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Shaun Powell

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Dwyane Wade and LeBron James must stand tall if the Heat are to top the Celtics in the East semis.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Hunger to take down East's reigning champs driving Heat now


Posted Apr 28 2011 8:29AM

MIAMI -- LeBron James playfully dismissed the Sixers as "breakfast," which was consumed not without a couple of hard swallows Wednesday, and now we get to see: Will the Heat enjoy their lunch, or have it handed to them?

By pitting the proud kings of the East against a Miami team that first predicted a palace coup last summer, the Heat-Celtics East semifinal brings the promise of delicious theater. This is about the Celtics, who have been there and done that, and the Heat, built to take control of the conference -- if not all of basketball.

"We always felt we'd have to go through Boston," said James, and really, there was no other detour to take.

"It wouldn't be right if we didn't play them," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.

"We knew it, they knew it, everybody knew it," said Chris Bosh. "It wasn't `if,' but `when.'"

This is indeed a matchup that is sure to get folks talking, both on the court and away from it. The conversation in some respects began in the visitor's locker room not long after the first round was wrapped up by Miami in 5 games. If the Heat were hoping for a glowing preview from the Sixers, well, let's just say it wasn't a collective thumbs-up.

"To be honest, I think it might be kinda difficult for them," said Sixers guard Jrue Holiday. "Their big three against the fabulous four. They'd better watch out for Rajon Rondo. He's one of the smartest players in the league. You know, Mario Chalmers played well for the Heat tonight."

Pause.

"He's going to have to play like that every night."

The odds of Chalmers erupting again for 20 points, the difference for Miami in a 97-91 victory, are about as good as Joel Anthony sinking two free throws in the final 16.8 seconds to clinch a playoff victory. Oh, wait.

Basically, while the Heat were never seriously in danger of losing in the first round, they were unexpectedly handed a tough series by Philly. With the exception of Game 2, every game was decided in the final few possessions, none more shocking than Game 5 when Anthony, the Heat's offensively-challenged center, was stunned to find himself with the ball. Then he made both free throws after getting fouled, another shocker.

If the Heat could, they'd like to erase all of their starts and some of their finishes in the first round. That's when Miami was clearly at its weakest, sloppiest and most predictable. While it was enough to get past the young and inexperienced Sixers, Boston is too smart and opportunistic.

"It only gets harder," Bosh said. "Every game from here on out is probably going to go down to the last possession. We all could've done better."

In a game in which they pledged to atone for their errors, the Heat quickly fell behind by 10 points in the first quarter of Game 5. And in their final two trips downcourt while holding a one-point lead, their players either ran away from the ball or did nothing imaginative with it.

"Sometimes how they handle themselves in crucial situations late in games could hurt them against Boston," Holiday said. "And they never came out of the gate strong against us. Of course, they're good enough to fix all that and turn it around, too. We'll see."

The next series will be determined by James, whose otherwise-excellent series against Philly was spoiled by a failure to be a hero at the end of Game 4. And Dwyane Wade, who delivered 12 crucial fourth-quarter points Wednesday. And Bosh, who was steady and sure in his first real taste of playoff intensity.

The Heat's supporting cast was inconsistent at best, with serious concerns at guard. Mike Bibby shot 21 percent from deep and found himself benched late in the last few games. If he's having issues offensively, there's no way Spoelstra can risk having Bibby, a notoriously poor defender, on the floor for stretches against Rondo.

Finally and most importantly, the Heat didn't close out well in the first round and they haven't closed out with regularity all season. The Celtics specialize in that area, with Ray Allen dangerous from deep and Paul Pierce capable of either hitting shots or getting to the line.

As much as the Heat said the Sixers "prepared" them for the Celtics, that's not really the case. Philly and Boston couldn't be more different, in experience and makeup. What worked against one won't necessarily work against the other.

As an added intrigue, the Celtics will return Shaquille O'Neal, who helped the Heat win the 2006 title.

But the Heat didn't arrive here by accident, and when James and Wade are running the floor and scoring in transition -- sometimes on breath-taking dunks -- it's truly something to behold. And Bosh is rolling. And the Heat's defense must be respected.

"We understand where we are in the league," Spoelstra said, "and where the Celtics are."

Until the Heat snatched a game by 23 points in April, they were dominated by the Celtics, who won three straight. The matchups all around appear to favor the Celtics, who have won more meaningful playoff games than the entire Heat roster combined.

However, as James said, it's lunchtime for a Heat team looking for its just desserts.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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