Posted May 27 2012 12:50AM
This is the way the East playoffs should end, the outgoing Big Three against the Big Three of the moment, except that's not quite what it appears to be right now, is it?
The Celtics stopped centering around Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen a while ago. It's Rajon Rondo's team and the others take their cue from him. Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are working without Chris Bosh, and very nicely, the Pacers might say.
Because of injuries to both teams and the age of the Celtics, this series will not be as entertaining as it could. Tough and rugged, yes. Tightly-contested, perhaps. But not works of art, or, as Celtics coach Doc Rivers said:
"We have to grind out games at this point. That's who we are."
And Heat coach Erik Spoelstra: "Our games aren't going to be pretty. Without Chris, we have to do other things in order to win."
Which means, apart from the Wade and James theatrics and the occasional wow from Rondo, this will be blue collar, half-court basketball with lots of defense, which ultimately will decide which team moves on.
These are the top two defensive teams in the post-season, each giving up 41 percent shooting. The Celtics eventually figured out a way to put the breaks on two younger and faster teams, the Hawks and Sixers. Meanwhile, the Heat wrapped up Carmelo Anthony in the first round and then, after losing Bosh in Game 1, frustrated the heck out of the Pacers, with a little LeBron and Wade fireworks thrown in.
The Celtics will obviously go early and often to KG and hope he exploits the loss of Bosh the way the Pacers didn't. Even when Bosh was healthy this season, the Celtics won three out of four and, more than any team, gave Miami fits. Finally, Rondo has been one of the top five players of the post-season, punishing teams with all-around brilliance.
But of course, at this time of year, games are won by stars, and Miami brings more. The new and revised equation for this series is the Big Two vs. the Big One, and you do the math.
1. Is Chris Bosh due back this series? Um, probably not. That abdominal strain is a tricky injury that heals on its timetable, not yours. So Bosh is likely out for most if not all of this series, if the degree of his injury is the same as most who suffer from it.
2. Who guards Rajon Rondo? Mario Chalmers gets first crack but don't be surprised to see Wade on Rondo if needed. Miami needs to keep Rondo contained, which is a lot easier said than done. Wade brings size and spring which makes him different than most defenders who step to Rondo.
3. Can Ray Allen regain his stroke? Allen dropped a pair of three-pointers late in Game 7 against the Sixers to finish off Philly. Prior to that, he'd been uncharacteristically faulty from that distance, shooting just 26 percent and suffering from a bum ankle. That's very unbecoming of the league's all-time downtown shooter, and the Celtics hope Allen can regain his legs, which give him the necessary lift, in time for Miami.
4. Who's Shane Battier guarding this series? Miami has gone small in the wake of Bosh's absence and Battier took on power forwards in the Indiana series. Don't expect him to be in KG's face but Battier would be a good match for Brandon Bass, a jump shooter. Which leads us to ...
5. Is Bass still a well-kept secret? The Celtics gave up Glen Davis for Bass last fall in what was considered a lateral move. Then Bass quickly found a niche and made the Celtics look wise. He's also playing for money this summer and therefore has the incentive to keep rolling like he did against the Sixers, where he had a 27-point game. As the only firepower off the Boston bench, he'd better. In addition to shooting from the elbows, Bass has found a home at the free-throw line where he's at 95 percent in the post-season.
Screen and roll all day. That's the Heat in the half-court. They don't make any secret of their desire to isolate Wade and LeBron while using teammates to satellite around the floor setting screens. They'd rather Wade and LeBron score in transition if given a choice. As long as someone else hits an open jumper every now and then, the Heat offense can be effective without Bosh.
The Celtics are older and slower but still a strong defensive team because they're still wise. They held the Sixers to 41 percent shooting and in 13 playoff games the Celtics have given up 90 or more points only three times. Garnett is a former defensive player of the year who hasn't lost much, and Rondo made the All-Defensive team. They're unlikely to get fooled by the Heat's screen and roll very often, unlike the Pacers last series.
It's all about Rondo and what he can create for his teammates. He's leading all players in assists during the playoffs and much of the Celtics' offense is dictated by Rondo on the screen and roll, or Pierce creating off the dribble. Also, the Celtics will continue to look for KG on the elbow, where he has made a living drilling shots.
The Heat are allowing only 85 points in the playoffs and it's easy to see why. They rotate and shrink passing lanes as well or better than most teams. They bring Battier and Udonis Haslem, a pair of gritty defenders. But of course, the best defender on the floor in either uniform will likely be James, an All-Defensive first-team member.
Pierce is a top-five or six Celtic all-time because he has built a career being unafraid of big moments. The Celtics trust him with the ball in tight games over Rondo, because Pierce can hit the jumper. His number is called more than any other player, and that's for a reason.
Do you believe in karma? Well, when the Celtics won the title in 2008, they needed to win a pair of Game Sevens during the journey. And now they've just completed two long series, going six against Atlanta and seven against Philly. They know how to survive, is what we're saying, and even thrive when they're laboring.
There are few certainties in life other than death, taxes and Mike Miller hobbling. Such is life for the guy who was supposed to be a major piece to the Big Three era. And while Miller's body will prohibit him from doing much, he can still hit three-pointers on occasion. Just a few of those shots from Miller would change the way Miami is defended.
After going six games against the Hawks and seven against the Sixers, two teams that aren't on Miami's level, the Celtics might seem vulnerable. They're not totally healthy and might need a third wind after a long and tough semifinal. But don't underestimate their determination and desire to return to the NBA Finals for a last hurrah. This series will be close, and yet, this is where an era ends.
Pick: Heat in six.
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