Since the All-Star break, this has been a story of two different teams. After a poor start to the season, the Celtics’ defense has catapulted them to a 17-7 record, making them one of the NBA’s best post-All-Star break.
On the other hand, Miami has looked tired, lethargic and even unengaged at times, so it’s hardly surprising that after its strong start and historic month of February, the team has only managed a 13-8 record.
The Celtics are rolling. Sometimes, it looks as if the Heat are folding.
And that’s why this game is so important to both teams. Sure, they will claim that this is just another game. But we should not believe that for a second.
And after their embarrassing 4-1 loss to Miami in last year’s postseason, we better believe that the Celtics are using this game as a measuring stick. The Celtics hear what we all say: that they’re too old, that their lack of an enforcer in the paint gives penetrators free license to wreak havoc, that their team isn't good enough to beat the Chicago Bulls or the Heat in a seven-game series.
But when we’re talking about two teams as accomplished as Miami and Boston, the desire to win is not sufficient to declare victory.
Who will win tonight's game?
The biggest reason Miami has looked mortal since the All-Star break is that its defense has been subpar. So for Miami, winning will demand that it gets back to its so-called identity.
It means disrupting Rajon Rondo’s play-making. It means getting stops and running the fast break. Winning means that Chris Bosh will need to secure rebounds. It means keeping Rondo and Avery Bradley out of the paint. It means that Wade will have to run Ray Allen off screens with unyielding effort.
Again, winning will require not just desire; it will also take an absolute commitment to humiliating the opposition.
For Boston to continue its recent reign of terror, it’ll need sharp offensive execution, because good defense isn't enough against another good defensive team like the Heat. Rondo will need to be Rondo, which means relentlessly attacking the paint to set up his teammates.
Ray Allen will need to knock down some 3-pointers so that Rondo will have space to operate. Kevin Garnett will need to be Mr. 20-and-10. Paul Pierce will need to play as if he, not LeBron, is the MVP candidate. In short, victory for the Celtics is unattainable unless their best four players play like they’re the best on the court.
To be clear, we learned last season that regular season results do not mean everything.
Boston, after all, beat the Heat 3-1 in last year’s regular season series. They then fell easily in the playoffs. Before losing 4-1 to the Heat in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls swept the Heat in the regular season, 3-0. When it’s win-or-go-home time, regular season victories offer little comfort.
So no, the results of this game will not predict the future any more than they did last season. But make no mistake, both teams want this game badly—not because this game will serve as a crystal ball, but because they want to send the NBA a clear message.
We'll see whose will prevails tonight.