The Miami Heat did not sweep Carmelo Anthony's New York Knicks out of the first round, but the LeBron James-led squad remains a strong bet to head to the NBA Finals for the second straight postseason.
Between Derrick Rose's torn ACL and Joakim Noah's severely sprained ankle, the Chicago Bulls, the team that was supposed to be Miami's main threat coming out of the Eastern Conference, is against the ropes down 3-1 in the first round to the Philadelphia 76ers.
With Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller both healthy, unlike last season, and the arrival of Shane Battier, head coach Erik Spoelstra has been able to utilize unorthodox lineups that create mismatches for the opposition.
Unlike the team we saw at the end of the regular season, this version of the Miami Heat has flipped the switch and come to play with a very clear goal in mind: winning it all.
However, the path isn't totally clear for the team to waltz into the championship round without a challenge.
Miami has to win all of the games it should, and that's not a slam-dunk assumption we can take to the bank. Remember, this is a Heat team that went just 18-15 on the road during the regular season.
There is one team that could really present itself as a challenge, and that's the Boston Celtics.
In what is likely their last season as the "Big Three," Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett will leave it all out on the floor in the pursuit of a championship.
But that's not what Miami should be most concerned about.
Rajon Rondo has been viewed in a lot of different ways heretofore throughout his career, but there is no questioning how prolific he's been during the postseason.
More importantly, Rondo has established himself as a real troublesome player for Miami.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports paints the picture brilliantly.
Boston’s still the looming issue for Miami because Rondo and Paul Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen have a run left with them. Boston’s still looming because that failed, final sequence in the Heat’s Game 4 loss to the Knicks on Sunday is a reminder of how efficiently this Celtics coach and these Celtics stars run plays in the telltale moments of games.
LeBron James is the best player in these Eastern Conference playoffs, but Rondo controls a basketball game like no one but else but James. All these threats to the Heat in the East have crumbled, but Rondo remains. And, rest assured, he’ll dare the Heat to take him out again.
In the second game of the regular season, Rondo logged 22 points, eight rebounds and 12 assists in a losing effort.
The two teams didn't play between December and April, but Rondo wasn't prepared to put a losing effort behind him. His 16 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists led the Celtics to an emphatic win at the TD Garden in Boston.
The third game was more Rondo toying with Miami's typically staunch defense. With 18 points and 15 assists in another win, Rondo was able to penetrate into the heart of the defense and force the Heat to collapse the paint.
In doing so, Rondo opens things up on the perimeter for his teammates to hit open jumpers from 16-to-23 feet from a variety of locations.
For Boston to have a chance against Miami this time around, the open shots will have to continue to fall, Kevin Garnett will need to continue to play a huge role and Paul Pierce must play like a superstar.
A lot has to go right for the Celtics to have a realistic chance of reaching the final round.
But we can all bet that Rondo will be just fine, and he's salivating at the chance to go up against Miami.
He's the one player who can constantly give the Heat those white-hot headaches.
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