Even as the Boston Celtics led in the first half of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, it only felt like a matter of time before the scoreboard would catch up to the Miami Heat offense.
Miami basically has a 105 offensive rating in the half court and the halftime show was almost entirely about offensive concerns.— Nekias (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA) May 18, 2022
Then, the Heat exploded in the second half, opening on a 22-2 run and never looking back. They steamrolled the Celtics on both ends and Jimmy Butler took over en route to 41 points. Miami finished with an impressive Offensive Rating of 112.2 on half-court possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. That ranks in the 88th percentile of playoff games this season; according to our Nekias Duncan, the league average is 95.6 points per 100 possessions.
The Heat's success transcends their normal half-court production. Even with the Game 1 win, Miami is still averaging just 95.0 half-court points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, and the team's regular season rating was similarly low (97.6). And even taking the scope back to a base level — how many people expected the Heat to drop 118 points in the first game against one of the league's best defenses?
Sure, the Celtics were missing two key cogs in Marcus Smart and Al Horford, but it was still an impressive effort. It also exposed the dilemma Boston has with Payton Pritchard.
The second-year guard is the Celtics' best shooter in a rotation that sometimes needs a perimeter lifeline, and simultaneously, their worst defender in a scheme that can't afford porous perimeter defense.
Nekias was all over this in his pre-series scouting report and had a noteworthy stat after Game 1:
Pritchard was targeted 16 times in PnR tonight, and the Heat scored well over 1.2 points per possession on those trips 😵💫https://t.co/Sh3NLiMvTK pic.twitter.com/eTxYIQKXDI— Nekias (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA) May 18, 2022
The Heat went after Pritchard, who logged his postseason high with 30 minutes in the loss. They put him through the blender on screens and forced him to play chaser. At 6-foot-1 with a 6-foot-4 wingspan, Pritchard just doesn't have enough length to overcome falling into recovery mode.
Prtichard also just struggles fighting through screens despite being fairly built for his size (listed around 200 pounds). That fourth clip is telling; he's pretty powerless against Butler, and it leads to an easy Max Strus three-pointer. Pritchard and Jaylen Brown could have communicated better on that play and had Brown chase after Strus, but it seems the job was supposed to be Pritchard's.
Miami then attacked Pritchard on the ball during its second-half surge.
When Butler found 1-on-1 chances against Pritchard, the Heat superstar was able to get into his bag with relative ease. In the second clip, Pritchard stays up tight against Butler, and it looks like solid defense. But even that effort appears meaningless. Butler made one basic spin move, didn't need to counter and rose high above the contest for a confident make.
This isn't to say Pritchard is the primary reason for Boston's loss by any means. But he is going to be a matchup Miami hunts throughout this series. The Heat have players who are unbothered by his defense (Butler, Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo) and players who can wreak havoc against him away from the ball (Strus, Gabe Vincent).
The Celtics are going to be challenged when Pritchard is defending. Their trade-off is that he is, in many cases, their spark and offensive savior from long range. Through the postseason, opponents have dared complementary players like Grant Williams, Derrick White, Horford and Smart to shoot as defenses load up on Jayson Tatum and Brown. The one supporting cast member they cannot forget about is Pritchard.