Game Preview: Heat at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – If the Boston Celtics (20-23) want to prove to the NBA and the nation that they’re still a force to be reckoned with, they’ll have the perfect opportunity to do so Sunday afternoon.

The C’s, who are mired in a six-game losing streak, will host the defending champion Miami Heat (28-12) at 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon in TD Garden. The contest will tip off ABC’s Sunday afternoon coverage of the NBA this season.

Sunday’s matchup looked like a sexy game prior to the season beginning. After all, these two teams battled it out for seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals one season ago, and Ray Allen departed Boston to join the Heat in Miami during the summer. This contest is still sexy, but it has surely lost some of its lust.

Boston is doing its best to stay relevant in the East. Its six-game win streak earlier this month gave evidence that the team can still compete with anyone. The Celtics’ six game losing streak, however, has halted any thoughts from those outside of Boston that the they are still a dangerous squad.

The early portion of this losing streak was dreadful. Boston fell to several sub-.500 teams in ugly fashion, prompting Doc Rivers to publicly call his players out. That decision has paid off in some ways, but the C’s still haven’t returned to the win column.

New York, which beat the Celtics 89-86 on Thursday, and Atlanta, which handed Boston a 123-111 double-overtime loss on Friday, can attest that the Celtics are playing strong basketball despite the losses. Boston’s defense is still menacing and Rajon Rondo, who has logged two consecutive triple-doubles, is playing at a very high level. The offense is what has haunted the C’s during these losses.

The Celtics have shot just 41.2 percent from the field and 28.9 percent from 3-point range during the last five games. Paul Pierce has a lot to do with that, as he has made just 32.9 percent of his shots and 11.1 percent of his 3s during that span.

Rondo, Wade

Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade both head into Sunday's game having racked up some impressive numbers this week.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

All of those numbers will surely need to climb quite a bit to hand Miami a loss. Miami ranks fifth in the league in scoring with 102.8 points per game. The Heat have two players, LeBron James (26.4 PPG) and Dwyane Wade (20.8 PPG), who are top-10 scorers in the NBA.

Those two players head into Sunday’s game on a hot streak. James has scored 30.0 PPG on 61.4 percent shooting over his last five games while Wade has tossed in 23.4 PPG on 57.3 percent shooting over the same period.

Fortunately for the Celtics, they’ve been successful at limiting the opposing teams’ top scorers as of late. They kept both Carmelo Anthony and Josh Smith in check over the past two games, and that gave Boston a chance to win both of those contests. Keeping one of Miami’s top scorers in check is a hefty task, but if the C’s can make it happen, that should put them in a good position to prove that they can still hang with the big boys.

How Much is Left?

Anyone who follows the Celtics closely was worried about how much the Celtics had left in their tank leading into Friday night’s game in Atlanta, and that includes Rivers. The C’s battled through a tough loss against the Knicks on Thursday and then had a long travel night before playing the Hawks on Friday. Boston surprised all of us by playing very well Friday night despite their tired legs.

The team will need to surprise us again on Sunday. Boston labored through two overtime sessions Friday night and it was clear that its players had nothing left to give by the time the final buzzer sounded. Rondo (44 minutes), Pierce (40 minutes) and Kevin Garnett (38 minutes) were forced to play far more minutes than they typically do. Now they have to turn around and play an early game on Sunday against the Heat. All of those factors have us wondering how much the Celtics will have left to give once the ball is tossed up.

Defend the 3

One of the reasons the Miami Heat brought Ray Allen on board last summer was to bolster the team’s 3-point shooting. It has worked.

Miami shot 35.9 percent from downtown last season. The additions of Allen and Rashard Lewis, combined with drastic spikes in 3-point percentages for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, has helped the team to hit 38.6 percent of its 3s this season. That’s tied with Golden State for the second-best mark in the NBA.

A key to beating the Heat is limiting the team’s effectiveness from behind the arc. They have made 40.6 percent of their 3s in their wins but only 33.5 percent of their 3s in their losses. Miami made half of its 16 3-pointers against Boston on Opening Night. It’s no wonder why the Heat won.

Pierce’s A-Game

You need to bring your A-game when you face off against James. Pierce knows that as well as anyone.

Boston’s captain has had plenty of success against James in the past. The two have battled it out for years, and there have been plenty of nights in which Pierce has come out on top. However, this is the first time in a long time in which Pierce will be the main defender on James throughout the game.

The Heat went with a small lineup during last season’s playoffs that saw Shane Battier and James starting at the small forward and power forward positions. They were essentially interchangeable players, which meant that opponents often switched on their screens.

Boston used that tactic during those playoffs and again on Opening Night, when Miami used the same lineup. Today, however, it’s expected that Miami will start a true power forward, Udonis Haslem, rather than Battier. That means Pierce will may not be switching off of Pierce as often as he has in the recent past.