It will be the most watched and discussed second round series in the NBA.
Finally, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, two teams that began the season with dreams of winning and NBA Championship, will decide who will continue their quest to fulfill that goal and who will see their season come to an end in premature fashion.
Miami will hold home-court advantage in the series as it won the second seed by virtue of a better regular season record. But the Celtics were 3-1 against the Heat during the season, and will go into the series confident that it can lean on its experience and the chemistry of the Big Four to pull out the series.
The Case for the Celtics
When I look at the Boston Celtics against the Miami Heat, I do see a few areas for which it will certainly seek to exploit, the first being the match up between Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade. Wade is one of the league's premier defenders from the shooting guard position, but he does not like playing against Allen and the various screens he must run through to keep up with him. Allen is such a quick shooter, Wade must stay attached to him at all times. Allen's Game 3 performance against the New York Knicks (32 points on 11-18 shooting) provides a perfect example of what happens when Allen gets a bit of daylight. The Celtics will look to be very physical with Wade in setting picks to free up Allen.
What will be the Outcome of the Heat-Celtics Series?
Another area that the Celtics will be looking to punish the Heat is at the point guard position. Rajon Rondo struggled both with his shot and his play making during the final dozen games of the regular season, but seemed to be out of his slump following a 30 point effort in Game 2 against the Knicks and a 15 point, 20 assist-11 rebound effort in Game 3. He has a clear advantage against either of the Heat's point guards (Mike Bibby or Mario Chalmers) and his penetration could cause the Heat's defense a lot of problems.
To beat the Heat, the Celtics must get strong play from Jermaine O'Neal, who showed signs of making a playoff impact against the Knicks as his shot blocking and defense gave the team a lift in the first two games of the series. He must be a force.
The Celtics must out rebound the Heat throughout the series. The Celtics were out rebounded early in the Knicks series before turning it around and crushing the Knicks on the glass in the final two games. However, while the Knicks were an undersized, injury-hit and not particularly defensively committed group, the Heat are one of the league's premier rebounding teams. The Celtics will have their work cut out keeping them off the glass.
The Celtics also must get something from their bench. Many of Boston's key bench players have been quiet in the postseason. Delonte West, has been ineffective, prompting Doc Rivers to play Rondo 40 minutes a game. Glen Davis has been struggling with his offense the past few weeks, but his 14 point and five rebound effort in Game 4 against the Knicks suggests that he could be breaking out of his slump.
Elsewhere, Von Wafer and Troy Murphy have barely played in the last few weeks and don't appear to be major factors in Rivers strategy in the postseason. Jeff Green showed signs on the defensive end against the Knicks, but he still appears lost on offense.
It's very important for the Celtics to get more contributions from its bench, because their defense will truly be challenged contending with the drives of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. The big four figure to play heavy minutes and if any of them get in early foul trouble, their wouldn't be much support to back them up if the bench continues to struggle.
There has been speculation that Shaq may return for the series against the Heat. That is certainly possible. But I don't think his return at the beginning of the Heat series, when he will still be rusty, will have much of an immediate impact.
The Case for the Heat
As for the Miami Heat, they have several things going for them as they battles the Celtics in the second round.
The Heat will have home-court advantage, which is huge for the team. Granted, home-court is no substitute for stellar play, but the Heat will certainly feel more comfortable opening the series at home than in Boston. The nucleus of the Heat is younger, and the team is a deeper one that knows their roles and how they fit into the system.
There are players on Boston that still haven't found their way (like Nenad Krstic), and this could come into play at crucial junctures when Kevin Garnett must trust Krstic to set a pick or make a shot during the game.
The Heat don't have great centers, but their centers by committee certainly gives them more depth upfront than the Celtics.
Following the Celtics' trade of Kendrick Perkins, the team's front court has gotten a lot thinner. The team is hoping the O'Neals will play and have a huge impact, but unless Davis just dominates the paint with Garnett, I see the Heat holding a potential advantage in the front court with Bosh, Ilgauskas, Joel Anthony, Jamaal Magloire (who didn't play in the 76ers series and is itching to bang bodies in this one) and Eric Dampier. Without an intimidating force like Perkins policing the paint, Wade and James will feel much more confident driving to the hoop against the O'Neals.
The Heat need to run when the opportunity presents itself, but also not be afraid to pass the ball around for a better shot. LeBron and Wade have the ability to draw an incredible amount of defensive attention when they are handling the ball, and the Celtics over-commitment can be used against them. Heat players must remember that if there are three defenders on James, someone must be open.
Overall, this is a tough series to pick because all the evidence I've seen suggests that the Heat will win it. But the Celtics always appear to find a way to win the big games even when they are struggling, while the Heat have not fully solved their consistency issues, particularly in close games.
I'm tempted to just throw my hands in the air, declare it a toss-up and be done, but I'm going against my usual anti-prediction stance just this once and I will call a winner:
I take the Heat in 7.
The reasons why are as follows: I think the Heat are a deeper team. The Celtics are going to have to get nearly perfect play from the Big Four (like Game 3 against the Knicks) to overcome the benches' struggles, which are bound to come back and bite this older team at some point. The Celtics offense has not been great of late, and unless they find ways to manufacture points I see them struggling against the Heat's defense. I also question the chemistry of this team with so many new and unproven parts.
Boston's big four obviously hold chemistry with one another. But the Knicks series did little to convince me that trust was there with the new players. The advantage that the Celtics had over the last few postseasons from playing in so many games together is somewhat negated after Danny Ainge's various changes to the team since last summer. I just don't think the Celtics are as strong.
Finally, I ask: Can the Celtics starters play 35 effective minutes a game against the Heat's younger, more athletic Big Three, stay out of foul trouble for the entire series and consistently crush the Heat on the glass? Sure, but I wouldn't bet money on it.