Right now, the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics are in a dead heat for the No. 1 seed in the conference. The Heat currently have a 28-9 record, while the Celtics are sitting atop the conference standings with a mark of 27-7.
But regardless of which team, if either, winds up with the top seed one question about the Heat will remain: Can they beat Boston? Not just in a game, but in a seven-game series?
I will offer an argument in favor of the Heat against the Celtics, then follow up with a caveat that could give the Celtics the advantage. I will then end the analysis by offering my opinion of whether the Heat, as currently constructed, can defeat the Celtics.
The Miami Heat's 2010-2011 season got off to a rocky start when they were blitzed early by a fired up performance from the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics' big guns shut down both Dwyane Wade (playing in his first full game with the team this season) and Chris Bosh holding them to a combined 7-27 in the first game and 8-22 in the second, got huge games out of Ray Allen who hit a total of 11 threes in the games. The Celtics defense essentially let LeBron James get his (James scored over 30 points in both) but limited everyone else.
The Celtics were energized, confident, and clearly ready for both meeting jumping out to big early leads in both games and never really looking back. The Heat, on the other hand, were struggling to play well but their lack of familiarity with one another placed them in an unenviable position of trying to beat the team with the best chemistry in the league.
Celtics fans will claim that the Celtics' 2-0 record versus the Heat is more than enough evidence to claim superiority of Boston. Plus, the Heat's inability to handle Rajon Rondo (who carved up Miami's interior defense to the tune of 19 assists per game) with their admittedly non-elite point guards could spell trouble in a seven-game series.
When I say that this is a different Heat team, I'm not only referring to the team's play and the way that their chemistry has improved since they last played the Celtics, but also their personnel, which puts them in a better position to challenge Boston now than they were before.
Let me offer a few examples:
- In the first two meetings with Boston, the starting center was Joel Anthony. Now, I personally like what Anthony has meant to this team on the defensive end, but as a starter he just didn't work out. The Celtics defense was not worried about him or Carlos Arroyo on offense and were able to trap a double onto Wade and Bosh with much success.
However, with Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the starting lineup, the Heat have a big body on the floor that the Celtics must respect offensively. His jumpshot will spread the floor and create driving lanes for Wade and LeBron.
You doubt it? In both games when the Heat battled back and made their big runs, it was with Big Z on the court. The Heat outscored the Celtics by 17 in the first game with Z on the court and were outscored by one with Anthony on the court.
- A healthy Mario Chalmers is another difference. Is Chalmers as good as Rondo? Of course not. But before he was able to play heavy minutes again, it was Eddie House guarding Rondo in each of the first two meetings. Not surprisingly, the matchup didn't quite work out for the Heat as Rondo went wild. Chalmers is a better defender and playmaker than House and will make Rondo actually have to guard someone in the game.
- Wade and LeBron are playing well together, unlike the first two meetings.
- Speaking of which, Wade did not play well at all in November, as he was still trying to recover from his preseason hamstring injury. Since December, he has been a completely different player, one that Boston's defense may have a few more troubles with in future meetings.
How much of the Heat's struggles against the Celtics signified the dominance of the Celtics and how much was caused by the Heat's poor play? Granted, the Celtics' defense certainly had a hand in the Heat's struggles, but the Heat didn't help their cause by not moving the ball, blowing defensive assignments, getting nothing from Wade or Bosh, and running their transition to put pressure on the Celtics' defense.
Even the staunchest Celtics supporter has to acknowledge that the Heat are playing much better now than during these first two meetings.
The Celtics came into the season with one idea in mind: to secure the league's best record and guarantee that a Game 7 of the finals would be in Boston.
To that end, they have played exceptionally well in "statement" games, beating the Bulls and Heat in both regular season meetings so far and beating the Spurs recently without Kevin Garnett. The team has played exceptionally well throughout the regular season and seem intent on holding off the Miami Heat for the top seed in the East.
They are currently first in the league in points allowed and third in opponents field goal percentage. They are intent on playing the entire season and playoffs just like they began it, despite their age and susceptibility to burning out by the time the playoffs begin. Obviously, if they continue on their current pace, they will be in a great position to win their second title in four years.
How long can the league's oldest team continue to play at this level before some semblance of fatigue sets in?
If you were to ask the Celtics fans, they would probably say, "Indefinitely, because of their great depth." But, I wonder whether this team will start to grow a bit weary with the regular season grind and decide that being fresh for the playoffs is more important than winning every game in the postseason.
Take a look at the 2006 Pistons, for example. The Pistons, like the Celtics, had won a title versus the Lakers and then returned to the finals the following year and lost in seven. That season, they started the year on a mission. They wanted to secure home-court advantage and get back to the finals. Their plan began well as they started the season 42-9 and looked like the clear favorite to win.
