Posted Apr 28 2011 9:30AM - Updated Apr 28 2011 8:25PM
Nothing against the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers, but they were just part of the warmup act. Now that the Knicks and Sixers have gone fishin', it's time for the heavyweight matchup that we've been waiting for since last July.
The Boston Celtics have ruled the Eastern Conference for the last four years. The Miami Heat are looking to rule it for the next four. When Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade joined forces, they knew they would first have to conquer the Celtics to realize their goal of winning a championship. Well, here they are.
"It wouldn't be right if we didn't go through them," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after his team closed out the Sixers on Wednesday.
If the Celtics' big three didn't come together in 2007 via a pair of big trades, the Heat's big three probably wouldn't have come together last summer via free agency. Boston is the blueprint. Miami is the newer, more talented version. But the Heat don't have the experience and cohesion that the Celtics have developed over the last four years.
Still, thanks to the Celtics' late-season nosedive and a win over Boston on April 10, the Heat will have home-court advantage in this series. The Celtics' advantage, in addition to much more time spent together, is their relative comfort in late-game situations.
Will the Heat put an end to the Celtics' run atop the East on their first try? Or will Boston prove that there's no match for experience?
Those aren't the only questions:
1. Have the Celtics flipped the switch? After barely beating the Knicks in two games at home, Boston seemingly found its rhythm at Madison Square Garden. But two games wasn't enough to convince Doc Rivers that all is right with his team, which has been largely inconsistent since the trade deadline. "With our team, you never know," Rivers said after Game 4 in New York.
2. Do the Heat need to make a lineup change? Yes. Over the course of their series with the Sixers, the Heat's starting lineup was outscored 92-53 in the first quarter, putting them in double-digit holes in four of the five games. Erik Spoelstra clearly had enough in Game 5, starting the second half with Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony instead of Mike Bibby and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
3. Which team has the better bench? On paper, it's the Celtics. And with their lineup issues, it's unclear who will be coming off the bench for the Heat. But other than a nice run in the first half of Game 4 against the Knicks, Boston's group of Glen Davis, Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic and Delonte West has been largely disappointing. So those stretches when there are fewer than seven All-Stars on the floor will be critical for both teams.
4. Why has Wade struggled so much (16-for-57 from the field) against the Celtics this season? The Celtics' big men have done a great job of defending him off the screen. He's been able to get into the paint, but not without company. Still, his awful numbers against Boston are somewhat fluky. His shooting percentage from within five feet of the basket against the Celtics (8-for-25, 32 percent) was less than half of his percentage against the other 29 teams (67 percent).
5. Can Ray Allen continue to shoot so well? If he does, the Heat are in trouble. Not only did Allen shoot 17-for-26 from 3-point range in the first round against the Knicks, he shot 16-for-28 from beyond the arc in four regular-season games against the Heat. If there's one thing the Heat want to take away (or at least limit) in this series, it's Allen's threes. The Celtics are 12-0 when he hits four or more this season, including two wins over Miami.
Ball movement is critical. The Celtics load up on the strong side of the ball, looking to keep the ballhandler out of the paint. So James and Wade will have a hard time going one-on-one, especially on their initial action in the offense. The Heat need to move the ball from side to keep the defense moving, open up lanes to the basket, and avoid settling for jump shots.
Kevin Garnett will neutralize Bosh and snuff out a lot of pick-and-rolls. The Heat will probably have more success running pick-and-rolls with James and Wade. James Jones' ability to knock down shots on the weak side will be critical.
The Heat need to stop Rajon Rondo in transition and keep him out of the paint. They can play off him in the half-court, as long as they don't let Allen and Paul Pierce get free on the wings. If passing lanes are open, Rondo will pick apart the defense and rack up the assists.
The top priority for the Celtics will be to avoid turnovers to keep Miami from getting out on the break, where they're most dangerous. No team has turned the ball over more often (17.6 times per 100 possessions) in the playoffs than the Celtics. In many ways, their defensive success against the Heat depends on their offensive execution.
The Heat are famously 1-for-19 in the last 10 seconds of games with the score tied or when they trail by 1-3 points. The Celtics aren't much better (2-for-14) in the same situation, but they clearly have a better history when it comes to executing in the clutch.
The Celtics have a lot of options down the stretch, and Doc Rivers is not afraid to get creative with his play calls when his team needs a bucket. So Miami has to be prepared for anything and everything.
The Heat have had some success running pick-and-rolls with James and Wade. Wade seems to make better decisions with the ball, but no matter who starts with it, the shot needs to go to the open man, even if that guy isn't an All-Star.
Each team has been waiting to get a veteran big man back from injury. Udonis Haslem has been out longer, but he appears to be more likely to return for Game 1 than Boston's Shaquille O'Neal.
Both teams can survive without their recovering bigs, but Haslem and O'Neal provide additional options on the front line. Haslem is more mobile than Ilgauskas and more polished offensively than Anthony. O'Neal has size that Miami just can't match and which comes in handy on both ends of the floor.
The Celtics have the experience and the swagger. But the Heat have the talent and home-court advantage. They've also been playing better and more consistently over the last several weeks. Heat in seven.
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