Here's something that kind of snuck up on me: The Heat-Celtics matchup has a little bit of a dynastic flavor to it. After this year's conference finals showdown, Boston and Miami will have accounted for five of the last seven East titles. Each has won two, so this is the rubber match. Unless of course, they're in it again next year.
I'd believe anything at this point, having tried to write off Boston for several months now. These Celtics are harder to kill than John McClane. Don't worry. I'm not giving up. After all, Boston has had a fairly clear path to the showdown against Miami, having avoided Chicago and getting the eighth-seeded Sixers in the second round. Miami has wavered a bit at times, what with Chris Bosh's injury and all, but LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have re-established the Heat as the odds-on favorite to win the conference. I'm fully expecting a Miami rout.
The Celtics won three of the four matchups in the regular season, which is enough to give one pause, especially given that the three wins were all in April and were by a combined 39 points. You can toss the last one of those Boston wins -- Bosh, James, Wade, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen all were held out of action. But Miami's big three played in the other two losses, so perhaps Boston has some matchup advantages. If so, that didn't manifest in last year's East second round, when Miami blasted the Celtics in five games.
There are a lot of potential injury-related wild cards. Bosh won't play in Game 1, but beyond that it's uncertain in a couple of ways: 1. We don't know if he'll be able to come back; 2. We don't know how the Heat will respond if he does return. After all, they've played awful well without him. Then there is Wade's knee, which hampered him against Indiana before he had fluid drained. Will that problem re-surface? Then there are the Celtics, not a deep team to begin with, who must play on without starting guard Avery Bradley. Meanwhile, Ray Allen will likely be hobbled by ankle trouble the rest of the way.
On the surface, it just doesn't seem like Boston will have the manpower nor the energy to stay with a Miami team that is rolling, with or without Bosh. But the Celtics just keep finding ways to stay alive. Can it continue?
WHEN MIAMI HAS THE BALL
Pace: 93.7 possessions per 48 minutes (15th NBA)
MIAMI Offensive Rating: 104.3 points per 100 possessions (6th NBA)
BOSTON Defensive Rating: 95.5 points per 100 possessions (2nd NBA)
Bradley's absence due to shoulder surgery is a shame, because he was a key part of keeping Wade under control in the regular season. In 52 minutes with Bradley on the court, Wade shot 33 percent from the field. In 59 minutes with him sitting, he shot 54 percent in about the same number of shots. Wade has to be licking his chops at the prospect of facing up Allen and Mickael Pietrus. Doc Rivers has to figure out a way to keep Wade under control.
If Bosh doesn't return, the absence of his jump shot should enable the Celtics to use Garnett as more of help defender. Garnett has erased Bosh from the offensive end at times over the last few years, but at least his outside touch forces KG to play him honestly. Udonis Haslem can provide some of that, but Garnett should still be available to help curtail Wade and James on their forays to the hoop, and he will be able to aggressively trap on the screen-and-roll.
There may be some hope for the Celtics in the marquee matchup between James and Pierce. James averaged about 30 points per 40 minutes this season against Boston with and without Pierce on the floor, shooting well over 50 percent in each case. Pierce always seems to find reserves when you'd think there were none to be had. During the regular season, Pierce was generally rested when James was on the bench. However, James won't be spending much time on the pine in this series, unless the game is out of hand. Pierce played against James just twice in the regular season, but shot 50 percent with him on the floor and 56 percent from three-point range. The old dog still knows a few tricks.
If you assume a certain level of production from Wade and James, then the Celtics can't allow a third Heat to go off. If Bosh can't play, or isn't at full strength, then perhaps Rondo's matchup with Mario Chalmers will take on added significance. Chalmers was big at times in the Indiana series and his ability to keep Rondo honest would keep Boston's ball-hawking point guard from turning a lot of steals into a lot of early offense on the other end.
The Heat have so many tantalizing lineup options that it'll be interesting to see how the Celtics can respond. If James plays point guard in a big lineup, you've still got to put Pierce or Pietrus on him, but that could open up corner threes for Shane Battier, James Jones and Mike Miller. If he plays the four in a small lineup, a configuration I love, then can't you let Garnett chase him around? Brandon Bass? No, you're still probably going to defend him with a win but, again, then you may be leaving yourself vulnerable on the perimeter.
WHEN BOSTON HAS THE BALL
Pace: 92.7 possessions per 48 minutes (22nd NBA)
BOSTON Offensive Rating: 98.9 points per 100 possessions (24th NBA)
MIAMI Defensive Rating: 97.1 points per 100 possessions (4th NBA)
As mentioned, Pierce held up fine in limited action during the regular season, but he's got to do it again in a long series. And, after all, if the Celtics are to somehow pull out a win over Miami, it's going to be a long series. An efficient Pierce would not only give the Celtics a much-needed boost, but it would also help control the tempo. When Pierce plays well, the whole game seems to slow down to his pace. He's like a monster from Scooby-Doo.
Garnett should have a field day when defended by Rony Turiaf or Joel Anthony. The Heat's lack of size should allow him to play inside and out. As always, at this point in his career, Garnett has to be mindful of balancing his offensive arsenal. James would give him fits by taking away his jumper, but he's probably better utilized against Pierce.
Allen has to hit shots in this series. There simply is no other way for the Celtics. He can't get lift on his shots right now because of the ankles, but he must find a way to compensate. If Allen isn't aggressive and at least semi-efficient, then Wade gets to roam free on defense, and that could make things ugly pretty fast.
All that said, the Celtics' hopes for efficient offense start with Rondo, who needs to be the fastest player on the floor and to play with more consistency than he did against Philadelphia. He's got to look for his own shot, as well as set up his jump-shooting teammates, primarily Garnett and Bass. If Boston is going to have any chance to win, Rondo is going to have to average something like 22 points and 15 assists, and even that might not be enough.
Boston's success against Miami in the regular season may offer some initial hope for Celtics fans. However, I've got to go back to some common themes I've been harping on all season. With Chicago battered and eliminated, Miami is far and away the class of the East. The Celtics are an admirable, skilled and aging group whose batteries and winding down fast. I don't think this will be a long series.
Miami in 5
(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)
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