Posted May 9 2011 11:19AM
BOSTON -- Three games of the Boston Celtics-Miami Heat conference semifinal series are in the books. At this point, both teams should have a set rotation and well-defined roles. But as they prepare for Game 4 on Monday (7 p.m. ET, TNT) -- likely one of the biggest games in either team's season -- the Heat and Celtics each have important questions regarding who's going to play.
The questions start with the health of Rajon Rondo, who suffered a dislocated left elbow in Game 3. Rondo returned to play all of the fourth quarter on Saturday, and said afterward that he wasn't concerned about his ability to play two nights later.
Rondo did not meet with the media on Sunday, but Celtics coach Doc Rivers said that his point guard was dealing with a lot more pain the morning after his injury. Neither an MRI nor a CAT scan revealed any structural damage, so Rondo's status from now on is mostly about his pain tolerance and how effective he can be if he can't bend his left arm.
Rondo is arguably the most important player in this series because he provides the Celtics their one clear matchup advantage. If he can't play, or if his effectiveness is compromised, his team is far less potent. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce each had big games to lift the Celtics to a Game 3 win, but it's unlikely that they can replicate those numbers three more times in this series.
Complicating things is the status of Rondo's back-up, Delonte West, who suffered a bruised left shoulder in Game 3. In contrast to Rondo, West was feeling better on Sunday. But the status of both for Game 4 is still unknown.
"I'm optimistic about both, that they're going to play," Rivers said. "I don't know why I am, but I am. I just don't know how well either one can play. But like I've said, if you're on the floor, you're healthy, and that's the way it's been."
"We're planning for [Rondo] to be there," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He's about as tough a guy as you'll come across in this league. I wasn't surprised that he came back. He's that type of competitor, playing with one arm. You don't like to see anybody injured at this time of year, even your opponent. We want to beat Boston when they're at their best and their healthiest."
Miami's questions don't involve health, but rather the effectiveness of their starting lineup. Spoelstra is a numbers guy who believes in using data to help him make decisions about his team. But for the last couple of weeks, he's been defying the data that clearly indicates that his starting lineup has been terrible.
The Heat's starters -- Mike Bibby, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- have been outscored 217-149 in the playoffs, a remarkable feat for a lineup that includes two MVP candidates (Wade and James) and an All-Star (Bosh). In eight postseason games, the lineup has played 15 stints together to start the first or third quarters, and it's been outscored in 11 of the 15.
The starting lineup has been awful both offensively, scoring just 81.6 points per 100 possessions, and defensively, allowing 122.3. Its issues came to a head in Game 3 against the Celtics, when it was outscored by nine points in the first quarter (16-7 in 5:26) and 10 in the third (14-5 in 4:10). The Heat recovered from the first slow start, but not the second.
The Heat's three All-Stars will continue to start, meaning it's fair to say Miami's problems lie with Bibby and Ilgauskas. When the Big Three has been teamed up with Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony, the Heat have outscored their opponents 145-108 in the playoffs.
Anthony, in particular, has been a real difference-maker. He leads the league with a plus-97 mark, which is tops in the postseason. Anthony's impact has been mostly defensive, with the Heat's opponents scoring just 91.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. But as evidenced by his 12 points in Game 3, his offensive confidence is also soaring.
So while there's a lot going wrong with the Heat's starting lineup, there's also a lot going right with their reserves. And Spoelstra doesn't necessarily want to mess with a good thing, especially when it comes to Anthony's role off the bench.
"He's played well there," Spoelstra said. "He's really established a comfort level and he's grown in that role."
Still, Spoelstra will need 10-15 minutes from one of the other centers on his roster, whether they come at the start of halves or somewhere in the middle. The solution may just be a matter of breaking up the Bibby-Ilgauskas combination, which was largely ineffective in the regular season as well. The Bibby-Anthony and Chalmers-Ilgauskas combinations were both pretty effective, but it's unclear if either Bibby or Ilgauskas would be comfortable coming off the bench.
Spoelstra said after Game 3 (and reiterated it on Sunday) that he will look at all options regarding his rotation. If you asked Rivers, he'd probably prefer to have rotation issues rather than health issues.
For both teams, there are more questions than answers leading up to what will be a critically important Game 4.
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