After dominating the Eastern Conference for much of the season, the Boston Celtics find themselves in the third-seed in the East playoffs, behind the much-hyped super-team, the Miami Heat, and the surprise Eastern Conference top-seed Chicago Bulls.
Finishing the regular season at 56-26 the Celtics are now forced to fight much harder in the Playoffs, and if they advance through the first round, they will likely to have beat both the Heat and the Bulls on the road if they hope to earn a second consecutive trip to the Finals. To have to go through both Miami and Chicago is no easy task, and the Celtics will have to be at their best every single night against these teams.
So, the seeds are set. Miami and Chicago are the hottest teams in the East. Boston may very well face both of them. But which team is the bigger overall threat to Boston's title run? Here, I'll take a look at each team's biggest assets and tell you what I think, and as always, feel free to share your opinions in the comments.
When LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in July of 2010, there many doubters both inside and outside the halls of ESPN. How would LeBron and Dwyane Wade function on a team together? The conventional wisdom of last summer was that both guys needed the ball to be effective. So how, analysts asked, could this team be effective with two scorers? We also asked how Chris Bosh would fit onto this team.
After Miami started 9-8, the skeptics thought they had the Heat cooled. But the Heat would turn it around, and finish the season 58-24 and second in the East.
This team has shown that with the sheer amount of talent they have can win them a sizable number of games. No, they didn't go 82-0, but they had a strong season, especially considering this is the first year these guys have played with each other. Not only that LeBron and D-Wade have shared the ball pretty well.
D-Wade knows how to win a championship, and LeBron finally has more talent around him than just himself. Look for the Heat to step up their game in the postseason and go toe-to-toe with Boston.
The United Center, despite being a relatively new NBA arena, has already built a reputation as one of the toughest places to play in the entire league. It was the home of Michael Jordan, and it was the site of some of Chicago's greatest triumphs in the history of that franchise.
This year, the Bulls have been almost unstoppable in Chicago, going 36-5 at home. Although not quite as impressive as the 1985-86 Celtics' record of 40-1 at Boston Garden (a record that still stands to this day), this is certainly enough of a body of work to say that winning a game on the red and black court is an exceedingly rare event.
Much like at TD Garden, the United Center crowd can rattle opponents once the Bulls get going. The Celtics will have to find a way to keep the crowd for as much time as possible.
First and foremost, I completely agree with the statement that the Celtics, as a whole, have far more depth than either of these teams. Both the starting lineup and the bench are immensely talented, and have won a ton of games, and on paper alone, they're more than capable of winning more.
That being said, the Heat and the Bulls are very talented as well, with each team having a potential MVP: Derrick Rose for Chicago, who's widely expected to win it, and LeBron for Miami, who I personally believe is a better candidate, but that's an article for another day.
It's very clear that Miami has a wider array of talent than Chicago. Sure, the Bulls have Derrick Rose, but who else? Carlos Boozer? He's past his prime, and nowhere near the threat he used to be. Joakim Noah? He's no Kevin Garnett, that's for sure. The list goes on for Chicago; there's a lot of decent players, but it's very Derrick Rose-centric.
Miami, on the other hand, has three bona-fide superstars in LeBron D-Wade, and Chris Bosh. Eddie House is a skilled outside shooter who can knock down threes, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, despite his lumbering nature, can get aggressive in the paint when he needs to. Mike Bibby is made a better point guard because teammates actually worth getting the ball passed to.
As much as both of these teams are dominated by a few stars, I think the Heat's ensemble cast is at least a little bit stronger than the Bulls'.
Let's face it: Derrick Rose is THE MAN in the NBA right now. He's revitalized what had been a irrelevant and, dare I say, dying Bulls franchise, taking them to the Playoffs in each of the three years he's been at the point. After two 41-41 seasons in a row and a first elimination, the Bulls have rocketed to the top of the Eastern Conference with a 62-20 record, and are now one of the top contenders for top dog in the East.
