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Celtics’ x-factors vs. Heat in 2020 Eastern Conference Finals

The Boston Celtics finally put the finishing touches on the pesky Toronto Raptors with a resounding Game 7 victory in their Eastern Conference semifinals series.

While they are still licking their wounds from the hard-fought war, the boys from Beantown will be up for their stiffest challenge yet. Waiting at the top of the East is the red-hot Miami Heat team who has won eight of their first nine playoff games so far.

The Heat has all the momentum in the world after eliminating the number one team in the league – the Milwaukee Bucks – in just five games. The Celtics on the other hand, have all the tools necessary to put an end to their magical run.

Celtics swingman Jayson Tatum is slowly reaching superstar status with his phenomenal showing inside the bubble so far. Kemba Walker, meanwhile, has proven to be that piece needed for the Brad Stevens-mentored unit to return to their lost glory. Although he didn’t make it to festivities in Chicago last February, there’s no doubt that Jaylen Brown has also been playing in an All-Star level in the playoffs.

As good as Boston’s three-headed monster is, their fate against the mighty Heat may very well be at the hands of two other players who are vital to their system.

Will Gordon Hayward be able to play?

The biggest question mark entering this highly anticipated clash will no doubt be the health of Gordon Hayward. If he does manage to return from the grade III ankle sprain he sustained early in the first round, at what capacity will he be able to help the Celtics?

Still, coach Brad Stevens is optimistic that the 30-year-old swingman will be able to suit up at some point in the series.

“I know he feels better. He’s worked hard to get to where he is and I think he’ll play at some point in this series. As far as predicting a timeline, I have no idea. But I feel like he’s made good progress and will play eventually,” he said of Hayward’s possible return.

While he is still a capable two-way player for Beantown, it’s clear that Hayward has yet to rediscover his pre-injury All-Star form. At this point, Tatum and Brown are much better options at that wing position.

Still, Hayward gives Boston a whole different dimension when he’s on the floor. His presence alone puts additional stress on Miami’s perimeter defenders, especially since they will be pre-occupied with containing the Celtics’ trio.

Moreover, Hayward has had great success against Miami in the regular season, tallying 22 points on 55.6 percent shooting from the field. It may be hard for him to replicate the same numbers upon returning, but Boston will have a much better chance with him at their disposal.

Smart’s defense will be needed more than ever

The C’s rugged defensive stopper received a well-deserved, second consecutive NBA First All-Defensive First Team citation this year. Smart is arguably the best defender inside the bubble so far and has made a lot of winning plays for Boston in the first two rounds.

His chase-down block against Raptors swingman Norman Powell in the dying seconds of Game 7 practically sent the Celtics to the East Finals.

Smart will once again have no shortage of defensive assignments against the trigger-happy Heat team. Miami’s biggest strength is their accurate 3-point shooting and a plethora of shooters who can fire at will.

The 6-foot-3 stopper will likely be tasked to defend Butler at most possessions, but coach Stevens might also need him to chase around Miami’s knockdown shooters. Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro will be a problem for the boys in green if they get hot.

Smart has the acumen to hold down any of these players, but the rest of his team must also step up on that end of the floor.

His much-improved offense will also be vital for Beantown especially with Hayward’s status in question.