Arbella Series Preview: Round 2 - Celtics vs. Heat
BOSTON – We knew it was coming at some point during the 2011 NBA Playoffs. The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat would have to meet and go through each other in order to contend for an NBA championship.
Boston easily held up its end of the deal by sweeping the New York Knicks, a team that had given Miami fits all season long, out of the playoffs in four games on April 25. Miami finally joined the second round when it squeaked by the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night, 97-91.
With those two first-round victories complete, the league’s two premier Big Threes will go head-to-head in a possible seven-game series. The Conference Semifinals series between the Celtics and Heat will tip off at 3:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon in Miami.
It’s well publicized that the Celtics defeated the Heat in three of the teams’ four meetings this season. The C’s, along with the rest of the league’s top teams, were able to defeat the Heat more often than not.
Boston took home a victory on Opening Night in the TD Garden, 88-80, behind stellar performances by all of its starters. The C’s then defeated the Heat on Nov. 11 in Miami by five points thanks much in part to Ray Allen’s torching of the nets. He scored a season-high 35 points in that contest. A total team effort, with six Celtics scoring in double-figures (and none of them being named Paul Pierce), helped Boston take home its third win over the Heat this season on Feb. 13.
It would be impossible to ignore the result of the final meeting of this season, though. Miami dominated that contest more than the Celtics did in any of the first three meetings and finished with a 100-77 blowout victory on April 10. That loss for Boston came in the midst of its tumultuous finish to the season, which included a 10-11 record over the final 21 games. The C’s were crushed on the boards during that contest, 42-26, and none of their players finished with more than five assists.
Since that loss, Doc Rivers’ weekly plans have helped the Celtics to seemingly turn things around. He rested his starters after that loss to Miami until the team tipped off its first game against New York in the first round. The extra practice during that week, which again took place this week leading up to Game 1 against Miami, has clearly paid dividends.
Now it’s time to see if it can pay off even more by stealing home court away from the Heat in one of the first two games of this series. Boston will get its first shot on Sunday, and it should come out swinging.
One year ago, Doc Rivers and Erik Spoelstra were on opposite sidelines in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Now, just more than one year later, the two will coach against each other yet again. This time, however, the stakes will be higher and the personnel will be far different.
In his first season as head coach with a trio of superstars, Spoelstra has been a lightning rod for critics when the Heat have performed poorly. He has handled those critics well and won his team over. He is fresh off of his first playoff series win as a head coach after knocking off the 76ers in five games.
Spoelstra’s greatest strengths are his intuition and defensive mindset. Miami has been a great defensive team during all three seasons under him, and he has chosen to let big Big Three play free on the offensive end.
No matter how solid of a coach Spoelstra is, though, Doc Rivers has an advantage in every sense of the word. Rivers has won more regular season games (507 to 148), more postseason games (50 to 8) and has coached in two NBA Finals, winning one. Rivers also has the defensive mindset to go along with one of the best crunch time play-calling minds the game has seen. Advantage Celtics.
When Miami assembled its Big Three, two positions were left to be handled by average players. One of those positions is point guard.
Rajon Rondo will be facing off against Mike Bibby, Miami’s starter, and Mario Chalmers, who comes off of the bench. Bibby has been the starter since he signed with the Heat on March 2, but the team has struggled with him on the court. He has played 99 minutes this postseason, and the Heat have been outscored by 18 points during those minutes. The one skill he does still possess, 3-point shooting, has also deteriorated. He made only 21 percent of his shots from downtown in the first round.
While Bibby’s production has suffered in the playoffs, Rondo’s has been on the rise. He recorded a triple-double against New York in Game 3 that included 20 assists, and he also scored 30 points in Game 2. He has returned to his dominant ways, and considering who he will be facing off against at the start of games (Bibby, pending a lineup change by Spoelstra), Rondo could be the most important player in this series.
It’s no secret that Wade is one of the most electric players in the NBA and can score with the best of them. However, Ray Allen has gotten the best of him this season.
In the four games in which Boston and Miami have met, Allen averaged 20.3 PPG to Wade’s 12.8 PPG. Allen has also lit the Heat up from downtown, as he shot 57 percent from 3-point range in those four games. That’s an indication that Wade couldn’t keep up with Allen around screens, which allowed the all-time 3-point king to get good looks at the basket.
But these two were singing at a different tune in their final meeting of the season. Allen scored only seven points on April 10, making three field goals on just eight attempts. Wade certainly made more of a concerted effort to defend Allen in that game, and Miami’s franchise cornerstone was successful in doing so.
