James, Wade-Led Heat Take On Aging Celtics In Eastern Finals
Tip off Monday night at American Airlines Arena will feature two injury-ridden teams that faced off last year in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Heat were victorious a year ago (4-1), but both teams are sporting a different look in 2012.
The stakes are high for the Heat, as failure will almost certainly assure the break-up of the “Big Three” of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and/or coach Eric Spoelstra's lack of a job. Boston faces similar questions about their Hall of Fame trio with only Paul Pierce under contract for next year. A loss in this series spells an early end to the Kevin Garnett/Ray Allen/Paul Pierce era in Beantown.
Regular season series: Boston won 3-1
Though Miami won the first meeting between the two clubs in December, Boston took the three remaining contests in April. Both teams wisely sat out most of their stars in the final contest, but the Celtics, led by strong outings by Rajon Rondo, proved in the other two games that they were a serious contender to win the East.
How they got here:
Both teams are coming off less than convincing wins in their previous series. Miami dismantled the Knicks in the first round but struggled mightily against Indiana without Bosh, who suffered an abdominal strain in Game 1 and is still out indefinitely. Without him, the Heat fell behind 2-1 before rallying to close out the series with three straight wins. If there’s a positive to be had from the Pacers' series, it’s that James and Wade rekindled their on the court chemistry as the duo combined for 197 points in the last three games against the Pacers.
After performing reasonably well against the Hawks in the first round, the Celtics needed a triple-double from Rondo in Game 7 against the upstart 76ers to advance to the next round. The C’s have been hampered by injuries to guard Avery Bradley’s shoulder (three dislocations in this postseason alone) and Allen’s ankle. Bradley, whose work on the defensive end earned him a spot in the starting lineup, is done for the playoffs, and Allen has struggled mightily on both ends of the floor—fouling out in Game 6 against Philadelphia and shooting just 27 percent from three-point land for these playoffs.
All-Stars on All-Stars:
Much like last year, expect this to be where the series is won or lost. LeBron averaged 28 points per game against Boston in the 2011 series compared to Pierce’s 19.6 points per game. James comes in averaging 29 points per game on 49 percent shooting and Pierce is averaging 19.3 points on 42 percent shooting. This matchup always brings out the best in both competitors and naturally, they will spend most of the series defending one another.
In truth, no one can really stop James but slowing him down is still a possibility. To give Boston a chance in this series, Pierce must do a better job containing James than last year and/or Doc Rivers needs to give him more help. A rejuvenated Garnett might be able to help in spot situations but the bulk of the duty will fall on Pierce. If the 34-year-old Pierce exerts too much energy on defense, he might not have enough gas to be effective on the other end.
Rajon Rondo vs. Dwyane Wade
Mario Chalmers will spend some time on Rondo but the real fun begins when Rondo and Wade go at it. Not that he needs the motivation, but Rondo will surely remember the play from Game 3 a year ago where Wade pulled Rondo to the ground, dislocating his elbow and rendering him far less effective the remainder of the series. Given his 15/7/12 stat line in the playoffs, it’s clear Rondo is the cog that keeps the C’s going and they’ll go as far as he can take them.
Despite a few hiccups against Indiana, Wade has otherwise been business as usual this postseason. His 23.8 points per game on 47 percent shooting this postseason doesn't do justice to just how dominant his play has been on both ends of the court. But against a defender like Rondo, will he fare just as well? And of equal importance, can he disrupt Rondo from facilitating the Boston offense?
One last thing to watch out for: Bench play
Both squads have paper-thin benches at this crucial juncture. Miami’s bench has served as a whipping boy in losses for much of the year and losing Dexter Pittman for two games does little to help their depth. Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem are the best guys they have coming off the bench, and if they’re not making baskets, expect to see some unhappy looks on the faces of James and Wade.
Boston’s bench has been decimated by inju
Prediction: Heat in 6ries. Losing Jeff Green before the season even started and Jermaine O’Neal halfway through, Doc Rivers deserves credit for finding contributors throughout the season. Brandon Bass has been the only bench guy Rivers can count on for production on a nightly basis - since Avery’s injury, no other player has stepped up to fill that void. The C’s desperately need guys like wing players like Sasha Pavlovic and Mickael Pietrus to step up and play big minutes if they’re going to have a shot at an upset but that's asking for a lot from guys who haven't played a whole lot this postseason.
The Heat proved they can still win even when they're reduced to the Big Two without Chris Bosh. It remains to be seen if Boston can win a series without Avery Bradley, especially with Ray Allen hobbling around on one good ankle. The Celtics will go as far as Kevin Garnett, Paul Piece, and especially Rajon Rondo can take them, but they're running on fumes at this point and Miami has more than enough momentum with home-court advantage to tip the series 4-2 in their favor.
Staff Predictions (Heat-Celtics)
Aaron Fischman: Heat in 6
Boston will not go down without a fight, but the Celtics are battling a slew of injuries. Their defensive stopper, Avery Bradley, is out for the postseason, while an ankle injury continues to hamper (normally) sharpshooting Jesus Shuttlesworth. Even with Chris Bosh likely missing a couple of games, Miami boasts far too much firepower not to advance, especially as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade continue to post videogame numbers.
Jacob Freedman: Heat in 5
The Boston Celtics can thank the Pacers for unleashing a tougher, angrier, and ultimately superior version of the Miami Heat. The Celtics lost their best chance to limit Dwyane Wade to injury with Avery Bradley, and the rest of the squad isn’t exactly spry after escaping the 76ers. Bosh or no Bosh, the Heat still have the two best players in this series by far, and the supreme talents of Wade and Lebron James will prevail.
Danny Lee: Heat in 6
If the Celtics weren't plagued with so many injuries, I would have picked them to get past Miami, even with a healthy Bosh. But being at less than 100 percent will make it even tougher to deal with the Heat's athleticism (especially with a hobbled Allen having to guard Wade). However, the Celtics are a prideful group that's used to fighting through physical ailments. If this is Pierce, KG and Allen's final stand, they will make a series of it before the sun finally sets on Boston's Three Party.
Max Meyer: Heat in 5
The loss of Avery Bradley may not sound like much, but the Celtics not having one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA is huge. They also have Ray Allen, who looks even more injured than Bradley, playing significant minutes. Oh, and did you see the awful basketball the Celtics played against the 76ers? The Heat will roll all over the aging C's.
Game 1 Mon May 28 Boston at Miami 8:30 p.m. ESPN
Game 2 Wed May 30 Boston at Miami 8:30 p.m. ESPN
Game 3 Fri June 1 Miami at Boston 8:30 p.m. ESPN
Game 4 Sun June 3 Miami at Boston 8:30 p.m. ESPN
Game 5 * Tue June 5 Boston at Miami 8:30 p.m. ESPN
Game 6 * Thu June 7 Miami at Boston 8:30 p.m. ESPN
Game 7 * Sat June 9 Boston at Miami 8:30 p.m. ESPN
* if necessary