In the last meeting between the Bulls and the Celtics in Chicago on April 7, Rajon Rondo got torched. Rose dropped 30 points and dished out eight assists, while Rondo was relegated to seven points and six assists. Not only that, the Celtics interior defense let Rose into the paint far too often. And once Rose gets into the paint, it's very hard to get him out without two points going to the Bulls.
As for Miami, Mike Bibby is not even to close to being on Rondo's level. Bibby gets taken to task on a regular basis by Rajon Rondo, and I'm sure he regrets calling the Celtics "fairweather fans."
Rondo we'll need to get back on track soon if he wants to go toe-to-toe with Derrick Rose. It'll be a huge challenge for the Celtics to slow him down, but they'll have to find a way to do it, or they'll be sent back to Boston with no cones on Causeway Street.
LeBron left Cleveland to win a championship. We all know that. He's made it clear throughout the season from the moment he appeared on "The Decision" that this was why when he teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
After Cleveland Cavaliers GM Dan Gilbert issues his incendiary letter echoing the sentiment of many fans that LeBron was a traitor and proclaiming that the Cavs would win a ring before he did, LeBron has been on a mission to prove his haters wrong, even if he hasn't come right out and said it. This year, he finally has other weapons to compete with, and he no longer has to go it alone.
LeBron knows that this his best shot to win a title. Sure, him and D-Wade are still young, and they have plenty of time to win a ring. But I think he wants it badly this year. After falling short in the postseason so many times, twice at the hands of the Celtics, and after all of the hate he's received from Cleveland, he wants to show that he's capable of winning a championship.
It's hard to beat a man on a mission. The Celtics will have to do that to beat the Heat this time around.
Although the Chicago Bulls' NBA Championship drought is nowhere near as lengthy as some (the Celtics' 22 year gap between 1986 and 2008, and the Knicks' 38 year drought come to mind), the Bulls have gone thirteen years without a title, with the last coming in 1998, the last of the second three-peat. It was during a time when Chicago was awash in success: they were the best team in the league, and had the best player to ever play the game in the form of Michael Jordan. They were THE TEAM. Six championships in eight years, and a stranglehold on their competition.
Something tells me Bulls fans would absolutely love to go back to that level dominance. With the level of competition where it is these days, consecutive is all the more difficult; it took the Lakers all seven games to rid themselves of a Celtics team that almost no-one expected to advance very far in the postseason. However, another title for the Bulls would allow them to finally find their identity, more than a decade after Michael Jordan's last wearing of the red and black.
One is inclined to associate the Bulls with the Michael Jordan. The Bulls have a chance to forge a new identity, one led by a new superstar in Derrick Rose. This could be their opportunity; the critics say they're still a year away, but they want to take it all this year and show that they are, once again, for real in the NBA.
In the final analysis, you have to say that the Miami Heat are a bigger threat to the Celtics' title run. They have a greater breadth and depth of talent, in the form of LeBron, D-Wade, Chris Bosh, and a strange mix of players that somehow allows them to keep winning games.
LeBron is also trying to prove that he is the best player in the league today. It's obvious in the minds of many that LeBron's career won't be entirely legitimized until he wins a ring. No matter how ludicrous that notion is, it's the way fans and the media operate. If he can win a ring, he'll be able to stand up next to Kobe Bryant and a serious discussion can take place (even if, as I said, the whole fascination with winning championships is unfair).
The Chicago Bulls, despite their regular-season supremacy, just aren't quite there yet. They have Derrick Rose, one of the elite point guards in the NBA and the current favorite to win MVP. Other than that, it doesn't feel like they have much more than that. They may have the desire to return to glory post-Jordan, but it's not enough to overcome the talent and personal determination of the Heat.
The Celtics will likely have to beat both of these teams this year. Both of them are dangerous, but I think Miami is just that much stronger in a league where a little advantage on paper or in the intangible sense means all of the difference in the Playoffs.