Recent beasts of the East, Heat and Celtics ready for latest conference finals showdown

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BOSTON (AP) — From the pandemic to the play-in tournament, not much has kept the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat from crossing paths in the Eastern Conference finals recently.

When they tip off Game 1 of their latest playoffs pairing on Wednesday night, it will mark the third East finals matchup between Miami and Boston in the last four seasons and the second straight after Boston prevailed in seven games last spring.

The Heat and Celtics still playing this late in the year can’t be a surprise anymore.

Yet, despite all that familiarity, Celtics All-Star Jaylen Brown sees a completely different Miami team from the one they outlasted a year ago.

“It’s not the same team as last year. Jimmy (Butler) is still Jimmy and Spo is still Spo,” Brown said of longtime Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “But we’ve got to make sure that we’re aware of everybody else.”

Everybody else includes veterans with NBA Finals experience like Kevin Love, along with players like Max Strus, who has been a steady contributor since Tyler Herro was sidelined after breaking his hand in the opening game of Miami’s first-round series with Milwaukee.

But as the Celtics looks to refocus after an emotionally taxing seven-game series with the 76ers, they know that stopping a Heat team that’s been rolling since the play-in round must begin with trying to contain Butler.

“He doesn’t back down. He doesn’t quit. He’s not afraid of nobody,” Brown said of Butler, who is averaging career playoff highs in points (31.1) and field-goal percentage (52.7%). “We’ve got to be ready for that challenge. We’ve got some great guys and great spirits on our team. So, it should be fun.”

The Celtics have a pair of top-notch scorers as well. First-team All-NBA selection Jayson Tatum (30.1 points per game) is coming off a playoff-record 51-point performance against the 76ers and has scored 30 or more points five times this postseason. Brown is averaging 26.6 points.

Don’t count on Miami being intimidated, though.

“It’s been a tough year, but we’re right where we want to be,” Strus said. “This is what we talk about all season, being in this position. We’re excited to be here and ready for the opportunity.”

The Heat's season didn’t come without major challenges. Miami didn’t spend a day over .500 until mid-December, had a stretch where it lost 12 out of 20 games late in the regular season, lost a play-in game to Atlanta and trailed in an elimination play-in game against Chicago with 2:18 remaining.

“I wish I could have scripted this or told the team the first day of training camp, ‘Hey, we’re going to go through a lot of stuff this year and sometimes it’s going to feel like we’re in basketball hell ... and at the end of the day we’re going to face Boston in the conference finals,’” Spoelstra said.

The rallying cry seems like it would be simple: Boston beat Miami in this round last year, and now it’s up to the Heat to turn the tables.

But Spoelstra insisted that doesn’t matter.

“We have a very motivated group,” he said. “No, I don’t see a need for that. I think that’s been played out. We’re looking forward to the challenge this year and the opportunity that we have right in front of us.”

RUN THE EAST

This is the 10th time in the last 14 years that the Heat, Celtics or both have been in the conference finals.

Boston and Miami have each been there seven times in that span — four times against one another.

Over those 14 seasons, nine teams have been to the East finals at least once. The exceptions: Detroit, Washington, New York, Brooklyn, Charlotte and Philadelphia.

IN THE ZONE

The Heat have become notorious for using zone defensive sets to disrupt teams.

They’ll face a Celtics team that has had its issues against the zone throughout the regular season and in the playoffs.

The 76ers used it at times during their semifinals matchup against Boston, having the most success in Game 1 when they limited the Celtics to 49 points in the second half of Philadelphia’s 119-115 win.

Coach Joe Mazzulla said it’s something they’ve prepared to deal with against Miami.

“Just play with pace. I think it starts with our defense,” Mazzulla said. “You can’t pass up open shots and you have to have great spacing. People play zone to slow you down. We have to play just as fast against zone as we do against man.”

PERFECT LOVE

Love’s teams have played in 14 Eastern Conference playoff series with him on the roster.

They’re 14-0 in those matchups.

Love played in 12 of those series, missing two in 2015 while injured. He’s 2-0 in series so far this season with Miami. All his other East playoff appearances came with Cleveland during the LeBron James era.

He watched Game 7 of Celtics-Heat last season, still a member of the Cavs, with no real rooting interest. “When you’re playing for a different team, you kind of wish they all could lose, somehow,” Love said.

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AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.

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