The much-hyped Miami Heat come into tonight's rematch with the Boston Celtics at 5-3, and are coming off a tough loss to the Utah Jazz. Up 22 at one point, the Heat crumbled in the fourth quarter (although let's be honest, a team doesn't go on a shooting binge like that often), and many are now questioning their toughness.
After ripping off several wins against inferior opponents and dominating the Magic, the Heat have lost two of their last three. A convincing win over the Celtics would do a lot for the confidence of this Heat team, and silence some of the doubters and scrutiny.
The Celtics are coming off of a road loss to the Mavericks, but before that had looked relatively invulnerable. Despite injuries to the O'Neals, and the continued suspension of Delonte West, the Celtic juggernaut has continued to roll over and stifle opponents.
Rondo is having an unbelievable season and is, in my opinion, the best player on the Celtic team right now. Garnett has looked healthy and it has shown in his defensive game. The Celtics would love nothing more to beat the Heat again, and grow their psychological edge over their new rivals.
Let's take a look at five things to look for tonight and how they will impact the game.
The Miami Heat want to push the pace while the Celtics would prefer to grind it out. The Celtics are deadly on the secondary break, Rondo finds shooters filling lanes in transition, but aren't necessarily looking to take the ball out of the bucket and rush down the court.
The Heat have two of the best transition players in the game in Wade and LeBron, and want nothing more than to push the pace. This allows them to avoid the Celtics lock down half court defense and masks their lack of chemistry and movement in half court sets.
The Celtics Win If....
If they are able to limit the Heat's transition game and Rondo is able to selectively push the ball, the Celtics have the advantage. They would like to, and are incredibly good at, imposing their tempo on opponents.
The Heat Win If....
They must try and get out in transition, either by rebounding well on the defensive glass or forcing steals. If they can put LeBron and Wade in motion, they can keep the Celtics from getting set. Additionally, a couple of emphatic transition dunks will really get the crowd going, and boost the Heat's play.
Much of the blame for the Heat's less than mind-blowing start has been laid at the feet of Chris Bosh. While a drop in scoring was to be expected as Bosh would no longer be "the guy," I don't think anyone predicted such low-output from the All-Star. Most surprising are Bosh's rebounding numbers. He is averaging just under six rebounds a game, fewer than Dwayne Wade.
In the first game against the Celtics, Bosh went 4-16 and only collected four boards. Tonight, the Celtics will once again try and limit his production to shut down this Heat offense.
(Does anyone think that Bosh might be a modern-day Sampson? He ditched the dreads and suddenly he's not nearly as good? Bring back the hair!)
The Celtics Win If...
If Bosh has a repeat of his abysmal performance in Boston, the Celtics should be able to do enough to contain the other two big names and get a victory. Bosh has rarely played in games of this magnitude and the Celtics will do everything they can do intimidate him.
The Heat Win If...
Bosh doesn't need to score 40, or even 20, but he does need to be efficient with his scoring and collect both defensive and offensive rebounds. If he becomes a force on the glass, and on defense tonight, the Heat will win.
Bosh has not played in the pressure-filled games like the rest of the superstars on display tonight. He must learn to rise to the occasion.
For both of these teams, all of the focus is on the Big Three (and in Boston's case, the Big Three plus One). But, to really be a dominant NBA team, and to win close games, role players have got to hit big shots. You expect the big players to show up, but if either bench doesn't show up, then the opponent will win.
Boston Wins If...
Glen "Big Baby" Davis (or "The Ticket Stub" or "Uno Uno") is a key for the Celtics tonight. If he can come off of the bench for Shaq (who is playing tonight), and contribute positive minutes the Celtics are tough to beat. He always seems to hit the big mid range shot, and does a nice job on the glass.
Nate Robinson is a streaky shooter and brings a lot of energy to the floor. Though not nearly as efficient as Rondo, he does a nice job with the offense. And, Marquis Daniels is a solid wing defender. If all three contribute productive minutes, the Celtics should win.
Miami Wins if...
Miami needs James Jones, Eddie House, Carlos Arroyo, Udonis Haslem, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to step up and keep defenses honest.
Jones has demonstrated that he is capable of hitting shots, knocking down open shots. Tonight, the Heat should lean on Ilgauskas who can do a nice job of hitting shots and keeping the lane open. He forces the Celtics to rotate to one more player.
Also, Spoelstra should play Mario Chalmers. He has a better shooting percentage than Arroyo and is a better defender.
In their losses, the Heat are giving up a ton of interior buckets. Millsap's 46 points didn't all come on three-pointers. He torched the Heat down low just like Brook Lopez, Kevin Love, and Emeka Okafor have all done.
At the other end of the court, the Heat must get into the paint and not settle for jumpshots. The Celtics will let Wade and LeBron fire from deep all day if they can keep either player from getting into the lane.
The Celtics Win If...
The Celtics would love to get Shaq involved early. He was effective in the first meeting and will look to establish himself early, despite the nagging knee injury. The Heat are giving up the fewest points in the league, but Rondo will look to penetrate and give guys easy buckets. If he can get into the lane uncontested, Miami will be forced to rotate and leave guys open. If that happens, Boston wins.
The Heat Win If...
Thankfully for the heat, the Celtics don't have a dominant interior player. Garnett loves the jumpshot (which he hits) and none of the other players are effective enough in the post to back guys down and score. But, they will have close passing lanes and cut off penetration.
On offense, Wade and LeBron must get into the lane, draw defenders and kick the ball to teammates. If they can do this, they may be able to catch the Celtics in rotation for some easy looks at the basket.
Maybe this is crazy, but in my mind Rondo is an early season candidate for MVP. He is averaging only 11.1 PPG, but is also averaging 14.8 APG, 3.1 SPG, and 5.5 RPG. Simply put, Rondo stuffs the stat sheet night in and night out. In his first matchup against the Heat this season, Rondo only scored four points, but dropped 17 dimes.
Boston Wins If...
If Rondo equals his season averages, the Celtics win. His ability to find teammates for open shots is his greater asset, and he is lucky enough to play with three future Hall of Famers. Plain and simple, he is the engine that drives this team. If he can get on track and find players the Celtics win.
The Heat Win If...
They have to shut down Rondo. He carved them up last time they played and they must contain him. Were I a coach, I would let Rondo score, rather than find open players. He's not a great shooter so most teams play off of him. This allows him to see the floor and find his teammates.
Spoelstra should let Carlos Arroyo or Mario Chalmers get in Rondo's face. While he likely go by them? Yes. But by not playing off him by 10 feet, Rondo can survey the defense. Forcing him to play at a faster tempo will increase his propensity for mistakes. Also, the the interior defensive guys shouldn't come over to help as quickly. Rondo just dumps the ball behind the defense to his teammate for an easy bucket. Make Rondo hit floaters and acrobatic layups.
Prediction: Low scoring affair, but the home court advantage helps. A Heat team trying to find an identity plays well tonight. Heat win.