The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics enter the Eastern Conference Finals as highly dissimilar victors. Both finished competitive semifinal series against opponents that were noble in defeat, but one dispatched its opponent demonstratively, while the other merely withered less in a war of attrition.
Based solely on their playoff performances to date, it's obvious to see the Heat as the Eastern Conference favorites, and unfortunately for the Celtics, things only get gloomier, as we consider the fuller profiles and state of each team and roster.
The Heat may be (temporarily) without Chris Bosh, but Boston's injuries run deeper and—without formally ruling out any players from game action—serve to be even more crippling. Even a fully healthy Celtics team would have its hands full with all the pressure that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Miami's defense can put on their playoff opponents, but the lingering aches of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen—coupled with the unfortunate absence of Avery Bradley—would seem to wipe out the most realistic possibility of Boston moving beyond the Eastern Conference Finals.
But where there's life, there's hope, I suppose. The Celtics begin this series with a sprained, torn and bone-spurred blank slate, but a blank slate nonetheless. And so even if as a mere formality, it's worth considering what avenues might grant Boston the necessary ground to develop some momentum in a series it otherwise appears doomed to lose.
Rondo, Rondo, Rondo
The Heat do a tremendous job of pressuring opposing ball-handlers from opening tip to final buzzer, and Rondo will definitely see the fullest extent of Miami's defensive commitment. He'll encounter strong hedges bordering on traps on every pick and roll he runs, as the Heat will look to get the ball out of the hands of Boston's most essential creator and hope to bog down their opponent with their seamless defensive recovery.
It's a strategy that, considering Allen's step-slow route-running and Pierce's limited isolation capacity, could prove quite successful. That said, Rondo is one of the few players in the league who's both a good enough passer to exploit Miami's ball pressure and fast enough to flat-out beat the trap off the dribble. That combination holds pretty lethal potential, as the Heat's off-ball gambles won't come without possible punishment, should Rondo attack in the right ways.
It's up to Rondo to break down that initial trap on every encounter, and there aren't all that many players more capable of making the right play—or making the spectacular read—in that situation than Boston's primary.
Maintaining Fouling Camouflage
The numbers say that the Celtics are tops in the postseason at defending without fouling, but that notion may be more accurately rephrased in saying that the Celtics are tops in the postseason at defending without being called for fouls. The Celtics play incredible D regardless, but they're a physical team that takes every inch that the officiating crew will allow and does a spectacular job of pushing, holding and nudging opponents in a way that makes it superficially appear to merely be a part of their highly fundamental approach.
That fouling "camouflage" is going to be an absolute necessity against the Miami Heat, an elite team in free-throw rate by any regular-season or postseason measure. James and Wade, in particular, are such challenging covers that opponents end up doling out a handful of fouls to each out of necessity, and when both stars are effectively working off of one another, they only draw fouls at a more astounding rate.
Defending James and Wade with their available means looks fairly impossible for the Celtics, considering the limited resources at Boston's disposal. But, considering just how miraculously the C's defend without being called for fouls on a regular basis, they stand a better chance than any other club of locking up the Heat and keeping James and Wade off the free-throw line.
Challenging Udonis Haslem
So long as Bosh remains sidelined, Udonis Haslem will be crucial as a weak-side/top-of-the-floor spot-up option. Boston's strong-side coverage doesn't come merely "as second nature"—it's more crucial to its play and identity than any of its other basketball contributions. It's what earned the Celtics a title, brought them back to the Finals and, in spite of injury, has pushed them all the way back within a round of another title shot.
When James and/or Wade drive headfirst into Boston's overloaded front, Haslem has to be ready—and able—to convert shots, finish around the rim or reroute possessions. We've seen Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers all manage to convert their opportunities in spots, and Haslem has been no different; his back-to-back double-digit outings in Games 4 and 5 proved crucial to Miami's cause in the second round.
But the Heat haven't faced a defense as constricting as what they'll see in this series and likely won't again, even if they move on to the NBA Finals. Boston may be highly incapable of scoring consistently, but this is a team that knows the ins and outs of its defensive system and will force Haslem to convert his looks in Bosh's stead.
Finding a Home for Brandon Bass
Whether on the block, in the high post or as a pick-and-roller, the Celtics must figure out how to establish Brandon Bass as a consistent scorer in this series. Kevin Garnett has had a tremendous playoff run to date, but even his finer performances are built on borrowed time. KG's defense may be as tenacious as ever, but one can already see his steady play starting to wind down a bit.
Bass—in light of that reality with Garnett, the injuries to Pierce and Allen and Rondo's on-ball pressure/occasional flightiness—is just about the only remaining Celtic capable of compensating. He can score in many of the same ways that Garnett can, and although he lacks KG's ability to act as an offensive facilitator and creator, that shouldn't prevent him from backing opponents down to the block or rolling into open jumpers.
Bass, in many ways, is the counterpoint to Haslem; when Miami's defense ramps up, Bass' accuracy and commitment to getting good looks will be put to the test, and if Boston is to have any hope in this series, he'll need to deliver.