Saturday, April 30, 2011 Updated: May 1, 10:23 AM ET
Breaking down Celtics vs. Heat
By Chris Forsberg and Kevin Arnovitz ESPNBoston.com
MIAMI --- We could have held this back and forth about six months ago. After all, everyone knew it would come to this. But just to be safe we endured an 82-game regular season and some perfunctory first-round triumphs and now, 188 days after the Celtics and Heat met to tip-off the 2010-11 NBA season, the two teams joust again in hopes of being one of the final two teams playing when the season ends in June.
After a half-week of dizzying hype, Sunday's Game 1 (3:30 p.m, ABC) is nearly upon us. But before we (finally) get some real basketball to digest, Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN's The Heat Index and I (Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston) held an email conversation examining keys areas of the series and offering our predictions on how it will all play out.
So, Kevin, first question to you: From the Miami perspective, was the final regular-season meeting a sign of this team's growth and development over the past 26 weeks, or did the Heat simply pounce on a Boston team that was sleepwalking towards the finish line (and not even the chance to snag the No. 2 seed could shake them from their slumber)? And, ultimately, do any of the four regular-season games matter?KA: The April 10 win represents a little bit of both for Miami. The way the Celtics sputtered down the stretch last season -- only to be reborn in the playoffs -- ensures that no opponent can ever get fully excited about a win over Boston in early April. But the Heat have maintained since October that their season was a "process" -- one of Erik Spoelstra's highest-usage words. For the Heat, the win was an affirmation that they weren't the same team that fell flat against the C's in three meetings before the All-Star break. At the same time, LeBron James knows better than anyone that the regular season means zilch when a postseason series tips off.
Chris, how do the Celtics perceive this matchup with the Heat? Do they agree with Spencer Hawes that the Heat are a collection of talent (admittedly, some really formidable talent) but, from a basketball standpoint, the Celtics are the better basketball team from a collaborative, everyone-touches-the-ball standpoint? CF: Let's be honest, the Celtics clearly operate under the belief that, if their Big Four play to their potential, they should beat any team in the league, based in large part to the continuity forged over the past four seasons. Coach Doc Rivers has said numerous times leading up to this series that the play of his Big Four is intertwined and that, if any one part falters, this team isn't exactly equipped -- at least against a team like Miami -- to get by on the strength of its individual players. Boston is leaning heavy on the belief that its continuity and "Ubuntu" team-first mentality is the sort of thing that allows them to make the key plays in crucial situations. If you're the Celtics, you're simply hoping that Miami is still going through that "process" and can't make those crucial plays (and let's ignore the silly crunch stats, which indicate that both teams were atrocious in late-game situations during the regular season; this is the playoffs now and that's when it matters).
The buzz up here before the series is that Chris Bosh is the X-Factor for Miami. The expectation is that James and Wade will get theirs, but Boston will aim to simply not let them take over, instead forcing the Heat's supporting cast to step up and win the game. So the question to you, Kev: Is Bosh capable of doing enough to win games for Miami under the glare of the postseason spotlight, particularly matched up with someone like Kevin Garnett?
Chris Bosh averaged 18.7 points per game during the regular season.
KA: Here's the upside of being the third banana if you're Chris Bosh: The threshold for success is a little bit lower. Bosh doesn't need to be Raptor Chris. He just needs to stretch the Celtics' defense by (a) facilitating the Heat's patented high-post sets from his favorite spot at the right elbow; (b) keep Garnett on the move by setting high screens for Dwyane Wade, then making him self available for a 17-footer or drawing a rotator from the baseline when he rolls to the rim; (c) staying aggressive, particularly when Garnett takes a blow, by attacking the rim, something he's done increasingly over the past six weeks. If he can work his way to the line for 8 to 10 attempts, he's done well.
Christopher, would a Shaq return be a good thing or a not-so-good thing, considering the C's recent restoration? CF: Here's how I look at it with Shaq: No tremendous harm can come from him playing (well, except if you're Shaq and you completely tear your Achilles; then it's surgery and that's no fun). But at this point, O'Neal is a backup big man who could give you maybe 12 minutes max. His potential for instant (and easy) offense would be a godsend for a second unit that won't stop looking towards the bench when shots don't fall. And even if he somehow proved to be more of a defensive liability than before the injuries, it's still Jermaine O'Neal and Glen Davis shouldering that center load (with cameos from Nenad Krstic, who I'll remind you earned a Player of the Week nomination for how good he was when he first arrived, but has seen his confidence dinged by a pair of knee bruises and limited court time). If Shaq hobbled onto the floor and did nothing more than put LeBron or Wade on his behind a couple times, that'd be more than many are expecting at this point. And it might not come until the latter part of the series, but I do think we'll see Shaq at least try to get on the floor, particularly if Boston's season suddenly look in peril at any point.
