The Miami Heat will begin pursuit of further Eastern Conference finals success when they host the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series.
The top-seeded Heat have prevailed in six straight conference final appearances, tied for the fourth-longest streak in NBA history. Two of those series victories came against Boston (2012, 2020).
The second-seeded Celtics have dropped four straight Eastern Conference finals, including three in a four-season stretch from 2017-20.
While Miami has established a greater pattern of recent postseason success -- including three NBA titles since 2006 -- coach Erik Spoelstra sees nothing easy about playing the Celtics.
"Our guys love competition and love being challenged," Spoelstra said on Monday. "They love taking on big challenges. That's what we're facing. Boston has played as well as anyone in the entire league once they got to 2022. It's not by accident. They're playing very strong basketball. They do it on both ends."
The Celtics ousted the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in seven games in the East semifinals. They wrapped it up with a 109-81 rout on Sunday.
Boston last won the NBA Finals in 2008 and the current roster knows it will have to be ready to mix it up with the Heat.
"It's the playoffs, and I feel like the deeper that you go, it's more intense, it's physical," veteran big man Al Horford said on Monday. "Even though the first round was very physical for us, it's not going to be any different. Both teams play hard, but both teams defensively are tops in the league, or one of the best for sure. It's just a given that both teams are going to go hard."
Both teams feature a big-time star that will be expected to lead the way.
Celtics forward Jayson Tatum is averaging 28.3 points, 6.1 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals in the postseason, while Heat forward Jimmy Butler is contributing 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.1 steals.
Tatum, a three-time All-Star, says he is ready for the challenge of leading a team to the NBA Finals.
"I think I've grown in the sense of being more prepared," Tatum said. "Obviously, I was tired after every game and things like that, but my body has matured since my third season. I'm stronger, I take care of my body better, so I felt more prepared for each game. My body kept up."
Butler, a six-time All-Star, has topped 30 points five times in 10 starts this postseason. He scored 32 points last Thursday to help put the Philadelphia 76ers away 99-90 in Game 6 of the conference semifinals.
Butler said keeping Tatum in check is crucial for the Heat.
"He's one of the best in the game right now," Butler said of Tatum. "As much attention as he draws on the offensive end -- and then I think what's really impressive is the way that he's picked up his defensive intensity. You got to tip your hat to that and respect him. I think those are the guys that you want to go up against."
The Heat will be without point guard Kyle Lowry (left hamstring) for the seventh time in the past nine games. P.J. Tucker (calf), Max Strus (hamstring), Gabe Vincent (hamstring) and Caleb Martin (ankle) are all questionable.
Boston listed point guard Marcus Smart as questionable after an MRI exam on Monday detected a right midfoot sprain. Smart was injured during Sunday's game.
"He took a pretty bad fall, got bent up," Celtics coach Ime Udoka said Monday. "It's pretty tender and sore right now. We'll get him round-the-clock treatment."
Udoka said big man Robert Williams III (left knee) is available to play Tuesday after a four-game absence. Williams wasn't used on Sunday because Udoka didn't want to tinker with the playing rotation in a Game 7.
The Celtics won two of the three regular-season matchups, including a 95-78 win in Miami on Nov. 4. Neither team feels those results matter.
"This is like a throwback series," Spoelstra said. "If both teams are really on top of their games, this should be a series where neither team is scoring 130 points. Both teams hang their hats on rock-solid team defense. ...
"We were the two best teams in the East most of the season and it's fitting that we're moving into the conference finals."
--Field Level Media