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Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Epilogue to a Celtics Era?

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America)

How did we get here? The Celtics started the season 15-17, and the Big Three era looked finished by the All-Star Break. Three months later, the Celtics have become just the fourth team in NBA history to make a Conference Finals after having a losing record at the All-Star Break.

The Miami Heat are making their second appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in as many years after being the NBA Finals runner-up last spring. The Heat quickly dispatched the Celtics in five games in last year’s second round of the playoffs. Dwyane Wade‘s hard foul on Rajon Rondo dislocated his elbow in Game 4 and rendered the Celtics’ guard all but useless for the remainder of the series.

This time around both teams are banged up. The Heat are without all-star forward Chris Bosh, while the Celtics enter the series with four of their preseason top-10 guys lost because of surgery. The most notable absence for the Celtics is second-year guard Avery Bradley, whose defense on Wade in the regular season was one of the main reasons the Celtics went 3-1 against the Heat.

These teams don’t like each other, but they respect each other immensely. As Kevin Garnett would say, this one’s going to be a “bar fight.”

Celtics X Factor: Rajon Rondo

Rondo played five minutes of truly inspired basketball at the end of Game 7 Saturday night to put away the Philadelphia 76ers. The Celtics need Rondo to play like he did Saturday for 40 minutes a night and then some against the Heat.

Lebron James recently admitted that “No one can figure out how to defend Rondo.” If Rondo averages 20 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds in this series, the Celtics just might find themselves in the NBA Finals. Rondo’s numbers this season against Miami? 19 points, 14 assist and eight rebounds.

Heat X Factor: Anyone Not Named Lebron James or Dwyane Wade

Jame and Wade are going to score. They’ll probably average a combined 64 points per game, but it’s what Miami gets from its role players that will determine how they handle Boston.

In Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller combined for 27 points on a blistering 7-for-11 performance from three-point range. In their Game 2 loss, the Heat got a combined 23 points from all their role players and made just one three-pointer as a team.

Key Matchup: ? vs. Dwyane Wade

With Bradley out, who are the Celtics going to use as the primary defender on Wade? Ray Allen needs energy to hit shots on the offensive end, plus the bone spurs in his ankle gave him trouble against inferior players like the 76ers’ Lou Williams and Evan Turner. Keyon Dooling is undersized and too much of a liability on offense. Mickael Pietrus will have to spell Paul Pierce against Lebron. Marquis Daniels? Sasha Pavlovic?

The Celtics played zone against the Heat in their first meeting of the season and it helped them claw back into the game. Could zone defense be the answer? In Doc we trust.

Prediction: Heat in 7

The Celtics shot 37 percent from downtown in the regular season and are shooting just 28 percent in the playoffs. If Allen, Dooling, and Pietrus are on-point from deep (the trio combined to go 16-for-64 against Philly), the Celtics have a good shot at stealing this series.

If either Wade or James is to be the best player on the floor every night in this series, then Rondo has to be the second best player every night. Garnett has to punish Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and Ronny Turiaf every time he touches the ball. Pierce has to play like it’s 2010, not 2012. Brandon Bass has to shoot 60 percent from the field. These are all the things that have to happen for the Celtics to win this series.

It’s a lot to expect.

I see a valiant Game 6 in the Garden that doubles as an epilogue to an era, but I see the Celtics running out of gas in Game 7 against a team with everything to prove.

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