NBA Playoff Preview - Miami vs. Boston
From The Sports Network
By John McMullen, NBA Editor
Miami Heat: 2nd Seed, East (58-24)
Boston Celtics: 3rd Seed, East (56-26)
(Sports Network) - With a little light stretching taken care of, the star- studded Miami Heat and the veteran-laden Boston Celtics are ready to do some heavy lifting in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"We knew it was probably going to eventually happen at one point or another," Celtics captain Paul Pierce told the Boston Herald when talking about facing the Heat. "Before the season, if we were going to get to where we need to be as a championship team, we knew we were going to have to play Miami. It's finally here and I'm sure it�s the much-anticipated battle everybody has been waiting on."
The East certainly looked like a top-heavy conference and both the third- seeded Celtics and No. 2 Heat did their parts by easily jettisoning their first round competition. Boston swept Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks, while the Heat needed five games to dismiss the game but far less talented Philadelphia 76ers.
You can make a strong argument that the Celtics are the reason LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, along with Chris Bosh, joined forces during the offseason in South Beach. After all it was the Celtics that dispatched Wade's Heat in five games during the 2010 quarterfinals before knocking out James' Cavaliers in six during the semis en route to their second Eastern Conference crown in three years.
The aged C's are well rested this time around, having been off since last Sunday when Kevin Garnett scored 26 points and Rajon Rondo netted 21 with 12 assists as Boston knocked New York out of the playoffs with a 101-89 victory.
"We found a way to put it away," said Rondo. "It's a good feeling."
The Celtics looked every bit like a team ready to make another championship run while extending the Knicks' decade-long winless streak in the playoffs. The upstart Sixers, however, exposed some flaws in the Heat but Miami was able to put things away with a 97-91 triumph in South Beach on Wednesday behind 26 points from Wade.
"It was a battle each and every game. They came and played," Bosh said. "They played together, and they played hard ... It was for us to have that stress of having to execute down the stretch. It only gets harder from here on out."
James compared playoff rounds to meals and referred to the series with the Sixers as "breakfast." The superstar is now ready for noon and his next meal.
"A very big lunch," James said of the Celtics. "It wont be just a salad. This is the series everyone wanted to see. I think we always felt it would happen at some point. We're looking forward to the challenge."
Boston basketball chief Danny Ainge also seemed to sense this matchup was coming and made a calculated gamble at the trade deadline with his eye on Miami, sending popular defensive-minded center Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City for a package that included forward Jeff Green.
The Celtics have already proven their ability to at least slow down both James and Wade in seasons past but the template that included a lengthy, athletic defender coming off the bench like a James Posey or a Tony Allen was no longer in place before the trade.
With Ray Allen and Pierce aging and playing far too many minutes in the regular season, Green, who was originally drafted with the No. 5 pick Boston gave up to get Allen, is the type of wing that can give them both a breather and at least make things a little more difficult for James or Wade.
"If you're Ainge and you're trying to sustain this run that Boston is on, your core group of (Kevin) Garnett, (Paul) Pierce and (Ray) Allen are an older group," former NBA GM Steve Kerr said. "They aren't going to be able to play forever. Jeff Green will be able to team with Rajon Rondo to be cornerstones in the future."
The Celtics have dominated Miami in recent years, winning eight straight and 14 of 15 in the regular season before the Heat routed the Celtics in South Beach, 100-77, on April 10.
Boston and Miami have met just one time in the postseason, last season's 4-1 Celtics win in the East quarterfinals.
"We have no choice," Wade said when asked if his team was ready for Boston. "I feel that we got better since game one of the regular season. We're going to continue to get better. We're looking forward to playing Boston on our home floor, we'll be prepared and ready."
POINT GUARD: Everyone talks about the Big Three in Boston but the straw that stirs the drink on this team is point guard Rajon Rondo, who stumbled a bit down the stretch of the regular season but played exceptionally against New York in the quarterfinals, averaging 19.0 points per game, 12.0 assists and 7.3 rebounds. Rondo is one of the game's quickest quarterbacks and despite lacking a top-tier, consistent jumper, Rondo has made a team that features three future Hall of Famers into his own.
The Kentucky product has also always upped his game in the postseason, becoming almost a daily triple-double threat. His ability to get on the boards really shows up against most point guards and his floor game and decision making is solid. The book on Rondo remains simple, sag off him and make him take that suspect jumper.
"When Rondo is being aggressive, he's breaking defenses down, he's pushing the ball up," former Celtics great Kevin McHale said in a recent conference call. "They really need Rondo to push the ball all the time, to be aggressive offensively and to be the igniter to that Celtics offense."
Rondo's counterpart, veteran Mike Bibby is certainly playoff tested but he's on his last legs. Bibby was awful against Philadelphia and was finally benched in the second-half of Game 5 for Mario Chalmers. A defensive cardboard cutout these days, Bibby provides a steady hand with the ball and can hit a standstill three occasionally but it's hard to imagine him trying to stick with Rondo.
Chalmers, whether he starts or not, will likely get the majority of the minutes. He offers far more speed and quickness but is an inconsistent player that will turn it over and take bad shots on occasion.
EDGE: HUGE ADVANTAGE FOR CELTICS
SHOOTING GUARD: Allen is still one of the finest pure shooters to ever lace up a pair of sneakers and can come off the screen better than anyone since Reggie Miller. Ray-Ray has a lightning-quick trigger and is not afraid to take the big shot. In fact, Allen's marksmanship can take over any game when he heats up. Although aging, the UConn product is also an underrated defender. Allen averaged 22.0 ppg and knocked down a sizzling 57.4 percent of his shots versus the Knicks, including a ridiculous 17-of-26 from long range.
