Though there will still be plenty of talking on the court, it's finally time to play basketball.
What will LeBron do?
In a series with this much talent, drama and fascinating chess to be played, it seems almost sacrilege to stare too closely at one participant. But it's hard to venture very far into the particulars of Boston-Miami without considering why the theatrics are so heightened. The reason is LeBron James.
On Saturday, James conveyed how important the matchup with the Celtics was to him.
"It is personal," James said. "It is ... you don't want to keep getting beaten by the same team. The same team keeps sending you home to plan vacations. It is personal."
The background noise might not recede once James takes the floor, but the basketball will undoubtedly dictate the narrative for a couple of weeks. As James pointed out Saturday, there's nothing new under the sun so far as defensive schemes go.
"[The Celtics] play me the same way every time," James said. "They just try to keep me out of the paint. KG and those bigs, when we use pick-and-rolls, they try to get out and put two on the ball and force me to take jump shots. It's been the same way the last three years."
For James, reversing history will require the same dynamic that's marked his entire career -- achieving a steady balance between aggressiveness and deference, and between facilitation and takeover mode.
The best version of James uses all of these colors on the canvas and chooses them selectively. When the Celtics, as he points out, send a double-team to him, he'll need to look to the other side of floor. And when he's on the weak side, he'll need to stay on the move.
James has grown increasingly comfortable with the power forward position in recent months and this series might present a chance for him to exploit the Celtics in that capacity. If the Heat choose to go small, the Celtics don't have a natural defender to cover him at the 4. Their tweener, Jeff Green, is ill-equipped to handle the task. Though Glen Davis certainly has his defensive attributes, defending James on the ball probably isn't in his repertoire.
James may not prove to be the most pivotal performer in this series, but he'll certainly be the most closely watched.
Which Dwyane Wade will we see?
At Thursday’s practice, when talking about the Celtics-Heat game that was played April 10, Erik Spoelstra said he made an adjustment. He told Wade, who had averaged 12.3 points and six turnovers per game in his three games against the Celtics, to be more poised in the halfcourt and let the game come to him. No more forcing shots that aren’t there. No more attacking recklessly. No more of that.
During that game, Wade obediently followed his coach’s orders and the Heat went on to win the decisively, with Wade playing the role of facilitator, not the aggressor.
On Sunday, will that work again? Will Wade, the NBA’s seventh-best scorer, refrain from the pressing the issue and resist attacking the basket relentlessly like he usually does? Or will he undergo another makeover and revert to the Dwyane Wade that scored 33.2 points per game against the Celtics in the 2009-10 playoffs?
The Heat need Wade to be effective, above all else. Whether that means inviting the double-team and kicking out to shooters rather than trying to split the seams, then that’s what will be asked of him. If it means single-handedly asserting his dominance over the Celtics' defense and taking over the game like he he’s done before, then that’s what it will take.
Keep an eye on Wade’s aggressiveness from the tip-off. The Heat have beaten the Celtics this season with Wade taking only 12 field goal attempts in the game. But it should be noted that the Heat have lost against the Celtics this season with Wade taking only 12 field goal attempts as well. In one game, he was effective. In the other he wasn’t.
Will Chris Bosh outplay Kevin Garnett?
We all know that Garnett likes to talk, whether it’s on the court or off of it. And on Friday, the vocal Celtics power forward told the media that Bosh is the key player for the Heat, saying, “When Bosh plays really well, they blow teams out. It’s not really close.”
It’s an interesting assertion from Garnett, since he’s in charge of making sure Bosh doesn’t play really well. This season, Bosh has had considerable success against Garnett, with the exception of Bosh’s first game in a Heat uniform. In the last three games against the Celtics, Bosh has averaged 17.3 points and 8.3 rebounds on 66 percent shooting.
But if you watch the film, Bosh isn’t trying to overdo it against the Celtics. For all that Garnett does to get in his head, Bosh has actually stayed level-headed in his games against Boston. He got on the offensive boards and exploited the Celtics' defense when they were caught napping on the weakside. When he has the ball, the Heat big man thrives when he checks his complacency at the door and attacks the rim with purpose.
