Game Preview: Heat at Celtics

BOSTON - An anticipation level that has been rising for months is ready to explode at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden.

The anticipation has been brewing for the Celtics since June 17, when the team fell just short of obtaining Banner 18 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Opening Night marks another fresh start in their continued pursuit of that goal. And they’ve got another loaded roster to pursue it with.

Miami has been waiting for this moment since LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach on national television on July 7. At that moment, fans in southern Florida realized their dream had become reality, that the Heat would boast the trio of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on one team, presumably for at least the next half of a decade.

And for the country, the buzz has been swirling since the NBA released its schedule to the public on Aug. 10. The Boston Celtics will be playing in the headline game of Opening Night for the fourth time in four years. This year’s version is just a bit different, though, as it’s all about the first meeting between Boston’s Big Three (and then some) and Miami’s Big Three.

“Definitely gotta expect a playoff atmosphere,” Paul Pierce said of the team’s opener. “I mean, there’s a lot of buzz that’s been going around about this game ever since [Miami] put the team together. Like I said, you’ve got two of the top teams, or projected top teams, in the East.”

That’s a far cry from the last time Boston and Miami met. The C’s easily handled the Heat in the first round of the playoffs in April, and it’s safe to say that’s a trend of the past. In case you haven’t heard, both rosters look quite a bit different this time around, and Miami, specifically, will be much more competitive with their three stars aligned. Both the Celtics and Heat underwent major changes this summer in terms of personnel, and both, not just the Celtics, now have their sights set on the Larry O’Brien Trophy this season.

Although Miami garnered more of the headlines this summer, Boston quietly bolstered its lineup with the acquisitions of Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal to the frontcourt and Delonte West, who is unavailable for the first 10 games of the season, to the backcourt. With their added depth, most notably to the frontline, the Celtics will have a clear advantage down low against a Heat team that has serviceable centers, but nothing more.

Realistically, though, Miami isn’t concerned that it doesn’t have a dominant center roaming the paint. The Heat’s facelift – or, better yet, overhaul – was based on three players, and three players only. Two of those players, James and Wade, are forces on the perimeter, while the third, Bosh, plays in the post at power forward.

Anyone who is lucky enough to have an opportunity to watch this game Tuesday night is going to be in for a treat. Not only is there the mystique of one franchise’s history and another’s attempt to rewrite history, but there is the unique situation that both teams’ Big Three play the exact same positions. We’ll be able to watch Ray Allen vs. Wade, Pierce vs. James and Kevin Garnett vs. Bosh all night long, and it’s going to be a beautiful sight.

Even easier on the eyes for Boston is the fact that the Celtics’ depth is far greater than Miami’s. With Rajon Rondo running the point, Boston essentially has a Big Four, and with the two O’Neals splitting time at center, the depth may be unmatched in the league. That depth, along with a strong defensive showing, is what will give the Celtics an opportunity to open the season at 1-0. And if they can pull that off, they’ll be “anointed the Eastern Conference champ for a day,” as Doc Rivers put it, before moving on to the next step of their 82-game regular season journey.

Swarming C’s

Every single game night on the Boston Celtics’ schedule is a night where the opposition has to put a defensive game plan together to try and stop three future Hall of Famers. For the first time since Boston’s Big Three came together, it’s their turn to put together such a plan.

There is no denying the fact that Miami’s trio of James, Wade and Bosh is as formidable as they come. Their scoring abilities and offensive repertoires are tops in the league, and it will be extremely difficult for the Celtics to keep all three in check. So, how will the Celtics do it? Not with individual defense, says Paul Pierce.

When asked if his individual defense on James would be more important based on the assumption that he will have less help defense from his teammates with Wade and Bosh also on the court, Pierce responded point blank with the following: “Yes I will. We’re a help defensive team. Regardless of who’s out there on the court, we have rules, we have principles that we play by, and we stick to them. We don’t change for anybody, even though they have a special talent on the court. There’s going to be plenty of help.”

Boston has had to prepare for the Heat without knowing exactly how their offense will run, since Wade played only three minutes in the preseason. That could throw a kink into the team defense to start things out, but the C’s should be able to find their way quickly. If the help defense is swarming the way Pierce says it will, the Celtics will have a great shot at opening the season with a big win in the national spotlight.

Dominate the Paint

As we previously noted, Boston has a substantial advantage over Miami in the frontcourt, and particularly at center. The O’Neals, Garnett and Glen Davis will eat up most of the minutes from the Celtics’ big men, while the Heat will counter with Bosh, Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, Juwan Howard and Zydrunas Ilgauskus.

There is not a single player on the Heat roster who can match up with Shaq, and even Jermaine O’Neal would have an advantage over Anthony, who is Miami’s starting center. Those two will need to control the paint with efficient offense, great rebounding and strong defense. Handling that task will be easier said than done, especially considering that both O’Neals are still learning Boston’s system, but they are more than capable of giving fantastic performances, and the C’s will need that tonight.

Pick-and-Roll Defense

Mark it down now: You will see the Heat force Shaq to play pick-and-roll defense play after play after play tonight.

O’Neal began his career as a surprisingly nimble and athletic man for his enormous size, but as he has grown older those characteristics have dwindled. He is now a liability at times defending the pick-and-roll, and Doc Rivers was not shy about admitting that after Sunday morning’s practice in Waltham, Mass.

“With Shaq on the floor, it puts a strain on you defensively, especially in the pick-and-roll play,” Rivers said. “Listen, we know what they’re going to do – we did it whenever Shaq came on the floor. You run pick-and-roll and you run catch-and-shoot to make him get off the block. And so we’re trying to figure out a way to be able to play him, where our defense is still sound and he can do his thing at the offensive end.”

To win this game, the Celtics, and Shaq in particular, will need to step up to the plate and be a willing and able defense when James and Wade handle the ball in pick-and-rolls. If Miami is able to knife up Boston’s defense with that specific play, the C’s are going to be in for a long night at the defensive end of the court.