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Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Celtics at Heat, Game 5: 5 things to watch

By Kevin Arnovitz and Tom Haberstroh

LeBron James
AP Photo/Charles Krupa
Even though he was frequently met by four Celtics, LeBron James never stopped attacking in Game 4. Will that trend continue in Game 5?

Can Dwyane Wade and LeBron James get to the rim at will again?
The success of the Celtics’ defense is predicated on overloading the strong side of the court and preventing easy dribble penetration by a ball handler. However, in Game 4, James and Wade were driving into the teeth of the defense effortlessly, generating 18 shots at the rim and combining for another 23 free throws. Even accounting for the overtime period, that’s far above their normal rate against Boston this series.

How did they do it? LeBron worked his way to the rim with variety. He flew out in transition on some occasions, cut to the rim off the ball on others and punctured the Celtics' defense using a standard pick-and-roll. Like Wade, if you give LeBron a ray of daylight, he’ll exploit it to his full advantage. LeBron took a while to put his aggression into high gear, but by the time the fourth quarter rolled around he was fully engaged in attack mode.

The Heat ran a ton of pick-and-rolls with Wade as the ball handler, but they threw different screeners nearly every other time down the floor. LeBron, James Jones, Chris Bosh, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Joel Anthony each got their hands at picks for Wade, who split Boston’s defenders like an ax.

The array of screeners kept Kevin Garnett, Boston’s best defender, away from Wade’s attack, although they did target Garnett in the pick-and-roll down the stretch. Wade picked apart the defense and once he turned that corner, it was all over. The Celtics didn’t dedicate themselves to swarming the ball handler like they typically do, and Wade dodged his way to the rim.

There’s not a dependable way to combat LeBron and Wade in the pick-and-roll, but you may see more aggressiveness from the Celtics at the point of attack in Game 5.

Are the Heat unbeatable if Chris Bosh plays well?
Those who feel Bosh is the X factor in the Heat's title aspirations bolstered their case in Game 4. After he had a miserable 19 minutes in the first half, Bosh recovered offensively in the second half and helped keep the Heat in the game. His two buckets in overtime were perfectly representative of everything he brings to the table. He scored as a baseline cutter off a Wade-James pick-and-roll, then sealed the game with a tip-in with 24 seconds to play.

Bosh's 20 and 12 stat line aside, his biggest contribution -- both in Game 4 and the series -- has come as a defender, which might come as a surprise. For all the consternation about the situation at point guard, lack of depth and the rest of it, frontcourt defense had to be a nagging doubt for the Heat headed into spring. Sure enough, the decisive factor in Heat's Game 3 loss was the Heat's inability to disrupt Garnett on the low block -- and Bosh knew that.

"We couldn't let him catch it on the post," Bosh said. "We wanted to be more aggressive with our fronts, try our best to push him out a little bit further away from the basket."

Watching Bosh battle Garnett, communicate vocally with Anthony when the two shared back-line duties and contest every potential entry pass were some of the more heartening things for the Heat on Monday night. The Celtics will undoubtedly adjust in Game 5. Rather than just try to feed Garnett in the post, they'll run some down screens for Garnett, hit him with a pass off their single-double actions for Ray Allen, or get him going from midrange.

If Bosh can respond without needing help, that will allow the Heat's wings to play aggressively rather than reactively -- and should produce another efficient defensive performance.

Is the Heat's smallball their best ball?
The Heat played all but three possessions of the fourth quarter of Game 4 with a frontcourt of Bosh and James. The result?

They outscored Boston 17-13 in a pitchers' duel.

Proponents of Heat smallball shouldn't be discouraged by the 17 points. If you watch the catalog of the Heat's fourth-quarter attempts, you'll see a nice selection of shot from close range the Heat failed to convert but would happily take again tonight. The spread floor produced driving lanes for Wade and James to attack the rim. And with Bosh luring Garnett -- the Celtics' only big man on the floor -- out of the paint, there were no big bodies to contest the Heat inside. On the couple of occasions Garnett dropped back to help, Bosh exploited the decision by establishing position underneath (see the layup with 5:17 left in regulation to give the Heat the lead).

