By: Martin Sumners
The road to the NBA Finals has become clear. The Miami Heat must battle the Boston Celtics to secure a spot in the championship series. Who has the edge?
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
(2) Miami Heat vs. (4) Boston Celtics
The Celtics handled the Heat rather easily during the regular season going 3-1. The Heat won in the second game of the season while the Celtics took the latter three, but with one of those was a meaningless contest at the end of the season when playoff seeding had already been set. These two teams, more importantly, also met last year in the playoffs with the Heat easily winning 4-1. That was in the second-round, but LeBron James treated it almost as if he had already won the title claiming how much it meant to finally beat Boston. The Celtics had been his tormentor quelling his championship dreams while with the Cleveland Cavaliers previously in 2008 and 2010. This will be James' fourth go-round in five years to face the Celtics. Also, in 2010, Dwyane Wade and the Heat were swept by the Celtics in the first round.
So the players all know one another very well. But one change, however, from last year's series is that power forward Chris Bosh's status is uncertain as he is healing from an abdominal strain suffered in Game 1 of the last series against the Indiana Pacers. He is participating in drills, but Game 1 may be a game-time decision. But even if he does play, his production may still not be optimal out the box. However, the Celtics' upgrade from last year would have been second-year guard Avery Bradley, but he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the last series versus the Philadelphia 76ers. Bradley received more playing time in light of the sharp-shooting vet Ray Allen suffering through numerous injuries this season, but did bring a ray (no pun intended) of hope with hitting a few long strikes in Game 7 against the 76ers.
One-Two Punch: The Heat has in James and Wade, perhaps, two of the top five players in the league. James capturing his third MVP award in the last four years makes it pretty clear that he is considered by most to be the best player in the game. Former 2006 Finals MVP, Wade, recaptured some of that glory with a dominating performance in the final three games versus the Pacers, especially the clinching game with 41 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. In last year's playoff matchup against the Celtics, James averaged 28 ppg, 8 rpg, and 3.5 apg while Wade was even better with 30 ppg, 7 rpg, and 5 apg.
Team Bonding: The skinny and the scoop on the Heat has been that it liked to strut and preen when things are going well, but the first sign of adversity it would become stagnant like humidity. The Heat faced a mountain of pressure after losing Game 3 going down 2-1 to the Pacers. The situation was made worse with Wade openly and angrily reacting to head coach Erik Spoelstra's critical comments during that blowout loss. In the past, that disharmony would negatively impact the team for a couple of games. However, this time, after trailing at halftime in Game 4, the Heat responded and pulled out a comeback win to tie the series. In Game 5, Udonis Haslem's hard foul on Tyler Hansbrough following the same on Wade and little-used Heat reserve Dexter Pittman's flying leap into Pacers' Lance Stevenson, who gave James the choke sign for missed free throws, may have brought the team together. Haslem earned a one-game suspension and Pittman earned a four-game suspension, but perhaps it was worth it as it brought the team together.
Defense: The Heat, when focused, can play suffocating defense. Ranked fourth in the league during the regular season in points allowed, the heat defense is sparked by James and Wade patrolling the passing lane while Shane Battier playing tough on the ball defense, perhaps on Paul Pierce, to allow James to roam or play Rajon Rondo. With the perimeter on lock, big men Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem provide steady baseline protection and the ability to fan out to check Kevin Garnett if he's hitting his jump shot.
X-Factor: The health of Bosh could turn the series. If he can't play or is severely limited until Game 3, 4 or later, the Celtics will need to capitalize on a weakened foe. The Heat would likely have to remain a two-man show, unless point guard Mario Chalmers can find a steady shooting stroke. That remains the big question as the Heat, unlike the Celtics, have not consistently shown the ability to rally as a team as the C's did when Pierce fouled out late in Game 7 against the 76ers.
Defense: Wait, you might say, didn't you just rank defense as an advantage for the Heat. Yes, but the Celtics' defense is that good The Celtics ranked second in the league during the regular season allowing just 89.2 points per game. In the playoffs, the defense has gotten even stingier allowing just 83.9 points per game; the best in the postseason. The Celtics do not have any player that is considered a great one-on-one defender but as a team they play together and with a purpose.
Mystique: In the past, teams have openly spoken of the ghosts that haunted the old Boston Garden. It's been several years since the move to the new Garden, but for the franchise with the most titles, there seems to be a lingering effect. Calls seem to go their way, like the refs in their Atlanta Hawks series not giving the Hawks free throws and possession of the ball late in a tight game after a Celtics foul occurred while the ball was still out of bounds, as the rules clearly state.
Coaching: Head coach Doc Rivers, by way of leading the Celtics to a title in 2008 and another Finals appearance in 2010, has earned the respect of his players. He can squeeze out that extra ounce of effort that can be the difference between two evenly matched teams or make an inferior team rise above their physical limitations.
X-Factor: If Rajon Rondo can control the tempo and the game with his all-around point guard play that leads to triple doubles, the Celtics will be tough to handle.
Heat in 6
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