Game Preview: Celtics at Heat

BOSTON – Buckle your seat belts, folks. It’s time for round two.

The Boston Celtics (6-2) will look to make it two in a row against the new-look Miami Heat (5-3) when the conference powers collide again at 8 p.m. tonight in American Airlines Arena.

Round one took place on Opening Night, creating one of the most talked-about regular season basketball games in the history of the sport. Boston controlled that game for nearly all of the 48 minutes and pulled out a convincing 88-80 win. Ray Allen’s 20 points and Paul Pierce’s 19 points and nine boards led the way for the Celtics. LeBron James scored 31 points in his first game in a Heat uniform, but he also committed eight turnovers and got next to nothing from any of his teammates.

While both of these teams have winning records, with Boston sitting atop the Eastern Conference, things haven’t quite gone as planned for either the C’s or the Heat since that first game of the season.

The Celtics have managed to hold onto the top spot in the East despite being crushed with injuries and unavailable players. We all knew that Delonte West wouldn’t be able to take the court until Nov. 17, but what we didn’t know is that Boston would not have a healthy combination of centers through the first eight games of the season.

Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal were brought in this summer to man the middle of the paint while Kendrick Perkins recovers from offseason knee surgery, but neither has been able to stay healthy this season. Shaq has missed the past five games with a bruised knee that he suffered on Oct. 29 in a collision with Amar’e Stoudemire. Jermaine O’Neal has played in all but one game this season, but he has struggled with a handful of injuries and did not play in the second half of Monday’s game in Dallas. Boston has had both players available in only two games this season.

If Wednesday’s practice was any indication, things aren’t going to change on that front tonight. The Celtics saw Shaq join them on the practice court for the first time during the regular season, suggesting that he’ll be on the court for the big game tonight. Jermaine O’Neal, however, did not practice as he continues to struggle with soreness in his left knee.

In addition to the two O’Neals, Boston has also begun this season without the services of rookie Avery Bradley, while Semih Erden, another first-year player, has been playing with a sore left shoulder. But with the help of Glen Davis and Marquis Daniels’ starts to the season, the C’s have been able to hold the tide through eight games.

Miami has had a solid start to the season but it certainly hasn’t gone as planned. Chris Bosh has drastically underperformed on his expectations, averaging only 14.8 PPG and 5.9 RPG, and the team recently suffered the most humiliating loss the NBA has seen this season.

The Heat, playing in its own building, opened up a 22-point lead in the first half of Tuesday night’s game against the Utah Jazz. But when Utah realized that Miami has no form of strength inside, they made a concerted effort to take advantage of that weakness. Utah’s concentrated effort resulted in 46 points from Paul Millsap, who stands at 6-foot-8, which helped the Jazz stage a comeback for the ages. Millsap scored 11 points in the final 29 seconds of regulation to help send the game to overtime and Utah prevailed in the end, handing Miami its first home loss of the season.

There are going to be plenty growing pains when a brand new team comes together, and Tuesday’s loss was certainly evidence of such for Miami. The Celtics will take the court tonight in South Beach with the hopes of exposing more of those pains for Miami in round two of this matchup, much the same way they did on Opening Night.

Rondo Must Dominate

It’s no secret that the Heat are thin at two positions: point guard and center. With Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal being huge question marks for tonight’s game, Rajon Rondo will have the responsibility to dominate.

Luckily for Boston, its starting point guard hasn’t had much of a problem doing that in any game this season.

Rondo leads the NBA with an average of 14.8 APG, more than a 26 percent bump over the second-best average in the league, which is a 10.9 APG average owned by Jason Kidd. Rondo will be matched up against Carlos Arroyo and Eddie House for the majority of the game, whom he knifed up for 17 assists in the opener. Those two players, and the Heat in general, struggle with containing elite point guards, and that could lead to another big night from Rondo to go along with a Boston win.

More and Less From Shooting Guards

The C’s would never be happy to admit that tonight, in comparison with Opening Night, we’re likely to see much more production from Dwyane Wade and less effectiveness from Ray Allen.

In the first game of the season, Allen was Boston’s leading scorer with 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting. He also made five of his eight 3-point attempts. Wade, meanwhile, managed only 14 points on 4-of-16 shooting.

That was essentially Wade’s first live basketball game since April, as he nursed a sore hamstring for all of training camp this preseason. He has since awoken and found his stride, averaging a team-high 26.0 PPG.

Wade will be a factor tonight, you can write that down. He’ll be a force on offense and will be much more prepared to keep up with Allen at the defensive end as well. Expect his scoring numbers to double from the first game of the season, and don’t be surprised if he limits Allen’s production as well.

Big Game From Big Baby

Glen Davis has played like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate early this season. His 12.3 PPG on 57.1 percent shooting from the floor have been incredible lifts off the bench for Boston, especially considering the injuries the team has experienced up front.

The Celtics will need him to have a big game again off the bench tonight – if he doesn’t have a spot start at center – because the C’s are surely going to be extremely limited with the minutes either O’Neal may provide.

Davis has essentially played starter-type minutes at center, as he is fifth on the team with 30.4 minutes a night. Doc Rivers will be able to leave him on the court as long as he wants during this game because the Heat lacks legitimate centers who could pose a threat to Davis on the block. Without a big performance from Big Baby, the C’s would have to rely heavily on their Big Three. The problem is that Boston’s Big Three will be facing off with Miami’s Big Three, and you never know how those matchups will play out.