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NBA Eastern Conference finals Game 2: Can Celtics solve Jimmy Butler, Heat defense?

·4 min read
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TV: ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET

BetMGM line: Heat -2.5

Who's facing the most pressure?

Celtics stars. Jayson Tatum followed up a 21-point first half with eight in the second as the Heat ran away after halftime for a Game 1 win on Tuesday. Meanwhile Jaylen Brown was uneven at best in a 24-point effort that saw him shoot 0-for-4 from the field and turn the ball over twice during the decisive third quarter. Boston needs better from both to have a chance in this series.

Simmering beef: Jimmy Butler vs. everybody

Perhaps no NBA star plays with a chip on his shoulder quite as large as Jimmy Butler's. His beef with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins precipitated his exit from the Minnesota Timberwolves. His beef with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and stalwart Udonis Haslem in March appeared to only further galvanize this Miami team.

There's no overarching tension between Butler and the Celtics — yet. We're only one game in.

3 things to watch

1: Who's the best player in the series?

The Eastern Conference playoffs have been Tatum's coming-out party, a coronation for a 24-year-old rising star touted by some to possess MVP skills. In Round 1, he outplayed Kevin Durant as the Celtics vanquished the Brooklyn Nets in an emphatic sweep. His 39-point Game 3 effort next to Durant's 16 all but put the series away.

When the Milwaukee Bucks took control in Round 2 with a 3-2 series lead, Tatum outdueled Giannis Antetokounmpo with a 46-point, nine-rebound road outburst to keep the series alive before Boston closed it out at home. They're the type of efforts that elevate one's NBA status from star to superstar.

Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat looks on ahead of Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter in Game One of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals at FTX Arena on May 17, 2022 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Jimmy Butler was the best player on the floor in Game 1 (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The Heat counter with Butler, a player who has long been among the league's most respected players. But at 32 years old, he has never been mentioned among the game's top tier. That his lone NBA Finals appearance came with the asterisk of the 2020 bubble and fell short of a championship doesn't help his case.

That narrative is starting to change thanks to efforts like his Game 1 performance Tuesday. Miami took control of the game with a 22-2 third-quarter run that saw the Celtics helpless against an attacking Heat defense. Butler led the way with steals on consecutive possessions leading to breakaway buckets and punctuating the decisive Heat run.

He finished with 41 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks. That's a superstar line. A few more and a championship, and his case will be made.

2: Who's healthy?

This deep in the postseason often boils down to battles of attrition. Neither the Heat nor the Celtics are at full strength. Miami point guard Kyle Lowry missed his seventh game of the playoffs in Game 1 with a lingering hamstring injury that's hampered him since the first round. The Heat ruled Lowry out for Game 2 on Wednesday. Gabe Vincent has filled in nicely in his absence.

The Celtics, meanwhile, played Game 1 without starting point guard Marcus Smart (sprained foot) and forward Al Horford (COVID-19 protocols). Both were missed. The Celtics listed Smart as probable for Game 2 on Wednesday, while Horford cleared protocols Thursday and is available to play. Boston guard Derrick White, who started in Smart's place in Game 1, will miss Game 2 for personal reasons. His wife is expected to give birth.

3: Erik Spoelstra vs. Ime Udoka

Spoelstra is a made man in the NBA, a 14-year head coaching veteran with two rings carrying the torch of "Heat culture" established by longtime team president Pat Riley. Udoka is a first-year head coach who transformed a 36-36 Celtics team from last season into a 51-31 power anchored by the league's best defense.

Spoelstra won Game 1 courtesy of the third-quarter Heat blitzkrieg that secured victory. How will Udoka adjust in Game 2?