Eastern Conference Finals Preview
Prior to the 2007-2008 season, the Boston Celtics constructed a “Big Three” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. Paired with young point guard Rajon Rondo, they went on to win a championship and five straight division titles. Little did they know they were laying the groundwork for the Miami HEAT and Pat Riley to build a “Big Three” of their own a few years later. Now, the Celtics trio is battling age and injury while taking a back seat to Rondo. Meanwhile, down in South Beach, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are trying to carry the load with Chris Bosh recovering from injury.
This week, the two sets of triumvirates will battle it out for a chance to return to the NBA Finals against either the Spurs or Thunder. It won’t be easy. The Celtics just completed a series against the scrappy Philadelphia 76ers that zapped them of their energy in a seven game series. The HEAT lost Bosh to injury and because of their lack of talent on the roster outside the Big Three are faced with going exactly as far as Wade and James can take them. In their series against the Pacers, Miami won when James and wade took over. In the four wins, they combined to score 62, 70, 58, and 69 points. In the losses, they scored 52 and 47.
So how do the aging Celtics match up with the HEAT?
Point Guard: Mario Chalmers vs. Rajon Rondo
Mario Chalmers is a good backup point guard. He can space the floor by knocking down jumpers. He plays decent defense and serves as a facilitator on offense. Problem is, he’s the starter for the HEAT. He defers to LeBron and Wade, serving primarily as a spot up shooter. He can erupt for a big performance from time to time, but isn’t going to scare opposing teams. He’s young and still could develop into a quality starter, but the former second round pick isn’t quite there yet.
Rajon Rondo, on the other hand, is one of the premier point guards in the league. The trio of Pierce, Allen, and Garnett get most of the attention, but Rondo has quietly become the best player on that roster. He is such a bad shooter that many teams play up to 8 feet off of him on defense. Despite this shortcoming, Rondo’s ability to drive into the lane and create offense is so good that it doesn’t matter. He can drive and score, or pass out to one of the big three for an easy assist. He’s also a gifted rebounder and defender. That’s why he is already third all time in playoff triple doubles (with 9 after an 18-10-10 line in game 7 of the semis) behind only Jason Kidd (11) and Magic Johnson (10) and two ahead of LeBron James. Rondo has the talent to be the best player on the court for stretches even in this series, and when he does that the Celtics will win. The question is can he do it enough for Boston to win 4 games. Advantage: Celtics
Shooting Guard: Dwyane Wade vs. Ray Allen
Wade is a top 5 player in the league. He plays much bigger than his listed height of 6’4”. At this stage in his career, everybody knows how good he is. He’s the only member of the HEAT’s Big Three that has won a title. He would be the best player on just about any team in the league except the one he’s on, and maybe one or two others…maybe. He’s a great player on both ends of the court. He can wear you out when he’s on offense, and then tirelessly defend the opponents’ top player on the other end when called upon. He plays the passing lanes and is one of the best shot blocking guards since David Thompson. There’s very little on the court that he can’t do. He’ll make contested jumpers with a hand in his face, and then when the defense starts playing him for the shot, he’ll drive and make a circus shot while getting fouled.
Ray Allen is in the conversation for best shooter in NBA history. He’s been a model of professionalism and consistency since joining the Celtics. Unfortunately for himself and the team, he’s battled injuries this year, including painful bone spurs in his ankle that have resulted in him not looking like himself lately. The Celtics had been starting Avery Bradley at off guard to combat this problem. Bradley lacked the offensive skill of Allen, but provided lock down defense, which would have been very important against Wade. Bradley is done for the year as he recovers from shoulder surgery, though, so it’ll fall to Allen to keep up with Wade, bad ankle and all. Advantage: HEAT
Small Forward: LeBron James vs. Paul Pierce
LeBron James is widely regarded as the best player on the planet. He’s coming off his 3rd MVP award in four years. He had probably the greatest season of his professional career this season averaging 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists, and 1.9 steals on 53% shooting. He’s a matchup nightmare as he’s 6’8”, 250 pounds and plays like a point guard. He can score and pass, and is NBA first team all-defense. Opposing teams must build their game plan on both ends of the court around preventing him from beating them. James has the ability to win a playoff series by himself, but the HEAT can’t ask him to do that, not against the vaunted Celtics.
