It feels odd to look at the calendar, see it still reads "February" and argue that any game played at this time of year in the NBA season is particularly significant. After all, teams do not begin their final push for the playoffs until March and April is when the games begin to truly count.
However, this is different.
Despite all of the success the Miami Heat have had since its team meeting following a lost to the Mavericks, (going 30-6 in their last 36 contests which is the second best mark in the NBA over that span) one question continues to overshadow their sparkling play of late: "Yeah, but they haven't beaten the Celtics yet."
This is a fair assessment, especially since the Celtics are clearly the Heat's biggest threat in the East and their biggest roadblock on their path to the NBA Finals.
A lot has changed about these two teams since their last meeting on November 11 at Miami.
In that game, coach Erik Spoelstra was still going with the starting lineup of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joel Anthony and Carlos Arroyo. This is a starting lineup that found itself in a 61-46 deficit to the Celtics at the half.
Although it would take Spo a few games to make a change, starting Anthony was one of the biggest mistakes he made in both meetings against the Celtics. You never want to make a great defensive team greater. But that's what he did by starting a center that is not a major offensive threat. This allowed the Celtics to pay closer attention to the big three without concern that the other starters would beat them.
It was an effective strategy as Arroyo and Anthony combined for four points on 2-4 shooting.
Wade struggled mightily in the game (going 2-12 for 8 points) and the Heat trailed for the entirety of the contest. The final score of 112-107 is not indicative of how in control of the game Boston was, as the Heat looked like a group of players that were playing a pickup game together for the first time.
There will be a few things different about the game Sunday that could translate to a reversal of the Heat's fortunes:
Z and Mario Chalmers are the starters now and they can make shots. Much has been said about the point guard situation for the Miami Heat. And while Chalmers is no Rondo (who is) he does fit the Heat's system better than Arroyo. The Heat need Chalmers to play defense and hit shots, which he has done of late. And Zydrunas Ilgauskas is providing size and offense to spread the floor and open the driving lanes to Wade and James.
Mike Miller will play in the game- Many thought that Mike Miller would turn out to be a bust for the Miami Heat after returning from a thumb injury and struggling with his shot. However, after a breakout game against the Toronto Raptors where Miller had 32 points and 10 rebounds, he has been one of the Heat's key contributors off the bench. His ability to make shots from the perimeter, make plays for teammates and play the shooting guard and small forward position, will give the Celtics defense troubles and make them have to account for him on the floor.
The Miami Heat is playing more like a team. If you're a Miami Heat fan and you watched the previous meeting between these two teams, what must have been particularly maddening must have been the stretches where Wade and LeBron were attempting to take over the game and win it himself rather than to pass the ball around and play together. Wade, knowing he needed to get going in order for his team to have a chance simply drove into the Celtics defense looking for his offensive rythmn. But was rebuffed by the Boston bigs and actually helped the Celtics defense by not passing the ball and making their defense have to move and react.
Wade has since found his game. Speaking of Wade, he has since become much more comfortable with his new teammates and has performed extremely well following the team's 9-8 start to the season. His 25.2 ppg and 6.8 rpg have helped change the perception that the Heat are just a collection of talent rather than a serious title contender.
The Celtics are not dominating right now. When these two teams last met, Boston was fresh, healthy, and looking to make a statement against all of the league's contenders. Their game simply said: "We're the best and we'll prove it by embarrassing you on the court." Meanwhile, the Heat's game said: "Let's see, should I take the shot or pass it? Well, I don't want the media to accuse me of being selfish so I guess I better pass it. No wait, I should take the shot. No, pass it. Uh-Oh shot clock down to one!" CLANK. But since then Heat have played much better as a team. They are winners of nine of their last ten, while the Celtics have only won five of their last five.
Why have the Celtics struggled of late? Injuries to Marquis Daniels, Nate Robinson, Delonte West and Shaq have greatly impacted the team's depth. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have looked a bit gassed in the previous few games against the Lakers and Bobcats and the team's number one ranked offense has disappeared. They have scored under 100 points in seven of their last nine and under 90 in their last two. Plus, Rajon Rondo just doesn't look healthy right now. Against the Lakers he shot just 5-14 for 12 points. He did have 10 assists, but just didn't look quick and one wonders if the hamstring injury is still bothering him.
Nevertheless, despite the Celtics recent struggles they are still the best team in the East and Miami needs a confidence building win against them before that perception can begin to change.
The Heat needs to win the game to avoid a 0-3 hole in the season series against Boston, which would not only find the team losing the tiebreaker in the season series, but creating more doubt from fans (and various media pundits) about their legitimacy as a title contender. It could also create a bit of self-doubt within the team as well.
So let's be clear: The Heat must win against the Celtics on Sunday, or risk losing both their momentum, lead atop the East standings and universal belief about how far they have come as a team since these two teams last met.
A loss on Sunday would instantly morph the Heat from: "The East's hottest team" to "that team that can't beat the Celtics and are therefore not a serious contender."
Boston wants this game. Miami needs this game.