Game Preview: Celtics at Heat

BOSTON – If you want to open up the second round of the playoffs in your own arena, you’d better win on Sunday afternoon. That’s the statement that is staring the Boson Celtics (55-24) and the Miami Heat (55-24) directly in the face as Sunday’s mammoth showdown against each other rapidly approaches.

Boston and Miami are currently tied for the second seed in the Eastern Conference standings, and they will face off at 3:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon at AmericanAirlines Arena in a game that could settle their respective playoff seedings once and for all.

The Celtics enter Sunday’s contest holding the tiebreaker between the two teams, as they have already won the first three meetings of the season. In order to grab the second seed, the Heat must finish at least one game better than the Celtics in the final regular season standings. If there is a tie, Boston is guaranteed the higher seed.

Both teams have won four of their last six games, but the Celtics certainly have more of a reason for the two losses they’ve incurred over that stretch than the Heat do. Boston fell to two teams that will be in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Bulls and Pacers, while Miami fell to two lottery-bound teams in the Cavaliers and Bucks. Each team bounced back with a win Friday night after disappointing losses in their prior game.

After Boston’s bounce back win Friday night, both Doc Rivers and Paul Pierce acknowledged that the team is going to make a hard push for that coveted second seed. That push begins on Sunday in a game that will undoubtedly have a playoff feel.

“This is a big game for us,” Pierce said of the matchup against the Heat. “That’s what we are playing for, for the home court advantage. Not only for the first round, but hopefully we will see them in the second round. This is a big game for us when you are talking about seeds and trying to advance in the playoffs. It’s huge.”

Rivers, willingly acknowledging the seedings for the very first time, said, “We control our own destiny for the second seed now and we’ve got to win the next two games.”

Boston’s head coach is completely correct. The Celtics do, in fact, control their own destiny, but so do the Heat. If either team wins the remaining three games on their regular season schedule, they will receive the second seed. Boston, in fact, would seal up the second seed if it wins its next two games as a result of that tie breaker.

The first step either team will take toward sealing up that second seed will, however, be a difficult one to take.

The Celtics have played some of their best basketball against the Heat this season and have, for the most part, taken either Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh out of the game. Wade has, though, been playing fantastic basketball over the past couple of months, as he trails only his teammate LeBron James in scoring since the All-Star break. To win this game, Boston will need to slow down one of those players yet again, and it must come out with a greater sense of urgency than it did Thursday night in Chicago.

As for Miami, it will have an opportunity to prove to the league that it can win a big game against a great team. The Heat have been terrible against the top teams in the league, and particularly the Eastern Conference. They have gone 2-8 against the other top three teams in the East and 4-4 against the top four seeds in the West. Miami will clearly enter this game looking to prove something, but isn’t that what it wanted to do the past three games against Boston as well?

The Celtics haven’t been playing their best basketball over the past month, and the Heat haven’t been able to prove that they are legitimate contenders against the top teams in the league. They will each have an opportunity to put those statements in the past on Sunday and wrap their arms around the No. 2 seed in the process.

Make Wade Work

Everyone will look at Wade’s numbers against the Celtics this season and assume that he has just been outplayed, but that’s not the whole story. In two of the three games in which these teams have met, Wade was essentially still in training camp-mode.

Wade missed nearly all of training camp with a hamstring injury, and thus the first two weeks of Miami’s regular season served as his prep time. Two of the three games Boston has played against Miami came during the first 16 days of the season. Wade scored only 21 total points in those two contests.

Though the Celtics should expect to see a much better version of Wade this time around, there’s no doubt that they have a weapon that can play the role of kryptonite against him. Ray Allen’s ability to move off of the ball requires his defender to work at an extremely high level for the majority of the game. In the past, Wade had been able to sidestep that responsibility, but that’s no longer the case with the Heat’s current makeup. He will be the primary defender on Allen.

One of the keys to success for Boston will be getting the ball into Allen’s hands, first and foremost, but then seeing the team’s sharpshooter make the shots that he takes. If Allen can have a big game, it will put more pressure on Wade to defend, and that’s something that could wind up frustrating Wade’s game at the other end of the court.

Points in the Paint

Since the moment this Heat team was constructed, there have been two glaring weaknesses that everyone in the basketball world pointed to: point guard and center. Though Miami has three incredible players who make up 60 percent of its starting lineup, the other 40 percent remain the liability, to say the least.

Boston, known for its size after its offseason signings of both Jermaine and Shaquille O’Neal, have taken advantage of those weaknesses this season. J.O will be available for this game, while Shaq did not travel with the team.

The Celtics have outscored the Heat 112-90 in points in the paint in the teams’ three meetings this season. Those 112 points have been accrued on an incredibly consistent basis, as the C’s racked up 38, 38 and 36 points in the paint, respectively, in those three games.

It’s not like all of those points are coming off of isolated post up attempts, either. The main reason those numbers have been accumulated is because of Rajon Rondo, who exploits Miami’s weakness at point guard. Rondo has averaged a whopping 14.3 APG against the Heat this season. When he is breaking his defender down off of the dribble, it forces other defenders to help, and that leads to easy baskets in the paint.

Rondo’s ability to get to the basket, along with his teammates’ ability to finish shots in the paint, will be one of the deciding factors in this game. The C’s did a great job of executing both of those things Friday night against Washington.

Break Their Break

NBA onlookers have been saying that Boston is old, slow and past its prime for the past two seasons. If such was true, wouldn’t the most dynamic fast break team in the league be racking up transition points with utter ease against these Celtics? Yes, it would, and no, it hasn’t.

The Celtics have proven everyone wrong in that aspect of the game during their three contests against the Heat this season. Miami has been outplayed, outscored and dominated in the fast break. Boston has outscored the Heat by a count of 45-28 in fast break points this season. Miami’s high in fast break points during their three games against Boston was just 11, and its low was seven.

Clearly, Boston has something in its arsenal that takes two of the NBA’s most electric players, Wade and James, out of their fast break game. Be it limiting turnovers, scoring effectively or simply sprinting back on defense, something has worked in each of the three meetings.

Will the Celtics be able to display that ability to remove Miami’s fast break game again on Sunday? It will be a difficult task, but Boston is already 3-for-3 in doing so this season.