By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Apr 14 2010 3:32PM
With at least four players heading for the Hall of Fame some day, the first-round matchup between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat certainly has star power. But these are two teams fueled by tough defenses, so don't expect it to be pretty.
The Celtics started the season 23-5, but they were no better than a .500 team (27-27) after Christmas. For a while now, they've been talking about playing more focused for longer stretches, acknowledging that they can't just flip the switch when the playoffs begin.
Well, the playoffs are here, and the switch is seemingly still in the off position. The Celtics lost seven of their last 10 games.
The Heat, meanwhile, have been playing their best basketball down the stretch. A soft schedule had something to do with it, but Miami went 18-4 since March 1 and had the best defense in the league after the All-Star break. This series is a true matchup of experience vs. momentum.
1. What's wrong with the Celtics? Offensive inconsistency has been the issue for most of the season, but of late, it's their vaunted defense that has really fallen off. The last 10 games was the worst defensive 10-game stretch they've had in the Kevin Garnett era, including the time Garnett missed at the end of last season.
2. Does home-court advantage mean anything? Not as much as it has in the past for the Celtics, who won 18 of their 22 postseason home games over the last two years. They were the 15th best home team in the league this season and have lost five of their last six games at TD Garden.
3. How did the Heat turn up the defense after the break? Erik Spoelstra says it was a matter of building up good habits. Jermaine O'Neal says the players looked in the mirror and saw a team that might miss the playoffs.
4. Should we put a lot of stock in the Celtics' three-game sweep of the season series? No. All three games went down to the final minute, and all three took place before the All-Star break. A lot has changed since then.
5. Is this the last hurrah for the Big Three? Most likely. Ray Allen is a free agent this summer, and Danny Ainge will certainly have to retool should the Celtics fall short of the conference finals.
The Celtics want to play inside-out. Rajon Rondo will try to get to the rim in transition or off a high screen. Ray Allen can catch-and-shoot off a down-screen on either side of the floor and Paul Pierce loves to get to the elbow. Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace are both dangerous in the post, but get more shots on pick-and-pop plays on the perimeter.
With Jermaine O'Neal in the middle, the Heat defend the paint well, but Michael Beasley might have a tough time if Garnett takes him into the low post. Dwyane Wade will be forced to work on defense, because Allen will make Wade chase him around countless screens.
Wade will have the ball in his hands quite a bit. He accounts for more than 40 percent of the Heat's points via his own points and assists. He'll get the ball at the top and look to use a high screen to get into the paint and to the line. O'Neal in the post and Beasley in wing isolations are secondary options.
The Celtics haven't had a designated defensive stopper since James Posey left, so Ray Allen will get the Wade assignment, and all of his teammates will be ready to help when Wade has the ball. Despite their late-season struggles, Boston was still the fourth best defensive team in the league. With Rondo, the league-leader in steals, at the top of their defense, they rank second in forcing turnovers.
The Celtics have an equal-opportunity offense, even late in the fourth quarter. Rondo will continue to look for lanes to the basket, and they'll run Allen off of multiple screens or isolate Pierce for the back-down elbow jumper. Garnett also will get his fair share of pick-and-pop jumpers. The Heat will need to be prepared for everything.
The Miami offense obviously becomes more Wade-centric down the stretch, but the Celtics will swarm when he's got the ball, so it will be up to his teammates to knock down open shots when Wade draws a crowd. Udonis Haslem will find his favorite spot on the baseline, O'Neal will get to the basket and Quentin Richardson will be spotting up on the perimeter.
Doc Rivers says that Nate Robinson, who has been in and out of the Celtics' rotation, will help them win a playoff game at some point. The Celtics have struggled in the second half of games for most of the season, so Robinson's energy could be critical if the offense needs a lift in the third or fourth quarter.
Michael Beasley has looked like an improved player at times this season, but he has been inconsistent. Wade will need help in this series, and Beasley's quickness can be an asset against the Celtics' frontline. If he can string a few strong games together, the Heat have a good chance to pull off the upset.
The Celtics are the better team, but they haven't played nearly well enough of late to believe they can make this a quick series. Celtics in 7.
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