BOSTON -- The official All-Star Game isn’t for another week and on the other coast, but when the Heat and Celtics meet to establish the Eastern Conference leader Sunday afternoon it will look like an All-Star Game.
The teams combined will start seven All-Stars, more than half of the East team that will gather next weekend in Los Angeles. What makes it ironic, though, is that it may be the handful of non-All-Stars that determine the winner Sunday.
Heading into the game, the Heat and Celtics are going in opposite directions and it can be directly traced to the performance and the health of the non-stars.
The Heat are on an eight-game winning streak, a surge that started two weeks ago with a last-possession squeaker over Detroit, then a quality Sunday afternoon victory in Oklahoma City. The Celtics have lost three of four, including a game Thursday to the Lakers at home, ruining the big night when Ray Allen became the all-time leader in 3-pointers made.
Those seven All-Stars have played in all the games in question. The difference between the teams is the availability and output of the supporting role players. It’s making a significant difference.
Over the last five games, the Heat’s bench has averaged 29.2 points while shooting 51 percent. That’s 10 points more per game than in December and seven points more than January.
“We’re more dangerous and dynamic as an offensive team,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’ve got more people involved and more people are threats.”
Meanwhile, the Celtics have struggled without Jermaine O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal, Marquis Daniels, Semih Erden and Delonte West. Boston lost another player Thursday when Nate Robinson suffered a knee injury. He’s questionable for Sunday's game.
During the last two losses, the depleted Boston bench has averaged just 16 points. When the Celtics gave up a fourth-quarter lead to the Lakers, it appeared the starters had run out of gas with coach Doc Rivers basically using just seven players because of the injuries.
The Heat have been the opposite, a major reason they have passed the Celtics in the standings. While the Celtics’ body count has been piling up over the last three weeks, Heat reserves Mike Miller and Eddie House have caught fire.
During the Heat’s eight-game streak, House is averaging 9.8 points on 54 percent shooting off the bench, while Miller is averaging 9.7 points and 6.9 rebounds.
“We have a lot of confidence and trust in those guys,” Dwyane Wade said. “We’ve got guys coming off the bench that are highly capable of making things happen. Mike Miller can come in and shoot us in a game but also can help us with his rebounding. Eddie House brings a lot of energy and scoring. And we have guys like Joel [Anthony] who bring defense.”
The strong performance of the Heat bench has enabled Spoelstra to settle his rotations and achieve some consistency, which wasn’t the case even when the Heat were going on winning streaks earlier in the season. It has also allowed the Heat to experiment with different lineups to take advantage of their multi-talented players.
The Celtics, when they are whole, can do the same things. But right now it is the Heat who are closer to whole, and that could be a major factor in the latest matchup between the two.
“You can see it [the bench impact], it is why we’re scoring more points, why we’re getting more paint attacks,” Spoelstra said. “The trust is growing [in the bench] game-by-game.”