Heading into this series, there are two things that everyone must realize. First, Wade’s numbers against Boston are skewed because he simply wasn’t healthy against the C’s for the first two meetings of the season. Second, Allen’s poor performance on April 10 came in the midst of Boston’s lowest point of the season, when the team’s pick-setting was atrocious. Expect Wade to play at a high level in this series, and for Allen to greatly outperform those numbers from April 10.
There may not be a better playoff battle the league currently has than Paul Pierce vs. LeBron James. Boston has knocked James out of the playoffs every time it has had the opportunity, and he’ll certainly enter this series with plenty of motivation to finally get over the hump against the C’s.
James is the most intimidating perimeter force the league has ever seen. His 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame gives a pounding to his defenders on a nightly basis, and Pierce is the man who will be absorbing that bulk throughout this series.
Of the two All-Stars, James has won the statistical battle between them this season. He averaged nearly 29 PPG to go along with 6.5 RPG and 6.5 APG against the Celtics this season, while Pierce put up just 17.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG and 2.5 APG.
In this matchup, however, numbers must be taken with a grain of salt. Pierce’s job is to score when he can, but defend at all times. If he makes James work for everything he gets, Pierce’s scoring is just icing on the cake. For James, he has a much higher level of responsibility. Unlike Boston, which has several key players outside of Pierce, Allen and Kevin Garnett, the Big Three of Miami carry the load for the Heat. And James is the most important player of that group.
This matchup is one of the more intriguing ones of the series. Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh have fallen into the third offensive option on their teams, but both are still incredibly important to the performance of their teams. Garnett’s defense is imperative to Boston’s success, and the Heat become very difficult to defeat when Bosh is on his A-game.
Both players have stepped up their game in the playoffs, and that’s a big reason why Boston and Miami combined to suffer only one loss in the opening round. Garnett has seen his numbers increase across the board in the postseason, including nearly a three-rebound increase in his rebounding average. Bosh has also bumped up his scoring and rebounding, but his shooting and assisting have dropped.
Garnett won the head-to-head battle this season, with a higher scoring average (16.5 PPG to Bosh’s 15.0 PPG) and assist average (2.5 APG to Bosh’s 1.5 APG). Each grabbed 8.5 rebounds apiece in their four meetings.
Outside of the point guard battle, this matchup may be the most important of the series. It will fly under the radar, but that doesn’t eliminate its importance.
Jermaine O’Neal has been a Godsend for the Celtics over the past month. Just six weeks ago, his postseason availability was completely up in the air, let alone the idea of what he would bring to the table if he did play.
Since then, all he has done is become the interior shot-blocking machine that the Celtics sought after when they signed him this past summer. O’Neal swatted away 10 shots in only 92 minutes of playing time during Boston’s first-round sweep of New York. He also shot the ball well, making 61.1 percent of his shot attempts in the series.
On the other side of the ball, Miami has been starting Zydrunas Ilgauskuas at center. Though he is playing only 13.4 minutes a night in the postseason, he is shooting the ball well (55 percent) and scoring 5.2 PPG. It’s highly possible, though, that the Heat start Joel Anthony in his place. Anthony has been the perfect spark off of the bench for the Heat and has played starter-type minutes. It’s unclear if the Heat want to throw him into the starting lineup, but either way, O’Neal should have the overall advantage.
Point guard, center and the bench. Those are the areas of concern for the Miami Heat.
Miami headed into this season thin, and it got even thinner when super-sub Udonis Haslem went down with a torn ligament in his left foot in November. He was by far the best reserve on the squad and was reliable both around the basket and in the mid-range.
Haslem may return from that injury at some point during this series, but until then, the C’s have a drastic advantage off of the bench. Miami’s highest-scoring bench player during the regular season, outside of Haslem, was Eddie House with 6.5 PPG. In the playoffs, James Jones has been the highest bench scorer with 7.5 PPG.
The Celtics, meanwhile, have several above-average players to come off of its bench. Glen Davis finished the season as the team’s fourth-leading scorer with 11.7 PPG, and Jeff Green averaged 9.8 PPG during 26 appearances with Boston. The C’s will also have Delonte West, whom Doc Rivers wants to see in a more aggressive state during this series, to back up Rondo and Allen at the guard positions.
The wild card for Boston is Shaquille O’Neal, who took part in limited practice time on Thursday and Friday. The news has been positive as the week progressed, but his return date is still unknown.
Even if the C’s don’t get Shaq back in the lineup, their bench should still be able to outplay Miami’s. The performance of Boston’s reserves will be critical in this series for that reason, and also because they will need to hold serve while one of Miami’s stars is on the court, which will likely be the case at all times.