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Saturday, May 7, 2011
Heat at Celtics, Game 3: 5 things to watch

By Kevin Arnovitz and Tom Haberstroh

Rondo and Bosh
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Chris Bosh hasn't put up big offensive numbers in the series, but his defense has been huge.

Can Miami's pick-and-roll defense keep it up?
The present-day Boston Celtics certainly didn't invent the rotating pick-and-roll scheme, but on a good night, it often appeared as if they'd perfected it. With their skilled personnel, the Celtics utilized endless combinations of ball handlers and screeners. In the event the defense sniffed out that first action, the ball moved quickly to the weak side where another pick-and-roll materialized.

The Heat have neutralized all that by doubling down on the aggressive pick-and-roll defense that stifled Philadelphia. Barely a minute into Game 2, the Heat strangled Ray Allen on the sideline after the sharpshooter got a screen from Kevin Garnett.

When Paul Pierce and Garnett teamed up on the pick-and-roll, the Heat reacted instantaneously: A LeBron James-Chris Bosh trap, with Joel Anthony rotating onto Garnett before Pierce's pass out of the double-team even found Garnett.

How about Rondo as the ball handler on a screen-and-roll? Bosh simply dropped back a step to the foul line, wide base, arms up. More times than not, these options resulted in a spot-up jumper for Jermaine O'Neal, Glen Davis or a contested look for Garnett.

When the Celtics have had trouble in the past establishing their pick-and-roll game, Allen has served as a lifeboat. But to compound Boston's troubles, the Heat are owning the passing lanes between the action and Allen (and other safety valves), denying the kickouts that have made Allen so lethal for so long.

James and Dwyane Wade deserve a ton of praise for their alchemy on the offensive end, but make no mistake: The Heat are winning this series on the strength of their pick-and-roll coverage, especially the work being performed by Bosh, Anthony and James, and the speed and anticipation of the wings behind them.

What will we see from Shaq?
Shaq is expected to be back in Game 3. If you judge by the sentiment at Friday’s practice, the Heat players didn’t lose any sleep over it last night.

Although LeBron and Wade both downplayed his return, Shaq’s activation means that we could see less of Anthony and more of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier as the series progresses. Shaq has abused Anthony -- who weighs probably 100 pounds less than the Celtics' big man -- this season in the 15 minutes that they shared the court together. The scoreboard during those 15 minutes: Boston 33, Miami 16.

If Shaq enters the game, you can expect two things. One, the Celtics will want the game’s tempo to come to a screeching halt. And two, the Heat will try to get Shaq defending the pick-and-roll. The Heat know that Shaq will be rusty in this game, and he won’t have the agility to defend on the move. This is when Ilgauskas can come in handy, because the best way to neutralize Shaq’s defensive presence is to pull him out on the perimeter. Pick-and-pops are effective decongestants.

There’s no telling how many minutes we’ll see from Shaq on Saturday, but expect the Heat to try to throw a big body on him and keep him out of the basket area. With no jumper or dribbling skills, the only way Shaq can score is if he plants himself in the restricted area and calls for the ball. Dampier is the Heat’s largest player and may be activated for Shaq duty.

Can Bosh keep Garnett from turning back the clock?
If anyone could use four days off, it is Garnett. During the second half of Game 2, he was visibly gassed, lumbering up and down the floor and barely getting off the ground when he needed to. In the first two games of the series, Garnett has essentially been reduced to a jump-shooter, shying away from the paint with every passing minute.

But we may see a well-rested and motivated Garnett on Saturday. And Bosh will have to be prepared, especially given that the Celtics will be energized on their home floor. The Celtics have made it a priority to feed Garnett in the post in the early going to warm him up against Bosh, and we’ll probably see it again on Saturday. It’s a stark contrast to the end-game strategy for the Celtics, as Garnett rarely got the ball as a first option in the closing minutes.

With Garnett showing his age, it becomes even more imperative for Bosh to roll to the rim after pick-and-rolls. Bosh's aggressiveness on Saturday will be essential to the Heat’s success, but even more so because of the environment. If Bosh refrains from putting the ball on the deck in isolation situations or resists diving to the rim, then the Heat’s offense suffers tremendously. For his first road playoff game after the first round, getting him in a score-first mentality from the opening tip will be key.

Bosh has been excellent defensively in this series, but it’s also true that Garnett won’t continue missing those 15-footers consistently. If Garnett catches fire, Bosh can’t let it get to his head. The Heat need him to be mentally prepared more than ever.

Will James and Wade continue to pressure the Celtics' defense?
Game 1 gave us a little pause. Sure, it was an impressive win for the Heat against the reigning conference champions, but when the buzzer sounded, there was a lot of fool's gold scattered across the floor at AmericanAirlines Arena -- contested jumpers from the Heat's superstars that happened to fall through the net.

The Heat responded in Game 2 by better exploiting the Celtics' strong-side pressure. James worked tirelessly off the ball on the weak side looking for creases. He scored on cuts and spot-ups against a Boston defense that was tilted toward the ball. Sure, James did much of his damage in isolations -- but more times than not he was the last Heater to touch the ball on the possession, not the first.

For instance, there was a clever side-out-bounds play toward the end of the first half -- a dribble-handoff between Wade and Bosh. When Wade shot off that handoff and was met with a wall of green jerseys, he reversed the ball, where it ultimately worked its way over to James. LeBron's drive, seal and score against Pierce will be classified as an "isolation" by those charting the game, but this wasn't your traditional LeBron-and-four-guys-watching set. It was heady basketball that leveraged the Celtics' strategy to create a quality opportunity to score.

The Celtics will be energized on Saturday night and will rebuild that wall around the lane they've spent years constructing. James and Wade will have plenty of looks from 19 feet if they so choose. Will they?

Can the Heat win in the Commonwealth?
Over the past few days, Erik Spoelstra has been insistent: By winning the first two games of the series, the Heat held serve in Miami -- and nothing more. The Heat have unquestionably established some confidence against the Celtics, but everyone from Spoelstra to Wade is still speaking in deferential terms.

"[The Celtics] have been through this before, where everybody is throwing dirt on them ... that it's near the end of the line, that their guys have too many miles on those wheels," Spoelstra said at Heat practice on Friday. "We don't believe any of that, because every time you count them out they come back with a championship response."

The Heat have lost 10 straight games in Boston -- though the only two that are relevant are the pair of games this current unit dropped earlier this season. The Garden floor is where the first real inkling of doubts about the Heat's fortitude were laid on opening night, then reaffirmed when they blew a lead to the Celtics in mid-February. And this Heat team still hasn't won there.

If the Heat succumb to the crowd on Saturday, tighten up on offense, lose that defensive focus that's carried them to three consecutive wins against Boston over the past month, the momentum will shift back into the Celtics' corner. The Heat say they don't listen to outside noise -- and that might be true -- but an inability to win in Boston isn't about conventional wisdom.

It's about self-confidence, something every title contender must have in large quantities.