaire Jaime Jaquez Jr. went 3-of-6; Haywood Highsmith was 3-of-5. These weren't impossible shots, either; the Heat just managed to move the ball around enough against a surprisingly lazy Celtics defense, getting 23 "wide-open" threes for the game and hitting 15 of them.

And then there was Tyler Herro. Herro has been, to put it kindly, up and down in these playoffs, particularly after Butler's injury in the first play-in game. Healthy for once, Herro has tried to do everything for Miami, much to everyone's chagrin, but the Game 2 he put together showed why the Heat still give him so much rope. It wasn't just the threes, though he made six of 11 attempts in a game Miami probably had to win to have any hope of actually pulling off an upset in this series. He also ran the offense, finding open shooters and cutters all over the place for 14 assists. More than anything, his restraint with the ball in his hands was commendable. Sure, he shot 11 threes, but he didn't force any contested jumpers inside the paint (he only shot twice from inside the arc) and generally played a calming role for the Heat, which is not something I thought I would ever say about Tyler Herro.

Lest I forget, the Heat probably don't win the game without Bam Adebayo, who hit no threes but also was the best player on the court, particularly in the fourth quarter, when he played all 12 minutes, shot 4-of-5 from the floor with some tough jumpers to stem Boston momentum, and finished with a plus-20 for the game. Adebayo also helped anchor a Heat defense that held Boston, one of the best and most dominant regular-season teams of all time, to just 40 points in the second half to flip a three-point halftime deficit into the eventual ten-point win.

This was the platonic ideal of a Heat victory over the Celtics, and it's possible to find that both annoying and inspiring. Miami victimized Boston with its own gameplan, and trading threes for twos worked out quite well for the underdogs. Spoelstra gets a lot of respect these days (certainly from me), and he once again out-coached Joe Mazzulla in a key playoff game, even if the key tactical insight that won his team Game 2 could be summed up as "3 > 2."

As often happens when a team, but especially when Miami, hits a bunch of threes, there will be predictions of regression and a hope that they simply can't shoot this well once again. And maybe they won't! That's the fun part of this particular match-up, as it has been recently. Miami does have enough firepower to keep up with Boston, but it needs multiple players to put in career-best performances to do it. On the other end, the Heat's defense, its calling card, needs to be perfect for 48 minutes, because Boston simply has even more firepower. In Game 1, that defense failed to the tune of wide-open Sam Hauser three-pointers, but Game 2's effort gave Miami enough breathing room to break both records and the Boston home crowd's spirit. Can they do it three more times? I see no reason why not. After all, Miami lives for this match-up, and nothing closes a talent gap faster than just hitting a barrage of threes.

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