Commentary

Don't count Celtics out versus Heat

Updated: May 31, 2012, 2:13 PM ET
By Peter May | ESPNBoston.com

The Celtics left for Miami on Sunday just before noon. Why didn't NBA commissioner David Stern just save them the time and trouble and tell the pilot to turn around? I mean, what's the point?

[+] EnlargePierce/James
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireOne thing's for sure: There's no shortage of star power in Celtics-Heat.

The Eastern Conference finals apparently are already over -- 24 hours before they've even begun.

It is so interesting to read and listen to the alleged experts (a group in which, amazingly, I am sometimes included) handicap this series and slobber all over the Heat. One week ago, I was in New York City and I stopped into a restaurant/bar to check out the score of the Miami-Indiana game. The Heat were down 2-1 in the series and trailed by 10 points early in the third quarter when I looked in.

What were all these same Miami-ophiles saying then about the Heat?

The point here is that things can change dramatically and often in a very short period of time in the postseason. Adjustments occur. Players get nicked. A series can be like a fine red wine -- it needs time to breathe before its real identity emerges. Miami turned it around against Indiana.

A month ago, the Celtics would likely have been given a halfway decent shot of beating Miami. They had beaten the Heat three times in April, twice when both teams were actually trying. The Celtics had advantages in two key positions: center and point guard.

Since then, Miami has lost Chris Bosh and the Celtics have lost Avery Bradley. A month ago, Ray Allen wasn't even playing. Now he is, however gimpy. Boston still has the advantage at center and point guard.

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And now the Celtics suddenly have no hope?

All 12 ESPN "experts" picked Miami -- and only two feel the series will go the distance. The Heat are the obvious pick. They have the two best players in the series. They have the home-court advantage. They've had a couple of extra days of rest heading into the series and are coming off three straight impressive wins. They are determined to avenge last season's collapse in the NBA Finals.

But at the risk of sounding like Harry Homer here, dismiss the Celtics at your own peril. Even with the banged-up crew they have, there is absolutely no shock or awe at facing the Heat. You heard Rajon Rondo on Saturday night: "We feel we can beat Miami. Obviously, we got to this point. There's no doubt in my mind that we can."

Watching the Celtics finally eliminate the 76ers after a tough, exhausting series brought back two memories of playoff teams past. The first was the 1987 Celtics, who, like this team, were banged up and still managed to outlast a very determined Detroit Pistons team in the Eastern Conference finals. Awaiting them was a healthier, rested and, on paper, better Lakers team. I distinctly remember Larry Bird saying he wished that the Pistons series had been it; he just wasn't sure how much the team had left.

As it was, the Celtics pushed the Lakers to six games and if Magic hadn't made that sky hook in Game 4 … but Bird was right. Kevin McHale was playing with a broken bone in his foot. Bill Walton couldn't play. They didn't have enough.

[+] EnlargeChris Bosh and Kevin Garnett
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesWith Chris Bosh out, Kevin Garnett should have his way with the Heat.

The other memory was in 2010 after the Celtics had bounced LeBron James and the top-seeded Cavaliers in the second round. Paul Pierce said, simply, "We don't see this as a success just because we beat the Cleveland Cavaliers." He was making it clear that while others might have thought Boston overachieved, Pierce clearly did not. He figured bigger and better things lay ahead -- and he was right.

You can be sure that Erik Spoelstra isn't going over Oklahoma City or San Antonio scouting reports in anticipation of a Viennese waltz to the NBA Finals.

So how could the Celtics get it done? Let us count the ways:

1. The two non-negotiable Boston advantages: Kevin Garnett and Rondo. Who is going to guard KG? Udonis Haslem? Joel Anthony? Not only will KG have the advantage at the offensive end, but, if he's guarding Anthony, he can also be a cheat defender pretty much whenever he chooses. This series also should have enough "juice" for Rondo to be at his triple-double best. But he does have defensive responsibilities in staying in front of Mario Chalmers.

2. Defending the dynamic duo: OK, so who is going to guard Dwyane Wade and LeBron? The short answer is anyone and everyone. You have to think Doc Rivers finally is going to utilize both Marquis Daniels and Sasha Pavlovic in this series. He has to, if for no other reason than to give Wade and James a different look. Don't forget Mickael Pietrus, either. While he continues to struggle offensively, he can defend. None of the above is going to stop these guys, but they are all capable of at least getting in their way. And don't be surprised to see the Celtics go to a zone defense. It has worked before against Miami.

3. The absence of Bosh: Why is no one even conceding that this is a big factor? It's like he doesn't exist. All the bloviators are focusing on Bradley's absence. What about the third member of Miami's Big Three, the only one who can go head-to-head with Garnett? He averaged a double-double against the Celtics this season. Yet it's as if the Heat lost Dexter Pittman or Juwan Howard.

4. Stealing Game 1: No one, and I mean no one, is giving the Celtics a chance in Game 1 on Monday night. Why? Because it's in Miami and the Celtics played on Saturday and had to travel on Sunday? That's ridiculous. Sure, the Celtics could have used the rest, but the fact remains that Allen's ankle is going to hurt until he goes under the knife and Bradley is already gone. The Celtics could have had a week off and those two situations would have remained the same. The Celtics' entire postseason has been pretty much playing every other day. As Pierce put it, "It's a quick turnaround. But I kind of like it that way. It keeps us in a rhythm. It keeps us playing. We're an older team so we don't want to sit around for too long. You know we like the fact that we usually go right into it." Back in 1984, the Lakers were extended to six games in the Western Conference finals before finally eliminating Phoenix on a Friday night. They flew to Boston on Saturday to open the NBA Finals on Sunday afternoon -- and beat the rested Celtics 115-109. Few expected the 2010 Celtics to beat the Magic in the conference finals, but with only two days' rest, they flew to Orlando and beat the well-rested Magic in Game 1. It's not outside the realm of possibility.

5. LeBron steps on a nail: There is the great unknown in any series. Someone could get hurt. Someone unexpected could make a difference in a big game. Someone (a Celtic, obviously) could find the Fountain of Youth (hey, they're playing in Florida, which is where Ponce de Leon thought it was located). One minor adjustment could have major consequences.

So just sit back and try to enjoy this series. The Celtics take the floor knowing that the entire nation has their backs. That's not going to help in crunch time and it won't do them any good trying to deal with Wade and James. But wouldn't it be a kick to see Pat Riley have to accept yet another humiliation from the franchise he loathes?

He probably won't, but that's why they have to play the games.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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