Heat, Celtics set for Eastern Conference finals

The Miami Heat’s path to the Eastern Conference finals has been nothing short of dominant. The Boston Celtics’ journey has featured a few more bumps in the road.

But it’ll be a clean slate when the teams face off in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series Tuesday night at the NBA bubble near Orlando.

The Celtics, in the East finals for the third time in four seasons, are playing for their first NBA Finals berth since 2010. The Heat are looking to get back to the Finals for the first time since a four-year run of consecutive appearances during the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era ended in 2014.

During that stretch, Miami eliminated Boston from the playoffs in 2011 and 2012, the latter matchup going seven games in the conference finals. The Heat’s Udonis Haslem is the only holdover from those teams, along with his coach, Erik Spoelstra.

Miami swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the 2020 playoffs before eliminating the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in five games in the conference semifinals. The Celtics swept the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round before needing seven games to get past the defending champion Toronto Raptors in Round 2.

As a result of the length of that series, Boston most recently played Friday while Miami has been idle since Sept. 8. The Celtics rode their stars hard down the stretch of their semifinal, with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart each playing north of 40 minutes in the final two contests.

“This is a great group. Tough group. Resilient group,” Brown said. “We’ve got a lot of heart. A lot of fight about ourselves. We don’t back down from challenges. That’s what we need from each other.”

The Celtics might be able to count on reinforcements during their series with the Heat as starting forward Gordon Hayward nears his return from a right ankle sprain sustained in the first game of Round 1.

Hayward “looked good” during a workout Monday, according to coach Brad Stevens, though he did not practice with the team. Also of note is that Hayward’s wife is expected to go into labor soon with their fourth child, so Hayward might need to leave the bubble.

For the Heat, the hope is that the extended time between games won’t cool off their potent offense. Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic both are averaging more than 20 points per game during the playoffs, while Bam Adebayo (16.2 points, 11.7 rebounds) and Tyler Herro (14.7 points) have emerged as consistent threats.

“I don’t think that we’re the underdog,” said Butler, who will play in his first conference finals. “I think that we’re a really good team. We play together. Everybody knows their role. We just compete.”

The Celtics and Heat met three times during the regular season, with Boston winning twice. Miami won the most recent meeting on Aug. 4 in the bubble.

“At the end of the day, we’re a totally different team, certainly than the first time we played them in December,” Spoelstra said. “And they’re a much different team. That’s what you expect out of high-quality, high-level teams.”


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