The Celtics have battled injuries and age-related player declines this season but, nevertheless, it was a bit of surprise that Boston won "only" 50 games. That's not nearly surprising as the season put up by the Celtics' first-round opponent. The Miami Heat were playing a season in limbo--most of the current roster will be gone after the next free-agent spree. Yet, the Heat managed to smooth out the ups and downs of an inconsistent campaign and finish with 47 wins. Now, these two teams hook up in a playoff series that may be much more even than most people realize.
The Heat lost in seven games to Atlanta in the first round last season, while the Celtics needed seven games in the first round to dispatch of Chicago. This could be a long series. The Celtics will have all their weapons on the floor, but the Big Three has lost some luster. Paul Pierce was as good as ever when he played, but missed 11 games. He finished strong after injuries wrecked his production in February. Ray Allen can still shoot the rock, but his ability to create his own offense has eroded. Kevin Garnett missed 13 games and played limited minutes when he did play, but it doesn't look like he's going to regain the athleticism he had when he first joined the Celtics. As for the player that was supposed to allow Garnett to play fewer minutes without any falloff--Rasheed Wallace--he looked like a player entering the final phase of his career. For much of the season, 'Sheed was simply a big spot-up shooter, and not a very good one.
Miami boasts the best player on either team in Dwyane Wade. Boston doesn't have anyone that can slow Wade individually, but as a team, Boston does a very good job of forcing opponents to do things they don't want to do. However, during the last few weeks of the season, the Celtics showed a tendency to allow the best player on opposing teams to produce at an even higher-than-normal level. They can't let that happen against Wade.
The Celtics won all three matchups in the regular season, but all three games were close and one went to overtime. Look for a lot more games like that in this intriguing series.
WHEN THE CELTICS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 89.4 (22nd NBA)
Boston's Offensive Rating: 110.8 (12th)
Miami's Defensive Rating: 105.9 (4th)
Points will be at a premium in this matchup of two of the league's top-five defensive teams. In the three previous meetings between the teams, the Celtics actually scored with aplomb, but those games all were played before the All-Star break. The Heat defense has been one of the NBA's toughest units over the last six weeks of the season.
The Heat do a terrific job of shutting down the lane. Only Oklahoma City blocked a higher percentage of opponents' shots and only Orlando allowed a lower eFG%. The Heat pressure the perimeter, don't allow three-point looks and do a good job on the defensive glass. Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, Jamaal Magliore and Jermaine O'Neal combine to form one of the league's better interior defense units. The Celtics' excellent ball movement resulted in an attack that posted the league's second-best percentage at the rim, but that advantage could be mitigated by the Heat's ability to close off the lane without fouling.
Pierce will be huge in this series. He's got to be the offensive catalyst for the Celtics, because this isn't a great matchup for Garnett or Allen, who must butt heads with Wade. Pierce's ability to get to the line and create opportunities for his teammates will keep Boston's offense humming. So will Rajon Rondo's ability to push the ball down the floor. The Celtics' second unit, which includes Marquis Daniels, Glen Davis and Nate Robinson, needs to help increase the tempo, perhaps a little bit faster than the Celtics are accustomed to playing at. Boston does not want to get into a halfcourt, slug-it-out fest against the Heat.
WHEN THE HEAT HAS THE BALL
Pace: 87.5 (28th NBA)
Miami's Offensive Rating: 109.9 (18th)
Boston's Defensive Rating: 106.0 (5th)
Miami played the same sterling defense all season, but its 18-4 finish was fueled by a gargantuan leap by the team's offense. During the Heat's first 60 games, it averaged 108.6 points per 100 possessions. During its last 22 games, Miami upped that number to an astounding 115.0. That number, extrapolated to a full season, would have marked the Heat as the league's second-best offensive team behind Phoenix.
What the heck happened? The great finish coincided almost exactly with Eric Spoelstra's decision to insert Carlos Arroyo into the starting lineup. Miami also slowed the pace, going from 88.1 possessions per game to 85.8 during the last quarter of its schedule. Dwyane Wade's shooting percentage jumped, as did that of Quentin Richardson. As a squad, the Heat shot the ball better and got to the line more. It wasn't any one thing, just a lot of smaller elements that came together. Maybe it was just getting Rafer Alston off the roster.
Wade averaged 33.7 points on good shooting percentages against Boston. The Celtics will try to force Wade to give up the ball, but every team does that and its easier said than done. However, the Celtics are more defensively sound than most, so Wade will need Richardson, Mario Chalmers, et al, to knock down some shots.
It's very tempting to pick Miami in this series, but we always preach about going with the larger body of evidence. The key may come down to Miami's ability to force turnovers against a Boston offense that commits a lot of them. The Big Three has been pointing towards the playoffs all season and homecourt advantage should be enough to allow the Celtics to advance. But it won't be easy.
Celtics in 7.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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