Pierce and James have faced off in some memorable playoff battles over the year. Pierce is a future hall-of-famer. He can make just about any shot, and has one of the best step back jumpers the game has ever seen. When the Celtics need a big shot, they often rely on him to create his own offense. Doc Rivers runs some of the best sets in the NBA, and yet in crunch time Pierce gets the green light to run an iso because they feel that gives them the best chance to score. That tells you just how gifted an offensive player Paul Pierce really is. Advantage: HEAT
Power Forward: Chris Bosh/Shane Battier vs. Kevin Garnett
Bosh is probably out with an abdominal strain, at least for the start of the series. My guess is he’ll come back if the HEAT end up needing him to have a chance to advance, but until that time Shane Battier, a true small forward, will continue to start in his absence. Bosh provides rebounding and an interior defensive presence. He’s also very good at running the pick and pop or pick and roll with James and Wade. The HEAT run the majority of their offense through him. With him out the past handful of games the HEAT offense has devolved into giving the ball to James or Wade and having them create. It’s worked, but it won’t be as easy against the defensive schemes of the Celtics. Battier is an outstanding defensive presence, especially on the perimeter, but he only adds spot up threes to the offense. In addition, it forces LeBron to spend more time banging inside on defense against bigger players.
Kevin Garnett has looked reborn in this year’s playoffs. He’s been so good that if you were to give out a playoff MVP this postseason, he’d have to be considered for it. He’s still spending more of his time hanging out on the perimeter than down low, but he’s been very effective there. He’s very good at the pick and pop game, similar to what Chris Bosh does for Miami. Garnett’s touch from mid range is as reliable as they come. He’s not afraid to get in opponents faces and be an intimidator. He won’t back down from anybody and that sets the tone for the Celtics’ defense. He has had to play more minutes than Doc Rivers would like though because of a lack of depth on the bench. Advantage: Celtics
Center: Ronny Turiaf vs. Brandon Bass
To be 100% honest, I’m not sure Eric Spoelstra knows who is going to start for the HEAT on Monday. He’s been playing musical starting lineups lately, and the loss of Bosh and suspensions of Udonis Haslem and Dexter Pittman have only exacerbated the issue. Miami could start Turiaf, Haslem, or Joel Anthony at center. Turiaf provides a big body who is not afraid to bang with other big guys. Haslem provides rebounding, hard-nosed defense and a good looking mid range jumper. Anthony is the best defender of the group and can block shots from the weak side with regularity. Turiaf doesn’t blow you away with his skill level. Haslem is undersized at only 6’8”, and Anthony is nearly useless on the offensive end. If Miami is missing one thing it’s a starting caliber center.
Brandon Bass is actually more of a power forward pushed into playing the center position by necessity. Garnett also plays the center position, but both Bass and Garnett play similar games. Bass is relied on to rebound but also is used on offense as somebody to knock down mid range jumpshots off the other players’ drives to the basket. He’s not asked to do a lot for the team, but excels at filling his role. Advantage: Even
I think ABC/ESPN’s Chris Broussard put it best after game 7 between the Celtics and 76ers when he said that the HEAT “probably were hoping the 76ers would win,” and adding that it will probably be better for the HEAT to have to get through the Celtics in order to have a chance at the title. Because neither team has a decent true center on the roster, this series could see a lot of small ball being played. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the HEAT employ a lineup that puts LeBron at the center position for stretches, since it could mean he’s matched up with a perimeter oriented KG in that matchup. Playing a team that isn’t going to make them pay for not having a quality center on the roster is a good thing for Miami. The Celtics will put up a good fight, but ultimately the HEAT will ride James and Wade into the NBA Finals for a date with either the Spurs or Thunder. Prediction: HEAT in 6
Series Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Monday, May 28 8:30 Celtics @ HEAT
Wednesday, May 30 8:30 Celtics @ HEAT
Friday, June 1 8:30 HEAT @ Celtics
Sunday, June 3 8:30 HEAT @ Celtics
Tuesday, June 5 8:30 Celtics @ HEAT *If Necessary
Thursday, June 7 8:30 HEAT @ Celtics *If Necessary
Saturday, June 9 8:30 Celtics @ HEAT * If Necessary
Doesn't Magic Johnson have 30 playoff triple doubles?
I really don't think the Heat is gonna match up Battier with KG and let him shoot uncontested jumper every time. Haslem or Anthony will get on him on the defensive end for sure.
I don't know why the author likes to capitalize all the letters of the heat and not the letters of the CELTICS.