This is about as glamorous as it gets, or at least that's how it's being marketed. The aging championship team against the new dynasty. The matchup of core trios, one old, one not. One team with a track record of turning it up at playoff time against a team that has staggered in the clutch and against quality opposition. These are the easy storylines in Celtics-Heat matchup, and they're all a bunch of hyperbolic nonsense. At the very least, let's not forget that neither of these teams is even the top seed in its conference. Nevertheless--I have to admit--this will be a fascinating matchup because of what happens on the court. It's a great basketball matchup and because of that, we should all be excited.
In retrospect, it shouldn't have come as any real surprise that the Heat had a more difficult time with the Sixers in the first round than the Celtics had with its first opponent, the Knicks. Sure, Boston was tested in the first couple of games against New York, but the Knicks can't get key stops. Philly can defend, and because of that Miami had to scrap throughout its five-game series win. Now the pressure really ratchets up for both of these teams. Warts will be exposed, more so than for the top-seeded Bulls in its potential walkover against Atlanta. Boston and Miami are fighting for survival. We all knew they'd butt heads eventually, but few us expected it to be in the second round. It's on.
WHEN MIAMI HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.5 possessions per 48 minutes (21st NBA)
Miami Offensive Rating: 113.8 points per 100 possessions (8th NBA)
Boston Defensive Rating: 101.9 points per 100 possessions (2nd NBA)
If you're a Celtics fan, you can't help but watch Memphis' spirited run in the Western Conference bracket without a tinge of regret for last summer, when Tony Allen decided to leave the Boston bosom and strike out on his own. His services would have been well-employed against the Heat. With Boston and its Tom Thibodeau-designed defense, you can't dwell too much on individual matchups because it's all about the team concept. But it would have been nice to have Allen around to chase around Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
The Celtics haven't been as good on defense since the Kendrick Perkins trade, but the fall-off has been mild. (They've actually regressed more on the offensive end.) Boston is hopeful that Shaquille O'Neal will be back to help anchor the back of the defense and, if he has any mobility, his size would help out against the Heat, especially when Joel Anthony is on the floor. Anthony's lack of offensive skill would allow O'Neal to function as a team defender and sag way off on pick-and-rolls. He's been a defensive liability for a few years, but in Boston's system and against Miami, O'Neal still has his uses. That's assuming, of course, that he doesn't pull something during his first trip down the floor, which is a distinct possibility.
The three-point shooting of Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers is key for Miami, because their alternating threat will help to keep Rajon Rondo from getting too active in the passing lanes. If Rondo is able to roam successfully, the always effective strong side defense of the Celtics will become even dangerous more dangerous, only on the weak side. The Celtics will overplay against Wade and James, forcing them to drive into traffic or swing the ball to the open shooter. If those shooters are hitting, the Miami offense will stall. James averaged 28.8 points against Boston this season, but Wade averaged just 12.8 on a .380 True Shooting Percentage.
In the halfcourt, the Heat would be well-served to keep Chris Bosh involved, something at which they've become increasingly effective at over the last few weeks. Bosh's ability to hit the face-up jumper will pull a Celtics big man out of his comfort zone, and open up driving lanes for Wade and James. Sounds simple but, once again, we're talking about hanging your efficiency hat on the perimeter game, always a dicey proposition in high-stakes play. Another tool that may be available for Erik Spoelstra is Udonis Haslem, who won't play in Game One but may return sometime in the series. After sitting out so long, it's hard to know where Haslem's game is at, but his normally-effective midrange jumper would be another way for Miami to space the floor.
Miami has the advantage in transition, as it will against any team if faces for the next half-decade. The Celtics are turnover prone, as they always are under Doc Rivers, and if the Heat can force excessive miscues and turn the games into track meets, Miami can blow the Celtics off of South Beach and into the swell of the Atlantic. It's easier said than done, but that's Miami's best bet: Run at every opportunity.
WHEN BOSTON HAS THE BALL
Pace: 88.8 possessions per 48 minutes (23rd NBA)
Boston Offensive Rating: 108.3 points per 100 possessions (18th NBA)
Miami Defensive Rating: 104.9 points per 100 possessions (5th NBA)
While Wade and James are sure to have their explosive moments and even games, I anticipate the Celtics to hold the Heat well under peak efficiency. That means if Miami is to survive, it is going to have to do it on this end, the defensive end. Boston's offense was humming in its first-round romp over the Knicks though, as I noted in my preview for that series, New York's defense was the weakest unit of any in the postseason. Miami, featuring two of the league's best wing defenders in Wade and James, and pesky help defenders in Anthony and Chalmers, present a whole different set of challenges.
As a whole, Miami defended well against Boston in the four regular-season matchups, during which the Celtics averaged just 1.04 points per possession. The Celtics shot the ball fine, but turned the ball over on 19 percent of their possessions so, again, Boston's ability to protect the ball will be a big factor in this series. That puts the onus on Rondo to make smart decisions on the floor. If his play in the first round is any indication, he'll be up to the task. Because Wade and James are so good on the wing, Rondo may be called upon to score more than he's accustomed. However, he averaged just 7.5 points against Miami in the regular season.
James has been able to neutralize Paul Pierce at times over the years, so it's important for Pierce to play smart and efficient basketball, even if that means being more of a playmaker than he's accustomed. Wade has to be careful about roaming too much when matched with Ray Allen, who averaged 20.3 points on a .652 True Shooting Percentage against Miami this season.
As for the Boston bigs, whether it's Shaq or Jermaine O'Neal or Nenad Krstic or Glen Davis, they have to be a factor in the paint to keep Anthony from sitting back and protecting the rim. Kevin Garnett should do fine in his matchup against Bosh, but he has to guard against become to jumper happy. Make Bosh work on the block from time to time, where he's not the most able defender. Bosh is the weak spot in the Miami defense and Garnett can't let him off the hook but hunkering down 17 feet from the basket.
I can see this series taking about 50 twists and turns over the course of the next two weeks, and I can't say I have a real good grasp of how it's going to go. I keep coming back to Boston's defense. The Heat have become more consistent in recent weeks, but the Celtics have been able to frustrate Wade and, especially, James year in and year out in the postseason. In fact, the Celtics' success against the superstar duo is a big reason why they decided to team up in South Beach in the first place. If Boston can keep Miami out of transition, the Celtics' superior ball movement and decentralized attack will put them over the top. This should be a thrilling series.
Boston in 7
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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