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There are going to be some great second round matchups in the 2011 playoffs, but Sunday’s game 1 between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics will kick off the series that everyone will have their eyes on.
The starters for these two teams have combined for 69 All-Star appearances, 10 Championship rings, 5 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Awards, and 4 NBA Most Valuable Player Awards…
Just in case you thought I was overstating the hype for this series.
The respective two and three seeds in the Eastern Conference met four times in the regular season, with Boston winning the first three and Miami preventing the season sweep with an April blowout. Miami looked like they were finally coming together in their series against the 7th seeded 76ers, but the Boston Celtics also channeled their inner champions to overcome two near-losses and then go on to steamroll the 6th seeded Knicks in four games. They managed the only first round sweep in the playoffs.
There are four things to take into consideration when taking your best guess at how this series will play out: the way they performed against each other in the regular season, the way they have performed so far in the playoffs, their postseason histories, and gut instinct.
The Celtics came out of the regular season 3-1 against Miami, but they lost their last game by a landslide; helping Miami to permanently leap them in the standings for 2nd in the East and home court advantage for this long-predicted matchup. The Heat’s last performance against the Celtics should not be overlooked, but it also does not mean that they are any better off against the reigning Eastern Conference champs than they’ve been all season.
The reason that the Heat won their last game was not because of the Big Three’s offense, but because of their bench and improved defensive efforts. LeBron James had 27 points, but he went 0-2 from the 3 point line and made just 5 of his 9 free throws. Wade had just 14 points; going 4-12 from the field, 0-1 from the 3-point line. Still, their bench combined for 32 points, while Joel Anthony played 35 minutes and had 10 rebounds, and the Big Three came up with 6 steals, 3 blocks and 12 defensive rebounds.
What they showed in their last game against the C’s was that if the Celtics struggle offensively, they have the ability to exploit that with improved defensive efforts. But the Heat’s defense is still vastly unproven in comparison, and the overall snapshot of their regular season series outside of that game swings vastly in Boston’s favor.
Dwyane Wade was ineffective against the Celtics all season. In fact, ineffective is a kind understatement. Wade went just 16-57 from the field and 2-11 from three for an average of 12.5 PPG; and that’s with Paul Pierce focusing most of his defense on James. Ray Allen has had Wade’s number from the first game of the season, making as many three-pointers (16) in the season series as Wade made field goals.
Even with LeBron playing very well, averaging 28.75 points and making significant contributions on the boards and with assists, it took their bench having a huge game and an uncharacteristically efficient defensive performance to finally beat a tired and aged Boston team. And as the Celtics have proven more than once in the playoffs against the Cavaliers, LeBron cannot win his team a series against Boston on his own.
Celtics come away from the regular season with the clear advantage.
Let’s go ahead and get the Big Threes out of the way. They have averaged eerily similar numbers as far as points per game, but it looks like the Heat Three have the Celtics Three edged in the other major categories.
But, here’s the thing. These are the numbers without including Rajon Rondo, who is averaging a double-double of 12 assists and19 points per game, along with 7.3 rebounds and 1 steal per game. Rondo also had a triple double in Game 2 against the Knicks with 11 rebounds, 20 assists and 15 points, moving up to tie Lebron James for 6th place all-time in playoff triple doubles, with 6.
For the Heat, the combined point guard tandem of Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers has contributed an average of 4.2 rebounds, 3 assists and 29% shooting for 10.6 points. In other words, the two of them combined don’t equal half a Rondo.
Additionally, Jermaine O’Neal is averaging 2.5 blocks per game and has been Perkins-like in his ability to set screens and taking offensive charges in the paint.
The Heat’s best blocker so far in the postseason has also been Dwyane Wade, who is averaging two blocks per game. He did this while matching up primarily against Andre Iguodala. While Iguodala is no slouch, Ray Allen gets his shots off quicker and with more precision than just about anyone in the NBA, and has been red hot from the three point line so far in the postseason. Wade will not be able to carry his team.
While the Heat have managed to keep their points per game average up, their shooting percentages from the three point line and the free throw line tell a different story.
In their series with the Knicks, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce shot 65.4% and 50% respectively from the three point line. Ray Allen shot 100% from the line, while Pierce shot 92.9% and Garnett 92.3%.
Contrastingly, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James shot 20% and 25% from the three, and 77% and 82% from the free throw line. Chris Bosh, meanwhile, shot 75% from the line. Going against the best defense in the playoffs, they will have to be much more effective than that if they hope to maintain any type of significant offensive advantage.
While the Heat played very well in their first round, the Celtics played better. Celtics come away from Round One with the advantage.
Celtics easily win the playoff battle over the past 4 years.
The Celtics have to stop them in transition and force them to play half court offense, with Pierce forcing LeBron to take contested jumpshots. KG needs to remain aggressive on Bosh, not allowing him to getinto a comfortable offensive rhythm. Ray Allen has played great defense of Dwyane Wade all year, and has the ability to shut him down almost completely from the three-point line.
Most important player in the series: Rajon Rondo
If Rondo can exploit the point guard disparity the way he did against the Knicks, the Celtics will be unbeatable. As Rondo goes, so do the Celtics, especially in a series with a team that essentially has no starting point guard. A Big Four will beat a Big Three every time. If Rondo can drive the lane and pull in the defenders, he can help get Pierce or Allen open on the perimeter, or leave KG and Big Baby to find their sweet spots in the midrange. He’s also shown that he can take advantage of the gap in the paint and hit difficult layups and floaters, adding another dimension to the Celtics’ already threatening offensive attack.
Both benches have underperformed in the playoffs, but if either bench has the edge, it’s the Celtics. When Glen Davis gets hot, he is good for about 5 rebounds and 15 points, and Delonte West is capable of scoring and making big hustle plays on defense. Green/West/Baby definitely maintain the advantage over Bibby/Chalmers/Jones/Anthony when they play to their ability.
To not give the Heat the benefit of taking this series to 7 games would be an insult to their talent and the way they have pulled themselves together across the course of the season. My gut tells me the Celtics win a gritty series in 7. Doc Rivers is the best late game coach in the league, and with this much talent and the way they have consistently proven themselves throughout the playoffs, it is clear that the Celtics still have everything it takes to win against the best in the league.