Wade, the NBA Finals MVP in 2006 and a former scoring champion, remains an athletic marvel and one of the league's best finishers around the rim. He can also handle the playmaking role, something his transition and penetration skills are tailor-made for. Wade also seems better suited to handle the closer role for the Heat but sometimes defers to James, a testament to ego. Wade, like James, doesn't exactly impress you with his leadership skills.
CENTER: When the Celtics traded the popular Perkins, a solid interior defender that can set a teeth-chattering pick, it was on the assumption that veteran Shaquille O'Neal would be able to go come playoff time. O'Neal appeared in only 37 games this season, missing all but five minutes of the last 34 games and the first round of the playoffs with Achilles and calf injuries.
There's no denying O'Neal will be pivotal to the Celtics' championship hopes. If he plays, he gives Boston a very formidable inside presence. If he sits the C's have a hole as big as O'Neal himself in the middle. O'Neal was scheduled to practice Friday and could play in Game 1 but that could be smoke and mirrors. If O'Neal remains absent and there have been reports that the big man is done for the year, Boston will go with fellow veteran Jermaine O'Neal, who gave the team 91 minutes against the Knicks but is not nearly the presence Shaq is.
Veteran Zydrunas Ilgauskas starts for the Heat and still knows how to play the game but is aging and doesn't have the physical skills to contribute much at either end these days. Miami is much tougher with Joel Anthony on the floor, a defensive-minded, under-sized pivot that is very long and a natural shot- blocker.
EDGE: CELTICS with Shaq; HEAT without Shaq
SMALL FORWARD: Pierce is the Celtics' go-to-guy down the stretch of close games and is one of the NBA's best. The 2008 NBA Finals MVP was once again the Celtics' leading scorer and is one of the game's best finishers. The Truth's vaunted body control also enables him to march to the foul line at will and he is a very underrated defender.
James, however, is simply more talented. An unbelievable athlete with freakish strength and size, when the jumper is falling "King James" is virtually unstoppable. The only hope for the opposition is to harass James into some bad shooting nights and hope his teammates come up small. Against the Celtics in last year's playoffs James' energy level, lack of urgency and questionable body language when things went south showed a lack of leadership and that must improve in this year's postseason. Down the stretch of the regular season , James was out of this world, averaging 30-plus points and shooting nearly 60 percent in his final 13 games. Against the Sixers, he put up great numbers, 24.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg and 6.2 apg, but shot only 46.9 percent and a well below average 25.0 percent from long range.
POWER FORWARD: Some call Garnett the NBA's resident bully. I call him incredibly unselfish and one of the best power forwards of all-time. He's clearly on the downside of a spectacular career but "the Big Ticket" has been incredibly efficient as usual and clearly has enough left in his bag of tricks to make things very difficult for a player like Bosh who has never made it past the first round of the playoffs before.
Bosh is more skilled than Garnett at this point. One of the best offensive power forwards in the game and a plus rebounder he can, however, wilt against nasty players and that is the very definition of Garnett. That said, the former Toronto All-Star is by far the best third-option in basketball.
BENCH: The Celtics bench is much more talented and if Shaq can go, much deeper with Rivers having the ability to use Nenad Krstic and Jermaine O'Neal as situational players. Big Baby Davis and Green could be the difference makers in the set. Davis provides offense inside and some toughness while Green is a big-time talent that can help both offensively and with his perimeter defense against both James and Wade. Meanwhile, veteran guard Delonte West offers solid minutes at both backcourt spots.
The Heat bench won the series against the Sixers with Anthony and Chalmers the unsung heroes. Their energy and defense seemingly always sparked a Miami run but that won't happen against the Celtics, a team with a lot more proven scores.
James Jones, former Celtic Eddie House and Mike Miller, who fell out of the rotation against Philly, can all stretch the floor at times while Juwan Howard can provide situational minutes up front. The Heat could get a big boost if veteran big man Udonis Haslem can return. Haslem, a good rebounder with a solid mid-range jumper, practiced back-to-back days Tuesday and Wednesday for the first time since tearing a tendon in his left foot in November.
Coach Erik Spoelstra called that a significant step in Haslem's recovery.
"We will have discussions in the next few days to evaluate very clearly where he is right now," Spoelstra told the Miami Herald.
COACHING: Rivers has never been regarded as a great chess player but he has done a wonderful job melding the egos of three superstars, and managing personalities may be the most important job of an NBA coach.
Spoelstra, a Pat Riley disciple, first joined the Heat in 1995 as the team's video coordinator and moved up from there. He helped the team bounce back from an ugly 15-67 mark in 2007-08 and, like Riley, preaches defense and conditioning. He, however, doesn't seem to be all that well respected by his own players.
PREDICTION: This will be marketed as the 'Boston Three Party' versus 'Miami Thrice' but in all reality, the Celtics Big Three became a Fabulous Four a few years ago with the development of Rondo, the kind of quick point guard that can really expose just how little Bibby has at the defense end.
Chalmers offered some nice energy minutes and a defensive mindset against Philadelphia but he just can't hold up against Boston. Meanwhile, the Celtics' closers have proven far more adept this season than Miami's. In fact, inexplicably, the Heat have been one of the worst teams in basketball when things are tight at crunch time.
"These teams, when they're good, they're really good," TNT analyst Kenny Smith said. "Can the other team make you uncomfortable? The only thing that would say that the Boston Celtics would have the advantage is that they score and they defend and they can score multiple ways."
CELTICS in 6
04/29 15:46:18 ET