Game Preview: Celtics at Heat

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics (0-1) hopped on a flight from New York to Miami on Sunday hoping that Christmas would arrive a little late, with a little extra heat, this year.

The team unwrapped a loss on Christmas Day in New York when it fell to the Knicks, 106-104, in Madison Square Garden. With that game in the rearview, Boston will attempt to grab its first win of the season against the Heat (1-0) at 8 p.m. tonight in AmericanAirlines Arena.

Boston came out of the gates this season with some lackluster play in the early moments of its first game. The Knicks led by as many as 12 points in the first quarter of Sunday’s tilt, and that led to Doc Rivers calling his team soft during a first-half timeout. That speech seemed to flip the switch for this season’s team.

“I thought we were as soft as we could be in the first quarter, and then I thought we joined into the 2011-12 season,” Rivers said after the contest. “And from that point on I was pretty happy with the way we played.”

Most coaches would be pretty happy with their team turning a 12-point deficit into a 10-point lead. Thanks to stellar performances by Rajon Rondo (31 points, 13 assists) and Brandon Bass (20 points, 11 rebounds), the Celtics looked like they were set to overcome the absence of their captain, Paul Pierce, who missed the game with a bruised heel. In the end, though, two free throws from Carmelo Anthony helped the Knicks outlast the C’s.

After the loss to the Knicks’ new Big Three, Boston boarded their flight knowing that they’d move on to the league’s most fearsome Big Three in Miami. The Heat, in its second season with the trio of Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, are hungry coming off of a loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals.

Miami showed just how hungry it really is on Sunday in Dallas when it dominated a Finals rematch after the Mavericks raised their banner. The Heat led from start to finish and at one point held a 35-point lead over the defending champions.

Per usual, James and Wade were the sparkplugs for Miami. James had the best performance of this early NBA season by totaling 37 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Wade also approached triple-double numbers with his 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

Their two-man game – no other Heat player scored in double-figures – was enough to demolish the Mavericks on their night of celebration. Based on Boston’s game in New York, where Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire accounted for 55 percent of the Knicks’ points, a two-man game could be difficult for the Celtics to counter.

Boston did a reasonable job of keeping James and Wade from superhero status last season, but the Celts did that with Pierce on the floor. There’s potential that Pierce could return to the floor for tonight’s game, but seeing as he didn’t even work out on Sunday at MSG, the likelihood of that happening seems minimal.

If Pierce doesn’t play, the rest of Boston’s team will need to step up in his absence the same way that it did over the final three quarters of Sunday’s loss in New York. The Celtics played a solid game, but that abysmal first quarter dug them a large hole.

They will have to play even better tonight, from start to finish, to overcome the defending Eastern Conference champions. Pierce might not be on board for tonight’s game, but the Celtics already proved that they can play well without him.

Will it be enough in Miami? If the answer is yes, Christmas will finally arrive for the Celtics. Better late than never.

Who Defends James?

James has already won two MVP awards and he could easily win it every season based on the numbers he racks up. He is nearly indefensible on the court due to his combination of size, speed and athleticism. That combination got him to the line for 19 free throw attempts in Sunday’s opener.

Pierce hasn’t exactly shut James down in the past, but Boston’s captain has at least been able to provide points to offset James’ performances. If Pierce doesn’t play tonight, the Celtics will be in the very difficult situation of trying to slow James down with reserves.

Pierce’s only backups are Marquis Daniels and Sasha Pavlovic. Those two players combined for four points on Sunday and allowed Anthony to score 37 points. Swingman Mickael Pietrus has also been signed and may join the team in Miami, but even if he does, he probably won’t play big minutes.

Rivers will need to keep his fingers crossed and hope that somehow, some way, the Celtics can keep James in check tonight despite the possible absence of Pierce.

Bass vs. Haslem

Everyone looks at the Miami Heat and sees their Big Three, but the glue of that team is Udonis Haslem, who scored nine points and grabbed 14 rebounds in his team’s Opening Day win. Haslem is the Heat’s sixth man, and he provides the energy, hustle and rebounding that the team needs desperately to overcome its lack of size.

Although only one game is in the books, the Celtics can say nearly the exact same thing about Brandon Bass. He is a hustle player who is willing to do the dirty work for the Celtics and that showed on Sunday when he scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds off the bench. Five of those rebounds came at the offensive end of the floor, a total the Celtics haven’t seen very often from a single player over the past few years.

Outside of each team’s big names, it is Bass and Haslem who hold the keys to this game. Their energy will be vital to their teams tonight, and whichever performs better could push their team over the top.

Rondo Must Dominate

Rondo’s performance on Sunday was one of the best of his career. He was distributing the ball to his teammates and dominating with his own points all at the same time. It was a heightened sense of aggressiveness for Rondo, and Rivers wants to see that throughout this season.

Tonight would be a good night to continue that aggressiveness, because the point guard position is one of the weakest for the Miami Heat. Mario Chalmers is their starter, and he provided only three points and four assists in the Heat’s opener. He is an athletic player who can defend, but he is nowhere near Rondo’s level. Neither is Chalmers’ backup, rookie Norris Cole.

Rondo was supposed to be the key to Boston’s elimination of the Heat during last season’s playoffs, but that never came to fruition after he dislocated his left elbow in Game 3. Now that he’s completely healthy and Miami’s point guard situation is even worse, Rondo can be the player to lead the C’s past the Heat in Miami.