Arnie, let's assume the seven Eastern Conference All-Stars in this series cancel each other out. Tell me how Miami wins this series with what they've got left. Glen Davis said earlier this week that Boston is "way deeper" and no one seemed to get too ruffled by the suggestion. Is he right? Or is it a non-factor in a playoff series that will be dominated by starters?KA: I'll take the last question first, Alex. Just as in baseball, when a postseason series often renders depth of starting rotation less relevant, the NBA playoffs do much the same, particularly for the Heat whose starters are in their prime and will likely play 40-plus minutes per game. That said, they'll need a little help each game. Maybe it's a Zydrunas Ilgauskas tip-in-fest. Or a couple of timely 3-pointers by Mike Bibby or James Jones on weakside reversals.
But the most plausible scenario for a Heat series win resides on the defensive end of the floor. I love the meticulous precision the Celtics deploy in their half court offense, but the fact remains they finished in the bottom half of the league in offensive efficiency. In the final two meetings of the season, the Heat held the Celtics to 91 points per 100 possessions. As a frame of reference, the top rated defenses in the league (Bulls and Celtics) held opponents to 97 and change per 100 possessions.
So the blueprint for the Heat is this: You don't have to score every trip downcourt, because the Celtics won't either. Continue to lock down the C's on their rotating pick-and-rolls, something the Heat accomplished with relative ease in their two most recent meetings. On the offensive end, build on those spurts from Regular Season Game 4, when the pick-and-roll-and-reverse worked wonders against the Celtics' pressure defense.
So, CF, I will turn the tables: Given those ugly offensive numbers for the C's against the Heat's quick, persistent defense that snuffed out option after option, where are the Celtics going to find points in the half court?CF: You mean, it's not going to be as easy for Boston to put up triple digits against Miami as it was versus New York? Listen, that has to be the most troubling aspect for Rivers entering the series. In the final week of the regular season, both Chicago and Miami found ways to completely fluster Boston in its halfcourt set and it led to some lopsided losses against the two teams the Celtics are likely to have to navigate if they want to get back to the NBA Finals.
What can Boston do to prevent getting frustrated offensively, where the ball stops moving and they settle for low-percentage, low-clock jumpers? Getting Garnett to be selfish with the ball on the post would aid that cause. Not allowing the ball to stick and keeping it moving to create cracks in the Miami defense would help. Trying to stick even in the free throw battle -- unlikely as it is for these charity stripe-shunning C's -- might help, too.
Alas, it all goes back to the other end of the floor. If Boston can play its own gritty brand of defense, force Miami into misses, then run run run the other way, it will limit the number of times the Heat can blow up its halfcourt sets.
All right, let's wind this thing down. Final question, 'Vitzy, who's winning this thing and why.KA: I have the Heat in seven, a nod to the home-court advantage in a nail-biter of a series between two evenly matched squads. The talking point about the Heat's offensive progress, grown, jello, etc, sounds like a lot of spin, but the team has truly refined its offense over the past couple of months. The upward trajectory has been impressive. If this series were played in January, Celts in six. But I believe the Heat have found a few solutions to longstanding problems, and I'll bank on those.
Now for your Tour de Fors. Who ya got?CF: Celtics in six. Heat Index readers are scoffing and calling me a homer. But here's the thing: Miami has the future as a safety net; Boston isn't so sure. There's no saying this is the last roundup of the Big Three era, but there's no guarantee it isn't either. Let's face it, Father Time catches up with everyone. It'll catch up with James, Wade, and Bosh someday. That someday is just a little closer for Pierce, Garnett, and Allen.
But let's focus on the here and now. Home-court advantage is going to bite the Heat and Boston will look back and laugh at how fortuitous that late-season loss was. Boston steals Game 2 in Miami and the Heat are forced to endure three offdays of scrutiny. Boston takes three of the next four after that because they can't allow this series to get to Game 7; they learned that lesson last June.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Kevin Arnovitz covers the Heat for ESPN.com's Heat Index.