As the Heat-Celtics series moves to Miami this weekend for Games 3 and 4, the stakes are plenty high on the court. Can the Heat summon the kind of balance and confidence that saw them close the regular season as one of the hottest teams in the league? Can the Celtics do the kind of defensive job they did in Game 2 with Kevin Garnett back on the floor?
But the big picture for both teams goes well beyond the outcome of the series. In two months, both teams will be bracing for what could be massive changes – regardless of which one advances beyond the first round.
The Heat face the same storyline as always, with the added urgency: Can they make all the right moves to keep Dwyane Wade happy and persuade him that there are more championships to be won in South Beach? The Celtics, champions for the 17th time in franchise history only two years ago, could be looking at replacing two-thirds of the Big Three – and potentially, even coach Doc Rivers.
There’s a lot riding on this contentious little get-together, which partly explains why tempers have been short and nerves fragile as the scene moves to Miami for Game 3 Friday night.
Miami holds all the cards in the free-agent chase of 2010, especially with recent revelations that the 2010-11 cap could be as high as $56.1 million. If the Heat weren’t already in the driver’s seat in free agency, they are now. The extra cap room gives them the flexibility to re-sign Wade to a max deal, add a second max player, and have another $8 million to spend. It’s enough to make you wonder if Wade will be more inclined to forgive and forget a poor first-round showing, recognizing it as a price that had to be paid to surround him with true championship talent.
Wade has been consistently vague about his intentions, saying only that his preference is to stay in Miami but that he’s determined to leave his options open. In his most recent comments on the subject, he told the Miami Herald this week that there are “not many organizations” he’d consider leaving Miami for, but made it clear that he intends to go through the recruiting process to see what’s out there. • Asked if he expected to have his mind made up by the time the week-long moratorium on free-agent signings is lifted on July 8, Wade said that struck him as “kind of soon.”
The Celtics’ immediate future is expected to be known sooner than that. As he does every offseason, Rivers will weigh continuing to coach the Celtics against family commitments and decide whether it’s time to step down. But this time, there’s palpable momentum in the stepping down direction. Rivers’ oldest son, Jeremiah, will be a senior at Indiana. Another son, Austin, is one of the top high school point guards in the country and has committed to Florida, where sister Callie will be a senior volleyball player.
The juggling wore on Rivers this season, when he struggled to get an aging Celtics team to play at its previous championship level. Now, with Ray Allen set to become an unrestricted free agent and with Paul Pierce holding an early termination option, the winds of change could be blowing hard through Beantown.
And with that, here are the rest of the Playoff Post-Ups:
• The Cavs, whose pursuit of a ring for the King faces some high-stakes ramifications of its own, have been hit with their first dose of adversity with a 108-106 loss to the Bulls in Game 3. Now, let’s see if they can respond as championship caliber teams should. Two things happened for the Bulls in Game 3 that could pose problems the rest of the series if the Cavs fail to adjust: 1) Derrick Rose was given way too much space, showed the patience to wait out traps, and was dynamic with dribble-penetration and his mid-range game, and 2) Chicago’s defense turned LeBron James into a jump shooter. After getting killed by LeBron’s jumpers in Game 2, it was a bold strategy on the Bulls’ part to dare him to beat them from the perimeter again. If LeBron puts his head down and drives through traffic to get to the basket – or the foul line – he can quickly squash any notion that the Bulls will extend this series beyond five games.
• Speaking of the Bulls, it was nice for Byron Scott – from his cushy studio perch in Bristol, Conn., – to publicly lobby for Vinny Del Negro’s job when it isn’t vacant yet, don’t you think? Maybe Scott felt the need to promote himself for the job because he’s heard the same thing I’m hearing: That former Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey – a finalist for the job when Del Negro was hired instead – has the inside path to take over if and when Del Negro is fired.
• George Karl, out until at least the second round while he undergoes radiation and chemotherapy for throat and neck cancer, made an inspirational visit to the Nuggets’ practice Thursday – 36 hours before Game 3 at Utah with the series tied 1-1. Karl watched practice for about 15 minutes and didn’t say much; it’s difficult for him to speak due to the treatments. But seeing Karl was enough. “I get to see him every day, but it was good to see him in the gym,” Coby Karl said. “Just as much as he can start getting around the team, it will help the team and help him. It’s a starting point. He’ll probably judge how his body took it and go from there.”
• The Spurs looked like the Spurs of old in winning Game 2 in Dallas, with 25 points and 17 rebounds from Tim Duncan and a much-needed bounce-back game from Richard Jefferson (19 points, seven rebounds). With the series tied 1-1 heading into Game 3 Friday night in San Antonio, this promises to be the most compelling action out West this side of Kobe vs. Durant. The question for the Spurs is the same one that has haunted them all season: Can they sustain it? This is where the extra rest that’s built into a long playoff series could swing the momentum in their favor.
• Joakim Noah having fun at the city of Cleveland’s expense struck me as a quotable agitator enjoying the playoff stage. There was no harm in that, and there were a few headlines, which are good for everybody. But there’s such a thing as going to the well too often, and that’s what the Hawks’ Josh Smith did by poking fun at Milwaukee. “Everybody knows there ain’t nothing to do in Milwaukee,” Smith said with the Hawks leading the best-of-7 series 2-0. “Everybody knows that ... [even] the people that live there.” Hey, Josh: There isn’t supposed to be anything to do in Milwaukee other than win a couple of playoff games and get ready for the second round. So just concentrate on that, OK?
• By beating the Suns on their home floor in Game 1, the Trail Blazers opened a lot of eyes – and unfortunately for them, they awakened the Suns, too. The Blazers, without Brandon Roy, are suddenly reeling after getting trounced 108-89 in Game 3 on their home floor. For two straight games, Portland has had no answer for Jason Richardson, who scored 71 points in the Suns’ two victories. Unless they find one soon, the Blazers will be embarking on an offseason of uncertainty. Even without Roy, the Blazers are too sound defensively to allow an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent twice in a playoff series. Or so we thought. A lot of things have to go better for Portland to get back into the series, but one of them could be as simple as relying more on Martell Webster on both ends of the floor. He has the mentality to dig in defensively against Richardson, and the aggressiveness that Rudy Fernandez has been lacking on the offensive end throughout the series.