How do the Heat and Celtics match up on both sides of the ball?
Posted by Matt Moore
It was inevitable, really. From the moment the Triad formed last summer, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics have been eyeing one another. The dominant team in the East doesn't like any team acting like they're in the same league with the defending champs, much less a team that hadn't played a single game together saying they're going to win multiple NBA championships. A 3-1 advantage in the regular series gives Boston the mental edge, but the Heat took the lone meeting after the Celtics traded Perkins and destabilized their chemistry.
Playoffs are hugely influenced by matchups. Here's a look at how various matchups land in favor of the Heat or the Celtics.
PG: The Celtics of course have a natural, traditional point guard in Rajon Rondo, a pure point, while the Heat largely use Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers the same way the Lakers use Derek Fisher. James and Wade spend a majority of the time at point.
When the Celtics have the ball: We don't have to talk much about this, right? I mean, Rajon Rondo is Rondo and Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers are not. Defensively, the Heat won't match up either of their point guards on Rondo. Either Wade or James will try to check him. It's a testament to Rondo's ability that neither is able to effectively handle him. Even against two of the faster players in the league, and two of the better defenders, Rondo simply outmaneuvers either one. James isn't fast enough and Wade struggles with Rondo's agility. Off the pick and roll, a hard trap isn't effective, thanks to how quickly Rondo can move the ball Garnett for the pick and pop or to the roll man. There's not a great solution outside of bringing help and hoping the perimeter shooters miss. You know, Ray Allen not being considerably reliable in terms of outside shooting, all-time 3-point shooting record holder that he is.
When the Heat have the ball: On offense, when the Heat go to Wade or James running point, Rondo will attack whoever crosses the timeline with the ball in most instances. Rondo can get backed down by James in the post, but that's something LeBron seldom does. Likewise, Wade can cross him over, but then you're looking at a pull-up jumper which you live with. It's not that Rondo's a better player than James or Wade, those guys will get theirs (unless Wade's nightmares against Boston continue) but Rondo's physical versatility allows him to guard the other well enough to guide them into the teeth of the Celtics' help defense.
Wings: Going traditional "SG and SF" designations are largely useless here. It's true that Wade is listed at guard and James at forward, but in reality, both operate on the perimeter and handle the ball, while not operating in traditional roles. James is too on-ball to be considered a true small forward, and Wade's versatility causes the same problems. So instead we'll look at it from the perspective of wings.
When the Celtics have the ball: The hardest part about guarding the Celtics is their consistency in running their offense. They'e not going to blow you away with new sets. But they run what they run to such precision that it's near impossible to stop them. The biggest problem is chasing Ray Allen through screens. Allen will usally cut baseline to baseline through closing screens. The result is Allen getting open for 3-pointers while the defender is still trying to recover from brutal off-ball screens by Glen Davis and KG, and the announcers saying "How can you leave Ray Allen wide open?!" as if the thought of defending the greatest pure shooter (limited to non-ball-handlers who just shoot 3-pointers, please leave your MJ/Kobe debates at home, kids) never crossed their mind. Wade will be assigned to try and get through, but his body isn't built for the wear and tear. Mario Chalmers might be a better cover here, as Bibby isn't tall enough to defend in the first place and would get murdered on the screens. Chalmers needs to study tape of what J.J. Redick has done to get through those screens and he can't afford to lose Allen, even on broken plays or rebounds. If you take your eyes off Allen for a second, that's three points.
Pierce is considerably easier to guard from a strategic standpoing; he's coming right at you. The problem with Pierce is he just knows his moves so well. James has historically done a pretty good job on Pierce. But when James goes out, there's absolutely no one to guard Pierce. James Jones can't hang with him on the drive or the step back. Mike Miller may do a decent job, but again, that elbow jumper's tough and when he throws in the pump-fake, that's going to be trouble. Pierce is also very adept at finding the trailer 3-pointer, and when the defense collapses off Rondo, Pierce is open. It's the basic Celtics problem. Pierce is a great offensive player on his own. When he's used off-ball, it becomes even harder to stop him. James and he nearly cancel each other out at both ends.
When the Heat have the ball: When the ball rotates to whichever one is working off-ball, Allen will take Wade, with the requisite help coming weak-side. Pierce will take James. Help will be quick on the drive in both instances, and since neither has figured out how to move off-ball outside of transition, the defense will focus on the ball-handler. The roll man's defender on the pick and roll will show hard, with the other low-post defender rolling to cut off the lane. If the ball-handler cuts back, a third defender will be there. Essentially, the Celtics are well prepared for whatever attack the Heat have shown. There will be times when the Heat get open looks off of their athletic ability to get past the defense for the drive and kick, usually a jump-pass. When those occur, the Heat have to knock them down. You can't waste open shots against the Celtics.
When the Celtics have the ball: Kevin Garnett normally isn't a threat in the post. He doesn't have the muscle left to deal with the contact against most power forwards. Except Chris Bosh. He can pretty much do whatever he wants there. Bosh has to hold on his own, because the Heat can't afford to double in the post with the other weapons on the floor for Boston. The best option might be to give Joel Anthony a run on Garnett and risk the inevitable fouls. Anthony will struggle with Garnett at the elbow, but you've got to live with it somewhere.
When the Heat have the ball: Bosh has played pretty aggressively in the playoffs and through the last month of the season. But against Garnett, it's just not a good matchup for him. Glen Davis is a better matchup for him, where Bosh's length will allow him to go to the mid-range. Off the pick and pop, Bosh has to have a quick trigger and good aim. Bosh has to completely change this dynamic for the Heat to win.
Centers: The Heat have aging centers with diminished skills and a poorly coordinated young player with questionable decision making on offense. The Celtics have aging centers with diminished skills and a poorly coordinated young player with questionable decision making on offense. It's a wash.
These matchups look like they favor Boston for a reason. But that's dependent on the Triad not being able to counter Boston's defense. If LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh are able to put in performances worthy of their reputations, the Heat can overwhelm Boston, especially without Perkins. From a strategic standpoint, the Heat are clearly the underdogs, but their whole approach has been to overcome with talent. They'll need to do the same to get to the Conference Finals.