April 29, 2011
We haven't left the first round behind, but the second round is nearly upon us. The Boston Celtics are traveling down to Florida to take on the Miami Heat in a much-anticipated series, and we're going to pretend to know how that shapes out, based on the 82-game mold of clay plus opening rounds we were given to work with.
The point here is that it's not October. It's not November and thank goodness that it's not February. In two days, it won't even be April, and even for those of us popping anti-histamines and working with all the windows open, this is a good thing.
It's springtime, and the Heat are set to take on the Celtics. And though Boston has had its way with the Heat in three out of four meetings this season, the Celtics aren't the Celtics from last fall, or winter. The Heat are the same team, I still don't see any significant breakthroughs in terms of cohesion and fluidity (though there have been small steps), but against the Celtics team that we've seen since early March that just might not matter.
The regular-season evidence points to the Heat managing only 82 points per 100 possessions (100 points per 100 is pretty crummy, and 110 per 100 will lead the league) when Paul Pierce(notes) checked LeBron James(notes) during the regular season. It will point to LBJ's 43 percent shooting against Boston. But I also remember games like this, where James made Pierce look like last year's model. And even with that, it's not a matter of the Heat changing and growing and recovering before our very eyes.
It's on Boston. The team that has to start this series in Florida because it started March like a lame-o and ended it in a jam. Yes, Boston flipped that switch last season around this time (a little earlier than this time, if we're honest) and, yes, Miami can't be trusted to even make it past half-court if the game is close in the final minutes, but what happens when Miami peels off a 30-12 third quarter?
Picking Miami over Boston doesn't go against every bit of basketball sense I have, because every bit of basketball sense I have tells me that talent will win out. And it's my job not to beat you over the head with stats and history and figures and plead with you to accept what is natural and what is likely.
No, it's my job to research this history, these stats and figures and likely outcome, and articulate (hopefully) where we're going to go from here. And I think we're going to go to Miami for a couple of Heat wins, a massive thrashing by Boston in Game 3, a heartbreaking "almost had it" Celtics loss in Game 4, a desperate Boston blowout win on the road in Game 5, and an impressive clincher in Boston for the Heat in Game 6.
I don't think the Celtics have it, anymore. And you're damned correct in assuming that I hope I'm terribly, terribly wrong about this -- because I want this thing to go seven games, and I want a minimum of 14 overtime periods stretched out during that term. I hope Boston flips that switch.
But I also wonder if it's too late.
My pick? Miami in six.
Hey, there, sports fans! Welcome back to "PLAAAAAAAAAAYOFFS!" Boy, that first round was something else, huh? Chock full of buzzer beaters, controversy, brilliant performances, Hedo Turkoglu(notes) and Josh McRoberts(notes). With the field now whittled down to eight teams, it's time for the conference semifinals. Who are the contenders and who are the pretenders? Who can run with the big dogs and who should stay on the porch? Who's more grizzled?
Here to offer made-up answers to these and other pressing questions about Heat/Celtics are 7-foot-4 Utah Jazz center-turned-celebrity motivational speaker Mark Eaton and 310-year veteran/olde-tyme crustbucket Ol' Man Howard!
Mark Eaton: Hey, partner: You got seven minutes, 14 seconds of playing time in that first-round win over the 76ers. How are you feeling? Little stiff? Little sore?
Ol' Man Howard: Can't complain. Thought I had a touch of Saint Vitus' dance after coming into contact with that Nocioni character. But Doc says frequent, rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements of the face, feet and hands are just "the way I am" now.
ME: I imagine that's actually something of a boon in your line of work.
OMH: Mm-hmm. "My apologies, official. Understand, I meant the man no ill intent on the play. Curse this damnable fever and the throat-forearms it brings."
OMH: Five, six minutes in. Man can't help himself. Got a lot of hatred toward a soft neck.
ME: True indeed. But enough of that well-traveled territory; instead, let's talk about Dwyane Wade(notes). He played well to close the series against the Sixers, but he's had a devil of a time against the Celtics this year, shooting just 28 percent from the floor in four games. Against Boston's defense, he seems tentative, less willing to GO FOR IT! than usual. If you're Erik Spoelstra, are you concerned if Wade doesn't get off to a fast start in Game 1?
