It took a full 82-game schedule to decide who the Boston Celtics would face in the First Round of this season's playoffs, but now that those 82 games have passed, we know the Miami Heat are on tap to tip off the Celtics' second attempt at bringing home Banner 18.
With numerous starters resting during Wednesday night's game against the New Jersey Nets -- even though the team's seeding was on the line -- Miami was able to squeak out a double-overtime victory over the worst team in the league. That win secured their spot as the fifth seed in the East, effectively earning the right to travel to Boston this weekend to take on the playoff-hungry Celtics in an intriguing four-five series.
Before you ask why a matchup between a team like the Celtics, who sport three future Hall of Famers on their roster and have a recent NBA championship on their resume, and the Heat, a roster that is sometimes regarded as "Dwyane Wade, and then some other guys," is an intriguing matchup, take a look at the numbers.
The Celtics swept the season series against Miami, 3-0, which initially makes it seem as if they dominated the Heat. However, Boston won those three games by an average of only 6.0 PPG and needed an overtime session -- and a miracle buzzer-beating tip in from Rajon Rondo to force that overtime -- to seal one of those victories. You probably wouldn't guess that the C's finished the regular season with only three more wins than the Heat did, either.
Boston and Miami also haven't met since Feb. 3, and each team has undergone big changes since then. The C's reshaped their bench to feature sharpshooter Michael Finley and sparkplug Nate Robinson, and that has given them some much-needed scoring threats to spell Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.
Miami will look different, too, but not in a roster sense. Pardon the pun, but the Heat have been on fire of late. Their confidence is as high as it has been in years and Wade has helped lead them to a combined record of 17-4 in March and April, including 9-1 in their past 10 games.
In that same time period, Boston has gone 14-10. The C's have been waiting for meaningful playoff games to arrive all season long, and with that breath of fresh air finally arriving, they now have their chance to flip the proverbial switch.
These are all facts, and no one can ignore them. This is exactly what a four-five series should be: the two teams with the most similar records who are looking to make an impressive run to the NBA Finals. It should be an entertaining one to watch, and it should be highly competitive. On one hand, we'll have Boston vying to turn the tables after a disappointing regular season. On the other hand, we'll have Miami hoping that its all-world guard, Wade, can help pull off a shocker in the first round.
What more could you ask for as far as intrigue is concerned? Don't let any short-sighted perceptions distort your perspective; this is a series to watch.
Both of these teams pride themselves on defense, and that becomes clear when looking at their statistics. Each team is ranked in the top five in the league in opponent PPG (Miami is second at 94.2 PPG, Boston is tied for fifth at 95.6 PPG) and top 10 in the league in opponent field goal percentage (Miami is second at 93.9 percent, Boston is ninth at 45.1 percent). Head-to-head, though, the C's have the advantage, as they've limited the Heat to only 44.4 percent shooting while nailing 51.4 percent of their own shots.
Another important statistic to pay attention to is assists. The C's rank second in the league in APG with an average of 23.5, while the Heat rank 28th with 18.9 per game. Both teams average slightly less assists when playing against each other. Boston's offensive success would lead you to believe that their "share the ball" mindset will be a substantial advantage over Miami's tendency to rely on one-on-one play.
One team (Boston) in this series has a substantial advantage over the other (Miami) in regards to playoff experience and success. Likewise, one team's coach (Doc Rivers) can make the same claim in comparison to his opposition (Erik Spoelstra).
Rivers is in his 10th full season as an NBA coach and has compiled 451 career wins along with an NBA championship. Spoelstra, who is in only his second year as an NBA head coach, has only 90 victories and does not have a playoff series win under his belt. But don't underestimate this coaching matchup. Rivers may have the advantage, but Spoelstra is a budding coach that has helped lead the Heat -- who have been positioning for cap space this coming summer much like the Knicks, Nets and Bulls -- to an overachieving season.
Rondo has quite possibly been the best, or at least the most consistent, player for Boston all season long. He has broken three long-standing Celtics records (single-season assists and steals totals, and most 15-plus assist games in a season) and many believe the Celtics go as he goes. He is having a career year and ranks fourth in the league in APG (9.8) and first in SPG (2.33). Rondo has also been phenomenal against the Heat this season, averaging 20.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG and 11.0 APG.