However, as the regular season wore on, there were obvious signs that the Pistons didn't quite have the energy anymore. Their defense was beginning to slip, they were plagued with a few injuries and they appeared to be fairly gassed as the season drew to a close despite their 64-18 record (best in franchise history). In the playoffs, they looked good, but underwhelming and eventually lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in six games to the Heat.
A team as old as Boston must pace itself throughout the regular season or they risk losing their freshness in the postseason. Miami's youth gives them a decided advantage in handling the rigors of the regular season, but still being able to rejuvenate quickly for the playoffs.
The Celtics' most discussed advantage over the Miami Heat is clearly at the center position, where they have a collection of big bodies they can throw at the porous Miami Heat interior defense. They have Shaq, Big Baby, and Jermaine O'Neal, and when Kendrick Perkins returns they will have several front-court players who can give the Heat's defense in the paint a workout.
The Heat have bigs (Z, Dampier, Howard) but no one who would be considered a legitimate post-scoring threat, which means that points in the paint could be at a minimum against Boston. This would spell trouble for Miami in a playoff series against the Celtics when the game slows down and the Heat are not making their perimeter shots. Where will Miami's easy offense come from?
Take a look at some of the games that the Celtics have either lost or struggled in.
Do you see a pattern between the loss to the Orlando Magic, the loss to the Thunder and the near losses to the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks?
I do, and it's something that the Heat have in order to counter the Celtics' size: it's called athleticism.
In each of these games, teams pushed the pace of their offense, climbed on the offensive and defensive boards for second shot opportunities and made the Celtics bigs move their feet against dribble-penetration.
These are all things that the Heat can exploit against Boston as they are arguably a quicker and more agile team. The Celtics don't want to run with Miami because they know that no team can handle Wade and LeBron in transition, so they want to keep it half-court and grind the game to a halt on every play.
Currently, despite the size advantage for Boston, they are only 28th in the league in rebounding, while Miami is 6th, so crashing the boards must be a high agenda item for Miami against the Celtics. The Heat also must make the Celtics move side-to-side with their passing. Shaq and Perkins do not move their feet so well on defense, which is why they are both often in foul trouble. If the Heat use their quickness to create offense, they can certainly give the Celtics problems.
There is a perception that the Celtics' experience will ultimately be the deciding factor for securing a playoff series win against the Miami Heat. Some believe the fact that they have played in five series that went the entire seven games over the past three years gives them a decided advantage in the experience department.
Experience with one's team in tough playoff series is often an asset for teams seeking to advance, but it doesn't necessarily guarantee a win. The San Antonio Spurs of 1999 were a completely reshaped lineup that won a title its first year together, as did the Boston Celtics in 2008. If they didn't need two or three years to get to know one another before they won, why would Miami?
Nevertheless, the Celtics do have a roster full of players who have "been through the wars," and know how to win in difficult playoff games when the pressure is on. Miami has played exceptionally well on the road thus far, given their less than hospitable reception from the road fans, yet playing a road game in Boston in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals is a different animal altogether. Right now, the Celtics' collective playoff experience would give them the advantage.
Remember when the Heat began the season 9-8 and the experts were already calling them "the most overrated and disappointing team of all time?"
Remember when the experts said LeBron James would choke when playing against the Cleveland Cavaliers and not bring a solid effort?
Remember when the experts said that the Lakers would show the Heat a thing or two on Christmas Day by exposing their flaws and proving that the Heat are not elite?
Remember when Chris Bosh was accused of not being a strong enough compliment to James and Wade and the call was for him to be traded?
These were all assumptions made by the Heat's critics, theories that Miami successfully closed the book on. This team has thrived under the pressure and the scrutiny of others, and have really bought into the "us against the world mentality" fueling their play, especially on the road.
Miami knows that the Celtics are their greatest threat in their chase for an NBA title, not just because I said so myself before the season began, but because their matchup with Boston is tougher than any other team in the NBA.
Nevertheless, if the Heat approach a series against the Celtics playing with the same desire to quiet their individual critics, why can't they beat the Celtics in a series? Especially considering the fact that Wade and LeBron play under pressure as well as any two players in the NBA.
Right now, despite the spirited play by Miami and their extraordinary 19-1 record since their 9-8 start, the Boston Celtics would and should be favored in a seven-game series between the two teams.
The Miami Heat are still working out some kinks in their defense ( as shown in the perhaps closer than it should have been outings against the Warriors and Rockets) and I don't quite think that the Heat have completely closed the gap between themselves and the Celtics to garner enough of a mental advantage to win.
But I will say that the gap is closing quickly, and if given another three months to develop chemistry (plus, the prospect that Pat Riley might make another move by the trade deadline) I see the Miami Heat being in the position to win a series against arguably their biggest threat in the league.