Game Preview: Heat at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – The final regular-season meeting between the Miami Heat (46-18) and the Boston Celtics (37-27) will take place at 8 p.m. tonight in TD Garden. Boston enters the contest with a 2-1 advantage over Miami in the season series.

Each of these teams are heading to the playoffs for a run at a championship, but both are still waiting to find out either who their opponent will be or where their first-round series will open up. This game could answer those questions for at least one of the squads that takes the floor tonight.

Boston is locked into its first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks but is still playing for home court advantage. The C’s need to gain at least one game on Atlanta over the final three days of the season in order to secure home court.

The attempt at completing that task begins tonight. A loss to the Heat would dwindle the Celtics’ chances of gaining home court advantage and, depending on what the Hawks do tonight against the Clippers, it could eliminate the possibility altogether.

Winning tonight’s key game against one of the top teams in the league is a difficult task to begin with. It may become even more difficult if the Celtics don’t have several of their key players available for the contest.

Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett both missed Friday’s game for rest, while Rajon Rondo, Mickael Pietrus Ray Allen and Greg Stiemsma are all nursing injuries. Pierce and Garnett are expected to be back in the lineup tonight, but the rest of that group’s availability seems to be up in the air.

“I expect maybe Rondo tomorrow, maybe [Mickael Pietrus],” Doc Rivers said on Monday, “but no Ray for sure.”

The fact that Rondo and Pietrus garnered “maybes” means that they’re likely game-time decisions. The same can be said for Stiemsma, who played less than 10 minutes Friday night thanks to lingering pain in his feet. None of those three players participated in Monday’s practice session, so the likelihood of them returning is not sky high.

What may work in Boston’s favor is the fact that the Heat are thinking about resting some, if not all, of their stars as well. Dwyane Wade (dislocated left index finger) and Ronny Turiaf (left hamstring strain) are both listed on the team’s injury report and did not play in Miami’s most recent game against the Rockets on Sunday. Chris Bosh (rest) and Mario Chalmers (flu-like symptoms) also missed that game. Miami is also considering resting LeBron James as the playoffs approach.

All of those players could miss tonight’s game, but those decisions will likely be made when head coach Erik Spoelstra makes his way to the arena this evening.

As Spoelstra proclaimed this week, “Everything from here on out will be a daily decision.”

The decisions for Spoelstra might be a bit easier to make now that the Heat’s opportunity to steal away the No. 1 seed from the Chicago Bulls is all but gone. Miami is almost guaranteed to be the No. 2 seed in the East, so these final two games of their season are essentially rendered meaningless in terms of the standings.

Boston should be excited about that fact, because it could make an important win much more attainable tonight. Grabbing a third consecutive win over the Heat would keep alive Boston’s hopes of opening up its postseason this weekend in TD Garden.

The Defenses

With Boston’s schemes and Miami’s athleticism, these two teams are regarded around the league as two of the best when it comes to defending. However, neither has been as dominant as it would like of late.

The Celtics have certainly been playing good defense over the past couple of weeks. But Doc Rivers doesn’t want good. He wants great.

“I think we’ve played great defense, but I think it’s been spurt defense over the last three or four games,” Rivers said. “I want us to get back to being as solid defensively as we were three or four games ago.”

Boston has defended Miami very well this season, as the Heat have shot just 44.6 percent against them this season. Miami shoots 47.2 percent overall on the season.

For the Heat, they need to get on track against the C’s. Boston has been dominant offensively over the past two meetings, shooting a whopping 53.4 percent. Miami hasn’t been able to figure out the Celtics’ offense, but it will need to do so tonight in order to compete.

Close Outs

The Celtics want to close out their season series against Miami with a win, but to do so they’ll need to consistently close out on the 3-point line.

This Heat team has been built to surround James, Wade and Bosh with lethal 3-point shooters. Mike Miller, James Jones, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Shane Battier can all get hot from behind the arc.

No matter if Miami’s Big Three plays tonight or not, that group listed above will most certainly want to get up its shots from downtown. The C’s must contest those shots and make the Heat’s sharpshooters think twice about firing them up.

The Lesser-Known Celtics

Boston will not be fully healthy tonight. That’s a fact. We know at least Allen is will not play, and it’s likely that at least another key teammate will join him. What does that mean for the Celtics? Other guys need to step up.

All of the Big Four did not play in Friday’s game in Atlanta. Boston wasn’t expected to compete with the Hawks in that contest, yet it almost pulled out a win thanks to a career night from Avery Bradley (28 points) and solid performances from Keyon Dooling (17 points) and Marquis Daniels (12 points, eight rebounds).

One way or another, the C’s are going to need some of their lesser-known players to step up again tonight. Boston will need some production from the trio listed above, but it might also need some help from newcomers Ryan Hollins and Sean Williams, both of whom could see a lot of minutes if Stiemsma does not play.