Down in Miami, the Heat thought they had plucked their veteran point guard to run the show when they signed free agent Rafer Alston on Jan. 7. But when he was suspended for the remainder of the season in early March, the Heat had to turn their team over to Carlos Arroyo and Mario Chalmers. Arroyo has claimed the starting spot, but his averages of only 0.7 PPG, 0.7 RPG and 1.7 APG in an average of 170. MPG against Boston this season must have Spoelstra worried.
This is the only position where Miami has a clear-cut advantage, and that's no knock on Ray Allen. Dwyane Wade is just that good.
Wade has put up 33.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG and 8.7 APG this season against the Celtics and took nearly 11 free throw attempts per game. Allen, on the other hand, has managed to score 18.7 PPG on 47.4 percent shooting, which are both increases from his season averages.
The Heat's top player will be the focal point of their offense during every possession while he's on the floor and in most cases he simply cannot be stopped. Allen has stepped up his defense to average 2.3 SPG and 1.0 BPG against Miami this season, but that's not going to be enough to shut down a player like Wade.
The way Paul Pierce has been playing lately, Doc Rivers has a reason to tell reporters that his captain is "feeling fantastic." He has been in attack mode during his past two games, and that has resulted in an average of 26.0 points coming from his fingertips.
Quentin Richardson will have the difficult task of slowing Pierce down, and if you ask him, he'll tell you that he loves these type of situations. Richardson prides himself on playing great defense, and that is one reason these two players haven't exactly gotten along in the past. Pierce and Richardson have a history of chatting during games, and that's almost inevitable in a series like this.
Boston will be hoping to see Pierce continue his recent hot streak throughout this series, while Miami will be much more concerned with what Richardson can do at the defensive end of the court.
This is quite possibly the most interesting matchup of the series, with a future Hall of Famer facing off against a second-year athlete trying to live up to his No. 2 draft pick expectations.
Despite a down year statistically from Kevin Garnett, he has outperformed Michael Beasley in nearly every statistic. He's widened that gap even more when these two face off against each other. Garnett put up 19.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 5.0 APG in two games against Miami this season, while Beasley averaged a measly 12.0 PPG, 5.3 RPG and totaled only one assist in three games against Boston.
The numbers show that KG can dominate this matchup and limit Beasley's ability to create shots for himself and others, but many believe Miami's second-year forward is on the verge of turning the corner in his career, so don't sleep on him.
Kendrick Perkins has fallen back into his comfort zone since returning from a short stint of rest due to knee tendinitis. He's back to crashing the boards and being an enforcer in the paint, while taking his shots only when they're there for the taking. That has allowed Boston's Big Three get back to their aggressive offensive play and helped the team increase its overall scoring.
His counterpart in this series should be Jermaine O'Neal, who has recently struggled with injuries. O'Neal suffered a hyper-extended left knee against Milwaukee on March 26 and has played in only three games since that date, and in one of those games he sprained his right ankle. Including the Milwaukee game, O'Neal has scored eight or less points in three of his last four games and also grabbed two or less rebounds in three of those four games.
If he continues to play like that, Perkins might be able to up his averages of 15.7 PPG, 9.3 RPG and 2.7 BPG against the Heat this season. Perkins has taken 26 free throws in these teams' three meetings, and that's a clear indication that he has an athletic advantage against O'Neal.
Rivers has a plethora of options off the bench both inside and outside, and Rasheed Wallace has been the most effective of the Celtic reserves against Miami this season, averaging nearly 10.0 PPG (that includes one start in place of Garnett).
Miami has a much shorter bench, which will probably run only three players deep during this series, with Udonis Haslem (9.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG), Dorell Wright (7.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG) and Mario Chalmers (7.1 PPG, 3.4 APG) claiming those spots. Although the Heat aren't the deepest team in the league, they have had the most productive reserve of this series on their side. Haslem has been great against Boston this season, posting a ridiculous 58.6 shooting percentage en route to 14.3 PPG as well as 7.0 RPG.
The Celtics will have the advantage in depth and potential, but statistically speaking, the Heat own the advantage in head-to-head production.