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No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 4 Boston Celtics
"One time I don't think you should listen to your body is when it says 'I'm dead.'"
Of the four teams remaining in these NBA playoffs, Boston's the one whose body is sounding the loudest death knells.
Paul Pierce is limited by a left knee sprain. Ray Allen looks like a shell of himself, thanks to bone spurs in his right ankle. Second-year off-guard Avery Bradley, who developed into a critical piece for the C's in the second half of the season, is finished for the year after having surgery to repair tears in his left shoulder. And the wounded Celtics had just one day between winning Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Saturday night and beginning the Eastern Conference finals in Miami on Monday — not a lot of time for those beaten bodies to recover before facing the East's No. 2 seed.
Despite all that, the Celtics sound eager to get things going and convinced they can "not only win this series, but also a championship," as WEEI.com's Paul Flannery put it. They won't listen to their bodies; they'll press on and continue charging the enemy until they've dropped.
I expect that to take five games.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, I don't expect Boston to be able to score or prevent Miami from scoring well enough to win more than one game against the Heat, even though Miami has its own battered body to worry about in the form of injured forward/center Chris Bosh.
This isn't exactly breaking news to anyone who watched either Boston's first-round win over the Atlanta Hawks or its second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, but the Celtics have really struggled to score this postseason. They've turned in three great performances — Game 4 against Atlanta, when Pierce and Rajon Rondo carried the day; Game 3 against Philly, when Kevin Garnett joined Pierce and Rondo in going off; and Game 5 against the Sixers, a.k.a. The Game of Brandon Bass' Life — but when you remember they've played 13, that batting average doesn't look so hot.
For the playoffs as a whole, Boston is averaging 98.9 points per 100 possessions, according to advanced stat site NBAstuffer.com, by far the worst among the NBA's final four. (San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Miami rank first, second and third among the 16 playoff teams; Boston's 10th.) And while both Atlanta and Philly featured first-rate defensive units, it's not like the task's going to get much easier against the Heat, who posted the league's fourth-best defense during the regular season (right behind Philly, just ahead of Atlanta) and are just a hair's breadth off a tie for second-best this postseason. Keyed by the active wing defense of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers and the solid interior work of rugged bigs Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem and Ronny Turiaf, Miami can cover well enough to choke off the Celtics.
As has been the case for the past five years, though, the Celtics make their money on the other end of the court. They've been a sensational defensive team all year, finishing the regular season with the game's stingiest defense and carrying that mark through the playoffs. Even without Bradley — whose reputation is likely to take a giant leap forward in this series even though he won't play, as we're all going to be talking about how the Celtics had hoped he'd be able to lock down on Wade and keep the hobbled Allen in a reserve role — Boston was able to take two of three from Philly and hold them to pedestrian-or-far-worse offensive efficiency numbers in Games 5, 6 and 7.
That said, Boston still needed seven games and a 30-point fourth quarter to dispatch a 76ers team that, for the most part, couldn't score. Boston's perimeter defenders were routinely blown past and bullied by the likes of Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams and Evan Turner, who are all fine players, but who are not LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Now, Boston faces a Heat team that averaged 108.3 points per 100 possessions through the first two rounds and that has arguably the two best offensive players left in the playoffs, both of whom seem to be hitting a comfortable stride.
James and Wade combined for 197 points in Miami's final three games against the Indiana Pacers, and without Bradley, the Celtics are going to try to guard them with a step-slow Pierce, an ostensibly stationary Allen and Mickael Pietrus. Boston's team defense is too good for Miami to completely blow their doors off, especially with Garnett forever using his length, smarts and quickness to hedge and recover on the pick-and-roll, but the matchup advantages Miami has in terms of perimeter quickness (especially when Allen checks Wade) seem too great to expect the Celtics to be able to repel the Heat for very long.
Now, Celtics fans eager for glimmers of hope amid my dark-cloud outlook will point to the fact that Boston beat Miami three times in four tries this year. That, of course, is 100 percent true, and that ain't nothin'. The thing is, though, it's hard to know how much any of what we saw from these two teams during the regular season can reasonably be expected to translate to this postseason series.
The season's first meeting saw Boston stay close thanks to a healthy Allen shooting the lights out, which we're very unlikely to see this series, and Miami earn its sole win behind an "MVP"-chant-inducing performance by Norris Cole, who went on to be a bottom-20 NBA player this season and has been a "well, if we must" player for 10 white-knuckle minutes a night for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra during the playoffs. That doesn't seem too likely to repeat itself. Likewise, you can all but throw out their final game, a last-week-of-the-season affair in which every star on both sides sat and the high scorers were Sasha Pavlovic and Dexter Pittman, who will miss the first two games of this series due to suspension and any remaining games due to not being very good.
The Celtics won their third matchup by shooting a scintillating 60.6 percent from the floor, which was remarkable to watch, but is extraordinarily unlikely to happen again because, y'know, it's very hard to hit three out of every five shots you take. Especially in a playoff game — it's happened just 11 times in the last 12 postseasons, and the lone team to do it this postseason is the one Boston is playing. Especially for a team that has hit just 43.6 percent from the field through 13 playoff games. And especially for a team about to face a defense that's given up just 95.6 points per 100 possessions at home this postseason, and has enough speed, discipline and versatility on the defensive end to answer just about every question the Celtics can raise.
I say "just about" because the Celtics do have one question that no one can really answer — Rondo, who was the determinant in the other game between the two teams this year, an April Fools Day showcase that saw him score early, distribute often, protect the ball and, for large stretches, totally control the game.
It's no secret that Boston is at its best when Rondo is engaged/active/on it (see: Games 1, 3, 5 and the close of 7 against the 76ers) and in serious trouble when he's not (see: Games 2, 6 and parts of 4 in the same series). Nor is it any secret that he tends to perform exceptionally well against Miami — he averaged 18.7 points, 13.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds on 51.3 percent shooting in just over 40 minutes per contest against the Heat this season — or that Miami does way better against Boston when he's not around ... about 18 points better when he was on the bench last regular season and nearly 30 points better when he was out last postseason.
With all due respect to Garnett — who has been Boston's best player during these playoffs and who has performed well, albeit in limited minutes, against likely opposition Anthony and Turiaf this season — and captain Pierce, Rondo is the only thing the Celtics have that Miami can't really counter. For Boston to have any chance of scoring enough to beat Miami, Rondo must be ridiculous.
He must punish whichever defender Miami sends at him with dribble penetration, compromising the integrity of that disciplined Heat defense. He must continue to try to defibrillate Allen's long-range game, because that offense needs as much spacing as it can muster and as many points as it can get. He must maximize opportunities for Bass, as he did in Game 5 against the Sixers, to maintain that spacing and give Miami someone else to guard. He must remain aggressive in pursuit of his own shot, especially if Pierce (40.2 percent from the floor against Philly) and Allen (38.3 percent in the series, including just 26.5 percent from 3-point range) continue to struggle with theirs. He has to be the best player in this series for Boston to have any chance of winning it.
He can be that — for stretches, for games and maybe even for a full series, even against James and Wade, because that's how brilliant his gifts are. But I don't believe he will. I think we're going to get one monstrous triple-double, maybe in Game 3 at home, and a couple of near-misses, and this Boston team can't afford near-misses. The Celtics will go out on their shields, but they will go out. You can only ignore death's call for so long before sheer will is no longer enough.
PREDICTION: Heat in 5.