Game 6: Can Miami Heat survive?
5-on-5: Five questions heading into Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals
Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) is a must-win for both teams. Can the Celtics close out the Heat at home? Or will Miami force a Game 7 and take back control of the series? Our experts play 5-on-5.
1. What best explains Miami's current predicament?
Chris Forsberg, ESPN Boston: Kevin Garnett (and the rest of Boston's playoff-best defense). Miami's offense has been prone to long droughts and the Heat are not generating as much transition offense as they need to win these games. They haven't helped their cause with turnovers, both committing too many and not forcing often-sloppy Boston into more live-ball giveaways.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: Dennis Green might say the Heat are not who we thought they were. They were branded as a defense-first team that surrounded the Big Three with capable shooters. But they aren't a Big Three anymore with Chris Bosh's limiting injury, they've laid down on defense against the Celtics and the shooters can't hit a 3-pointer. If the Heat can't get healthy, Pat Riley's vision is looking like a mirage.
Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: Defense. Both the Celtics' and the Heat's. Boston, even in its banged-up state, without the on-ball defender (Avery Bradley) that keyed this team late in the regular season, has routinely put Dwyane Wade on ice for the first half and, in general, made things tough for Miami's offense. The Heat, however, have allowed the C's creaky offense to heal itself.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Health. While it's certainly no excuse, considering how neither the Bulls nor Magic had their primary superstar available for the bulk of their respective playoff runs, Chris Bosh's ab strain has certainly impacted the Heat's ability to reach their potential in these playoffs. Miami was able to overcome that absence in the previous series against the Pacers. But the Celtics are a different animal.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: An unmitigated disaster at the big man positions, plus incredible will shown from Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett.
2. Fact or Fiction: The Celtics are the better team.
Forsberg: Fact. You can make the case that Boston doesn't have as much individual talent -- at least not at this stage of the Big Three's career -- but the Celtics play better as a unit than Miami. What's crazy is that this Boston team might have the least amount of depth -- in terms of pure talent -- of the past five seasons, but the reserves understand and execute their roles about as well as anyone since the 2008 title squad.
Haberstroh: Fiction. I still think the Heat are the better team, but in the playoffs, when matchups are king, that doesn't mean much. Do the Celtics play more like a team than a couple of superstars trying to do it all? Yes. Is Boston's whole greater than the sum of its parts? Yes. Are they the better team top-to-bottom? No, but in a seven-game series, they just need to be the better team on four nights.
Verrier: Fact, as of right now. They're the team up 3-2, right? That certainly comes with an asterisk, since Chris Bosh has spent four-fifths of this series flaunting decorative handkerchiefs instead of his jump shot. But Boston has been machine-like these past three games, while the Heat have clung desperately to the capes of their two standout individuals.
Wallace: Fiction. Finish the job tonight and Boston will leave no doubt that this answer should be "fact." But until then, it's premature. How many of us were saying the Spurs were the better team two games into the Western Conference finals?
Windhorst: Fact. They've been the better team for the past four games. Even with four players out for the season, the Celtics have proved to be deeper in this series. Even with two All-NBA players, the Heat's stars have been less impressive than the Celtics'. And the coaching has been one-sided.
3. Fact or Fiction: If the Heat lose, drastic changes are needed.
Forsberg: Fiction. Winning NBA titles is hard (just ask Boston). This Miami team is battling insane expectations, some of which are self-inflicted. Two trips to the conference finals in two seasons is little to sneeze at. Alas, in this era of overreaction, a drastic change will probably be made because of failed (and impatient) expectations.
Haberstroh: Fiction. Chris Bosh's injury gave them a scapegoat in case it all ends tonight. If the Big Three were healthy and they still lost to a Celtics team without their best perimeter defender, then maybe Riley's finger should be on the detonation button. But unless you think exercising your amnesty rights on Mike Miller is a drastic change, I don't see them blowing it up.
Verrier: Fiction. The Bosh injury buys Miami another year. If an at-full-strength Heat team had stalled before a return trip to the Finals, then, sure, see what you can do. But it's hard to put too many heads on pikes when a three-man team is reduced to a two-man sideshow. In the meantime, how about signing a competent reserve under 30? Maybe one over 6-foot-9?
Wallace: Fiction. Pat Riley and Micky Arison spent the better part of three seasons executing a plan to bring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh together. I just can't see them breaking it apart after what will amount to less than two full seasons. Changes are needed in the supporting cast. That group has largely failed the team. But the core should be kept intact for at least one more crack at this.
Windhorst: Fiction. Depends on what you define as drastic, I guess. Their big man situation is a disaster and has been ignored for too long. They must do something about that.
4. Fact or Fiction: The Thunder should be rooting for Boston.
Forsberg: Fact. The Thunder handled Boston twice this season, including a season-defining loss for the Celtics in Oklahoma City right before the All-Star break (that's when Doc Rivers made the switch to KG at center and told his team no more excuses sitting two games under .500 at the break). Plus, Kendrick Perkins might just have a little motivation for a Boston matchup.
Haberstroh: Fact. Every day that goes by is another step toward Chris Bosh's full recovery. The Heat haven't looked like a championship-caliber team, but it's hard to look like that when a seven-time All-Star is sitting on the sidelines. And then there's this: The aging Celtics will run out of fuel at some point, right?
Verrier: Fact. Boston's fearsome defense is certainly nothing to scoff at. But a healthy Heat Big Three is Smoke Monster-level scary. Even with all of Miami's current maladies, you never want to face the game's best player.
Wallace: Fiction. Thankfully, elite teams don't think like average fans and look for shortcuts or the potentially easier path. The Thunder just completed one of the most impressive series reversals in playoff history. Kevin Durant and Co. are riding high right now, as well they should. I'm sure they're confident they can handle either the Celtics or Heat.
Windhorst: Fiction. They have played well against the Heat over the past two years and have more depth than the Heat. Frankly, though, I think they feel the same with either team.
5. Who wins Game 6?
Forsberg: Boston. Yes, the Celtics have been atrocious in first-try closeout games, but they've thrived in closeout attempts at TD Garden. Playing in "The Jungle" (or "the [expletive] jungle," as KG prefers), the Celtics should have an edge. That said, this team also loves making things as difficult as possible on itself. In a way, it would better fit the season blueprint if the Heat win Game 6 and Boston grinds out Game 7 in Miami.
Haberstroh: Celtics. The Heat have lost 15 of their past 16 in Boston and the Celtics have won 13 of their past 14 in TD Garden. They protect that house. But between the Thunder-Spurs series and what's happening here in the East, I'm just about done trying to predict the future.
Verrier: The Heat I mean, I guess? You'd expect that Miami, a team expected to cruise to the NBA championship bout after the Bulls' demise, would at least be able to force a seventh game, especially with Bosh back (and, I'd assume, rarin' for more minutes) and after losing the previous two games by four points or fewer. Then again, after surging from down 2-1 last series, you wonder how much fatigue is catching up to them. Their fate likely rests on Bosh's aching abdominals.
Wallace: Heat. I know Miami has lost 15 of 16 in Boston. But I picked this thing to either be a sweep or go the full seven -- with no in between -- and I'm going to stick with at least the back half of that prediction.
Windhorst: Celtics. But what do I know, I picked the Heat to win this series.