When a game becomes a perimeter-oriented affair, the Heat might be the best defensive team in the league. In those closing 12 minutes, James and Wade either locked down their individual matchups or, when they were patrolling the weakside, pressured passing lanes and swarmed the middle.

So do the Heat go without a center during crucial stretches in Game 5?

That depends on what the game demands. The Bosh-Anthony tandem has been invaluable defending the pick-and-roll and shouldn't be discounted. But if the Heat want to turn Game 5 into guerrilla warfare, they might opt for smallball again. That would maximize speed and spacing -- and encourage James to operate closer to the basket. Fans of the Wade-James pick-and-roll are well aware the Heat rarely make that play call when James is at the 3. Any scheme that urges James to be a bully makes the Heat a much tougher team to defend.

Will the Celtics continue to abandon the offensive boards?
The Celtics apparently don’t believe in second chances. Of the 38 available offensive rebounds in Game 4, how many did the Celtics recover on their basket?

Just 3. Their 7.9 percent offensive rebound rate was the team’s lowest in the playoffs and, not coincidentally, it was their worst offensive efficiency of the playoffs as well.

The Celtics are the worst offensive rebounding team in the league for a reason: they’d rather stop transition. Once the shot goes up, almost every Celtics player retreats back on defense to bottle up the Heat’s vaunted transition game. Boston’s defense was terrific in the open court, stopping Wade's and James’ attacks before they even started. But it came with a cost: The Celtics' offense was almost always one-and-done.

There’s a fascinating tradeoff here. Do the Celtics continue to surrender second-chance opportunities or do they crash the boards to rescue a struggling offense? Many decorated coaches (Gregg Popovich and Stan Van Gundy, to name a couple) choose to abandon the offensive rebound game to set up their defenses, but usually it’s because their offenses don’t need second-chance opportunities.

The Celtics, however, need all the help they can get on the offensive end, especially with a wounded Rajon Rondo. Look for the Celtics to get Garnett back on the block, where he was most effective in Game 3, and helping out on the boards. Garnett and Glen Davis didn’t secure an offensive rebound in Game 4, but don’t expect that to happen again.

Is this Shaquille O'Neal's final game?
Lost amid the swirling storylines of the series is the prospect that one of the NBA's most gigantic legends could be suiting up for the last time.

How do we begin to quantify O'Neal's contributions to the game? Let's start with the record book. He has played 50,017 minutes in his NBA career (regular and postseason) -- that's about five weeks' worth. O'Neal is the active leader in points, total rebounds, offensive rebounds, blocks, field goals, field goal percentage, free throw attempts and fouls. He's won an MVP award, four NBA titles (one of them with the Heat and Wade) and was named Finals MVP three times. His career Player Efficiency Rating of 26.43 trails only Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

O'Neal's legacy transcends anything numeric. Heat rookie Dexter Pittman was 4 when O'Neal was drafted in 1992 by the Magic out of LSU. At the time, Orlando was still a fledgling expansion team and when O'Neal was asked how he felt about going to a small market in central Florida, O'Neal responded, "Orlando has Disney. I like Mickey. I'm looking forward to going to Disney and chillin' with Mickey."

Though O'Neal entered the league long before the digital explosion, his charisma and unfiltered relationship with fans made him arguably sports' first and most aggressive social media star. He was the first high-profile NBA player to embrace Twitter and use it to further his already outsized personal brand. O'Neal always understood that character arcs and robust public images are as essential to the game's livelihood as slam dunks and championship banners. The drama surrounding his arrival, tenure and departure with the Lakers will be one of the most enduring chapters of the basketball era.

If the Heat are able to build a big lead Wednesday night and Doc Rivers inserts O'Neal into the game, will the Miami faithful give him a standing ovation? If they have a sense of history and an appreciation for the pageantry of the game, they will.