Game Preview: Heat at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – Finally, the Boston Celtics (29-22) and Miami Heat (37-12) will meet again.

The two powerhouses took each other on way back on Dec. 27 in Miami for each team’s second game of the season. They haven’t seen each other since, but they will at 3:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon in TD Garden.

The Heat won the first matchup by a score of 115-107, but the game truly wasn’t that close for the majority of the night. Boston, playing without Paul Pierce, fell behind by as many as 20 points in the game and its only lead of the game was when the score was 2-0.

Still, though, the Celtics fought back after that huge deficit and made it a game in the second half. Thanks to some strong scoring from Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, the C’s cut the deficit all the way down to three with 2:02 remaining. However, rookie Norris Cole stepped in with six key points from that moment on and Miami held on for the win.

Since that time of the season there have been drastic changes for the Celtics. Boston no longer has two of the big men who participated in that game in Jermaine O’Neal and Chris Wilcox. Sasha Pavlovic, who started for Pierce, is not getting much playing time nowadays. On the flip side, Avery Bradley, who played just four minutes in the first matchup between these two teams, is now playing a major role in Boston.

Bradley has started the past four games and been fantastic in all of them. He is averaging 40.3 minutes of playing time, 15.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG and 53.5 percent shooting during that stretch. And as we all know, he always brings his frightening defense to the floor, which could make a dramatic impact against Miami’s perimeter players.

It remains to be seen what Bradley’s role will be on Sunday. His spike in playing time has coincided with Ray Allen being sidelined with a sore right ankle. Allen has not played for the Celtics since March 22 in Milwaukee. He traveled with the team to Minnesota for Friday’s game but after testing the ankle during shootaround and before the contest, it was decided that Allen was not healthy enough to play. Expect him to be a game-time decision yet again on Sunday.

Miami wouldn’t complain if Allen did not participate in this game. Allen scored a game-high 28 points on Dec. 27 and, thanks to that offense, makes the game much more challenging for Dwyane Wade.

Even if Allen doesn’t play, this Celtics team will be a handful for the Heat, who own the third-best record in the NBA. Boston has been surging forward since the All-Star break with a 14-5 record. The C’s are now in sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Division for the first time all season.

The question is, will Boston’s recent success translate onto the floor against a top-tier opponent? Since the All-Star break, the Celtics have dealt with opponents from every level of the league – except the very top level.

Sunday will be the Celtics’ first opportunity to prove that their current make-up, one that is completely different than the one Miami saw in December, is ready to make the leap.

The Pierce Factor

If you don’t remember, the Celtics nearly won this game without the services of Pierce. Pierce missed the first four games of Boston’s season with an injury to his right heel. Sasha Pavlovic started in his place and scored just five points to go along with goose eggs in the rebound and assist departments.

Suffice to say having Pierce on the floor Sunday afternoon will make a big difference.

Pierce has been playing fantastic basketball of late for the Celtics. He has scored at least 20 points in six straight games and seven of his past eight overall. Pierce has also returned to his rebounding ways, grabbing an average of 8.5 rebounds over his last six games.

On top of the statistical boost Pierce brings to the table, he’s no slouch on defense. Having his strong, 6-foot-7 frame out there defending LeBron James will be huge for the C’s. Let’s just hope he doesn’t get into foul trouble.

The Benches

We all know that Miami’s bench isn’t its greatest strength. Its top reserves are having mediocre seasons outside of big man Udonis Haslem. But sometimes one man can help win a game, and in December that man was Cole.

He came off the bench to score 20 points on 8-of-16 shooting to go along with four rebounds and four assists. He hit big shot after big shot, eventually putting the C’s away.

Boston cannot allow any of Miami’s bench players to go off on Sunday. It’s a difficult task as is to limit that powerful starting lineup the Heat send onto the floor. Allowing a big performance from the bench will make it nearly impossible to grab a win, as evidenced by that December matchup.

The C’s will rely on their top reserves, Bradley, Keyon Dooling and Greg Stiemsma, to prevent that from happening. They’re all strong defenders, and Bradley and Dooling have been coming on of late at the offensive end of the floor.

Limit the Turnovers

This can’t be said enough. Rivers will hammer this point home over and over until the ball goes up for Sunday’s game, and then he’ll continue to hammer it home throughout the contest. You just cannot turn the ball over against this dynamic Heat team. If you do, you aren’t going to win.

Boston coughed it up 24 times on the Dec. 27 game and those turnovers led to 33 of Miami’s 115 points. Rajon Rondo accounted for seven of those turnovers, and that’s inexcusable while playing against inferior point guards.

The Celtics have improved dramatically with taking care of the ball since the All-Star break. They have turned it over just 13.7 times per game in 19 games, down from 15.5 before the break. Boston has especially taken care of the ball in its past three games, averaging just 10 turnovers a night over that span. That number will need to be low yet again if the C’s are going to grab a statement win over the Heat.