Boston-Miami: this is the second round match-up we all wanted. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said it "wouldn't be right if we didn't play them." LeBron echoed his coach, saying, "We have to play Boston to get where we want to get. It's here now."
Be careful what you wish for.
The Celtics -- yes, those same bruised and battered Celtics you wrote off months ago -- are in familiar territory, playing their best basketball of the season in the playoffs.
Jermaine O'Neal may not be the All-Star he once was, but his interior presence against the Knicks in the first round suggest that his team isn't missing Kendrick Perkins quite as much as everyone thought they would.
Rajon Rondo, for all the talk of a subpar second half of the season, looked completely revitalized in the first round, averaging 19 points and 12 assists while looking every bit as quick and explosive as he did before his post All-Star break struggles. Meanwhile, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are playing like finely tuned automobiles just waiting to shift into the next gear. In April's regular season games, Allen shot 50 percent from the field and 35 percent from three. In Round One against the Knicks, he logged an average of 40 minutes a game, shooting 57 percent from the field and a outrageous 65 percent from 3-point territory. There's nobody hotter in the playoffs. And Allen's numbers against Miami this season are significantly higher than his averages against the rest of the league, so don't expect him to cool down.
The biggest challenge for Boston at this point may not even be the Heat. It's biggest issue might be rest: specifically, too much rest. The Celtics will have rested a full six days before Game 1 in South Beach. But the cohesion this team displayed in the first round can only be maintained through repetition. Practice is one thing, but nothing matches the reinforcing power of a real game itself.
Miami is going to try and take advantage of that right away by doing what they do best: pushing tempo. When the Heat is in transition with LeBron and Dwyane Wade running the wings, they are the best team in basketball.
But no team is better than Boston at thwarting the up-tempo game. Doc Rivers will simply not let Miami control the pace -- just as he derailed transition-oriented New York. Boston will force the Heat to execute its offense in the half court, something Miami has struggled with all season long. During its four regular season match-ups with Boston, Miami was outscored in transition by the Celtics and shot a woeful 28.6 percent from three and 44.7 percent from the floor.
The key for Miami in this series isn't LeBron -- he'll get his, just as he has in every other playoff series. The keys are Wade and -- perhaps even more so -- Chris Bosh.
Bosh's efficiency in the half court is what opens up the floor for others. Bosh was quietly excellent against Philly in Round One. He was active on the glass, got to the line and forced the 76ers to double just enough to provide kickout opportunities to Mario Chalmers (who took 12 threes in Game 5) and open driving lanes for James and Wade.
But missing injured Udonis Haslem on the court kills Miami. Haslem doesn't have near the offensive arsenal as Bosh, but he is an effective high post shooter and terrific rebounder, making him a nice complement to Bosh.
In some ways, Joel Anthony has assumed Haslem's role. The third-year man has provided steady defense and timely rebounding, but he has been an offensive liability. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is the least physical 7-footer in the league, so Bosh will have to deal with Boston's big men at both ends. Haslem has reportedly been practicing with the team but still isn't 100 percent, and Spoelstra says he won't let the series schedule dictate whether Haslem plays.
Opposite to Bosh will be Kevin Garnett, who, as he always does, will get his points in this series. But KG's real contribution for Boston will be slowing down Bosh. Bosh's 20 points and 9 rebound average versus Philly was just the type of production Miami needed to win the series. But getting those numbers on Elton Brand is not the same thing as getting them against Garnett. Traditionally, Bosh has struggled against physical defenders who can match his incredible length. Brand is 6'8" and plays below the rim. Garnett is a long 7-footer who has a real defensive presence and uses his dexterity and range to alter shots. Bosh, at his core, is a jump shooter.
While it's fair to assume Wade and James will each probably go off in at least one game, it's also fair to assume that Allen, Pierce and Rondo will also each score big at least once in this series. Defensively, look for Pierce to start on James and Allen to start on Wade, but also look for Rivers to rearrange those pairings.
Pierce's effectiveness at defending Wade cannot be understated. Wade hasn't shot better than 35 percent in a single game against Boston all year, including a 4-16, six turnover performance and a 2-12, six turnover, 8-point game.
Meanwhile, James' refusal to post up Philly's Jrue Holiday should give Rivers the confidence to put Rondo on him in select circumstances. Rondo is 6'3", but he has remarkably quick hands and feet, and is a far more tenacious defender than Holiday. Because the Heat lack a true point guard, Rivers will have the flexibility to put his lead guard on James or even Wade, providing the Celtics with a distinct advantage.
For Rivers and the Celtics, the necessity of finding advantages like this is only amplified given the questionable status of Shaq's health and availability.
The other crucial player for the Celtics is Jeff Green. The third-year man has struggled with his jumper and hasn't been the lockdown defender he was in Oklahoma City, but this series could be his coming out party of sorts. He absolutely has to play big for Boston to win.
Green has the size to guard the post but, more important, he has the length and foot speed to cover Wade and LeBron on the wing. The good news for Green in this series is that he really doesn't have to score. His sole purpose should be to bother Wade and LeBron in every defensive possession. If Green can deter them from driving to the lane and force them into becoming high-volume jump shooters -- which he could -- then the Celtics will win this series.
Miami locked down home court with its late season, 23-point blowout win over Boston (Miami's only win against Boston this season), so the Heat do hold the advantage there. But it can't be much of an 'advantage' to play in front of fans who show up midway through the second quarter and leave before the game ends.
Boston has the experience and game-closing ability Miami has lacked all season long. The Heat are the worst team in the NBA in late-game shooting (define as the final 10 seconds of a tied or one-possession game). In a physical series like this one, late-game execution is everything.
Celtics in six.
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