Sunday will be Bosh’s first encounter with playoff basketball beyond the first round and his opponent will do everything he can to make sure Bosh feels uncomfortable. Can Bosh tune it all out and continue his strong play against the Celtics? He’ll do himself a favor by striking first and getting the jitters out of the way. Is Garnett trying to play a mind game or is he genuinely offering praise for the Miami forward? Whatever his motivation, Garnett is right in that the Heat will struggle to win if Bosh flops in his semifinals debut.
What compromises will Erik Spoelstra make?
When the Heat were constructed around James, Wade and Bosh, the organization made a concession -- the supporting cast would be filled out with players who had glaring imperfections. When two of the less imperfect pieces, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller, went down to injury early, it further complicated matters. On the eve of Game 1 of their series with Boston on Sunday, the Heat are still without Haslem, while Miller has been marginalized with a litany of injuries.
The Heat's lack of depth puts Spoelstra in a bind as he figures out how to distribute the 120 or so minutes that will be assigned to players other than the Heat's three primary scorers. At point guard, he can go with Mike Bibby, whose long-range proficiency offers the Heat maximum spacing, and whose veteran savvy gives them a grown-up who understands how to get a unit into its offense against a tough defensive squad. But going with Bibby hurts the Heat defensively, particularly against Boston's whirling pick-and-roll game.
Spoelstra can opt for speed demon Mario Chalmers, who will certainly cover more ground defensively. But Chalmers lacks a certain seasoning and discipline that Spoelstra values. And despite a nice shooting night against Philly in the first-round clincher, he's no great shakes offensively.
How about foregoing a point guard altogether? It didn't work so well in 20 minutes during the Sixers series, as the Wade-James-James Jones perimeter trio was outscored 38-32, but that three-man combo performed well in the regular season, finishing plus-133 in 308 minutes of floor time.
The center position presents another conundrum for Spoelstra. Does he want Zydrunas Ilgauskas for spacing, or Joel Anthony for his defense and quickness? Ilgauskas could very well get shredded in pick-and-roll situations, but that Thibodeauxian defensive scheme Boston runs could punish the Heat for having an offensive cipher on the floor such as Anthony. Of course, the Heat could always go super-stretchy with Bosh at the 5 and James at the 4, but they'd give up size in doing so.
In short, Spoelstra doesn't have any easy answers. He'll have to commit surgical strikes based on matchups, instincts and wit. And won't that be fun?
Can the Heat pick up some easy buckets by forcing turnovers?
For a team that exercises serious discipline in many facets of the game, the Celtics aren't very protective of the ball. For the fifth consecutive season, the Celtics finished near the bottom of the league in turnover rate (percentages of possessions resulting in a turnover). Again, it's counter-intuitive, but it's one reason their offensive efficiency lags even though they post solid shooting numbers from the field.
The Heat are also a study in contradiction. They finished in the bottom third of the league in pace factor, yet they thrived on the break. The reside in the upper half of the league in percentage of possessions used in transition and lead the league in points per possession on those opportunities in the open court.
Many of these "skirmishes," as they're known in HeatWorld, are ignited by rebounds and outlet passes because the Heat don't force many turnovers (Spoelstra frowns upon high-risk defensive gambling). They rank only 26th in opponent turnover rate.
Something interesting came out of the Philadelphia series: The Heat's normally conventional defense went guerrilla warfare. With their quick lineup on the floor, they threw zones at the 76ers. They ran traps in pick-and-roll situations -- but also outside of them at perimeter shooters at random moments.
Philadelphia and Boston are very different creatures, but would the Heat benefit from applying the same sort of defensive aggressiveness at the Celtics, along with a little bit of riverboat gambling? The kneejerk reaction is "yes." After all, how can a team possibly be punished for pledging to be more aggressive?
The answer is that the Celtics are the slow-play mavens at the poker table. They love nothing more than to wait for a defense to overcommit to one side of the floor, or get its grubby little hands in the passing lane. At that point, the Celtics find the opening and make the opponent pay, and pay big.
The Heat will have to strike the balance between strong base defense and opportunism. They should find strategic times to blitz the Celtics along the sideline, or sick the risky-but-quick-handed Chalmers on a Celtic late in the shot clock. In the process, Miami might forfeit a possession here and there, but if the upside is a 12-2 skirmish on a series of Boston turnovers, it could be worth rolling the dice.