Both of these teams are expected to contend for a championship and both will face their toughest challenges yet beginning on Sunday.
While the Heat look to shed the "choker" label that has followed them all season and finally live up to their considerable South Beach talents, the Celtics stand in their way, more focused than ever on bringing Boston yet another NBA championship trophy.
The winner of this series will undoubtedly be considered a favorite to win it all.
I will take this a step further. I believe that the winner will wind up hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy and emerge from the 2011 season as champions.
The biggest strength of the Bulls is their energy—the vigor with which they play is turned to 11 at all times. However, in the playoffs, when every team is digging deep into their reserves of energy, Chicago’s youth seems like less of an advantage than it does in the regular season.
Both the Celtics and Heat have rosters that are playoff tested. They are more comfortable in big moments than the Bulls and are more familiar with harnessing their energies in big games.
While Chicago’s energy has served them well thus far, with every passing game, it becomes less and less of an advantage.
The winner of the Celtics-Heat series will be the best defensive team left in the playoffs.
And defense, so the cliché goes, wins championships.
The Celtics are already the best all-around defenders left in the playoffs. With the eventual return of Shaquille O'Neal, they will get additional size to augment their already tough interior defense.
Boston isn’t the best because they have the most talent. They are the best because they care the most. They have the most heart and the most desire.
There are no free baskets against the Celtics. Even if you get past your defender and make it to the rim for a layup, you will almost certainly be met with contact—and not insignificant, regular-season contact, either. Playoff contact.
The Heat represent the other side of the defensive spectrum. They are all athleticism. Miami doesn’t knock you down, they chase you down.
The Heat don’t possess the brute force of the Celtics; instead they rely on peskiness and versatility. They are a team that will swarm on you in the final minutes. They force turnovers and win with athleticism.
With the athletes they have, Miami can compete with anybody.
The good kind of desperation, not the Hawks-signing-Joe-Johnson-to-a-ridiculous-contract-in-a-desperate-attempt-to-stay-relevant kind.
With the exception of the Lakers, the Celtics and Heat have more on the line than any other team in the playoffs. There is no greater motivating factor.
Boston’s stars are looking at the end of their championship window. They may have another year left after this one, but cannot reasonably expect to compete at a championship level for much longer than that.
Within the Celtics locker room, there must be a feeling that this year represents their last, best chance to win another ring.
The stars of the Heat are on the other end of their window. Nonetheless, LeBron James has been here before and has felt the sting of key losses. He knows that his legacy will be meaningless without championships.
For both of these teams, the 2011 NBA playoffs are a key moment in their legacies. The sense of desperation they feel is not a bad thing, it merely means that they fully grasp the importance of this postseason in terms of careers and overall greatness to a greater extent than younger teams like the Thunder and Bulls, who have less at stake.
Simply, this means that the remaining playoff games mean more the Celtics and Heat than they do to other teams (except again, the Lakers). This cannot be underestimated.
The two most likely contenders to represent the West in the finals both have flaws.
Chris Paul has shown that an elite point guard can expose the Lakers defense. Rajon Rondo fits this description, and although LeBron and Dwyane Wade are not typical point guards, both have the ball-handling ability and size to do similar damage.
As much as I love the Thunder, they hadn’t won a road playoff game before this year. It may be too much to ask them to run all the way through the NBA Finals.
With every game that leads to the finals, Kobe’s legs are getting older, Bynum’s knees are getting sketchier and the Thunder’s lack of experience is getting more and more important.
For both the Celtics and Heat, this playoff series will be their toughest test until one of them reaches the finals.
The winner of the Bulls-Hawks series may pose a threat to either team, but not nearly as much as their second-round opponents.
The Lakers, Thunder or whoever else comes out of the West will have to do their hardest work in the Western Conference Finals. Their path to the championship will only get harder as the playoffs roll on. Not to downplay the difficulty of the Eastern Conference Finals, but the winner of Boston-Miami will certainly have an easier conference finals matchup than those in the West.
The winner of this series will go into the finals with an added confidence boost, having already slain their biggest in-conference opposition in the second round.
The road to finals gets easier for the winner of this series and harder for those in the West.