OMH: Don't know. Don't aim to.
ME: … OK. Just sort of a generic stab at getting some analysis and insight on your team.
OMH: It ain't advisable to try to put yourself in another man's mind. Invites his pain and darkness to come mingle with yours, when I've got more'n my fair share as is, and they prefer solitude. Some of us see Dwyane struggle and want to map out new ways to get him open looks; others see him get hemmed in and want to "have a little episode of Saint Vitus' dance" to ease his burden. We all handle concern different. We all have our reasons.
ME: That, I totally identify with. My concern-handling usually involves self-trustfalls. Then, when my back's really bruised, some ice packs and a power-hour of affirmations.
OMH: What is that, exactly?
ME: I tell myself one thing about me that's beautiful every 60 seconds for 60 minutes. By the end of the hour, I'm pretty buzzed on self-esteem, plus my back feels numb from the ice.
OMH: Numb's good. Numb's all you have, in the end. It's pure; it's present. It keeps you moving when your world barely even exists. Numb's honest.
ME: Haha! Sounds like someone's been holding their hand over an open flame and reading Cormac McCarthy aloud! Know what else is honest? "The Truth." I think Paul Pierce is going to have a big series against LeBron James on both ends of the court, and that's going to propel Boston to the Eastern Conference finals. Celtics in six.
OMH: Some days, I just want to feel again. Heat in seven.
(Dan thinks the Celtics will win in seven.)
The regular season counts, but the postseason is where reputations are made. Tracy McGrady never won a playoff series and will always be seen as a disappointment. Derek Fisher lacks several fundamental basketball skills but will always be seen as a champion because he makes big shots when it counts. Chauncey Billups owes his entire nickname to the 2004 playoffs. The point being that playoff performance skews national perception of NBA players beyond all reason. In that vein, behold the BDL Reputations Index, your guide to what's at stake for the top names in the first round.
LeBron James: To no one's surprise, the Heat's easy five-game dispatching of the Sixers did little to swing public opinion toward's LeBron — if anything, his breakfast comments have only made him look like a bigger jerk. On the court, though, James played well, cutting down his turnovers and generally playing a more efficient game. In other words, he could be primed for a big series.
While the Celtics are not as imposing an opponent as they were with Kendrick Perkins(notes) inside, a string of strong performances against a veteran team could make people less likely to bring up LeBron's curious Game 5 disappearing act against Boston last season when discussing his clutch resume. As many people have said many times, LeBron is not going to become the favorite of masses unless he wins championships. Still, dominating the Celtics would help chip away at their unwillingness to view him as anything other than a villain.
Chris Bosh: Firmly established as whipping boy, Bosh now gets mocked for the slightest example of marginally wimpy behavior. When he's on, though, the Heat are mostly indefensible. Without Perkins, the Celtics are beatable inside, and Bosh is going to have to be the one to exploit it, even if he can only do so with open jumpers and adequate rebounding numbers. If he can't, expect the "Like a Bosh" jokes to come with even more regularity.
Rajon Rondo(notes): Rondo was stellar in the sweep of the Knicks, contributing in all aspects of the game and torching the porous Knicks defense with ease. The Heat present a stiffer challenge, but there's still an opportunity for Rondo to exploit mismatches and guide the Boston offense to consistent success. With Paul Pierce likely to suffer from fatigue from guarding LeBron, Rondo will have more pressure on him to score and find his teammates in optimal spots on the floor. In the Knicks series, Rondo reestablished himself as a clear All-Star. If he can handle the Heat, he may leap back into the discussion as one of the top few point guards in the league.
Jeff Green(notes): At this point, there is virtually no argument that the Green/Perkins deal was a bad one for the Celtics. But that consensus doesn't mean that Green can't save face and help the Celtics to a series win. As a small forward, Green is probably going to guard James with some regularity. If he can do a passable job while also contributing on offense, his presence may serve as something other than a constant reminder that Danny Ainge traded a great defensive center to get him. Green will likely never be loved in Boston, but he can still be tolerated.
My prediction: Miami in six.