MIAMI -- The Heat insist they're a different team than the one that has been dominated by the Celtics in all three regular-season meetings heading into Sunday's battle for playoff seeding, and possibly, homecourt advantage in what would be an epic postseason rematch.
The Celtics know they're a different team, and not necessarily in a good way.
In a normal year, this rare late-season showdown between elite teams would have far more meaning to the opponent than to the Celtics. Boston is the established bully and psychological boogeyman to the Heat and their two biggest stars, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The Celtics knocked both superstars out of the playoff last season, becoming one of the driving forces that hatched Miami's Big Three: If you can't beat 'em alone, team up.
|Ray Allen vs. Dwyane Wade|
Much to everyone's amazement, including James' and Wade's, Boston's dominance continued in the regular season with three consecutive victories over the Miami star machine. So what would the Celtics care if the Heat finally could scrape together a rare victory over their nemesis in early April, before the "real" games begin? Again, under normal circumstances, they wouldn't. But these have not been normal circumstances. This has not been a typical year in the NBA by anyone's measure.
"I think there are games throughout the regular season that are more meaningful than others," James said Friday night after the Heat beat the Bobcats 112-103 in their final tune-up for Sunday. "There's statement games where you try to make statements. There's big games that you get up for more than others. That's just the rollercoaster of the NBA. We do look at the game Sunday as a big test for us."
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But is it really more of a test for the Heat than the Celtics, with the teams possessing 55-24 records after so many twists and turns? Not the way Boston has played lately, and not with the identity crisis they are immersed in -- one that unfortunately, for them, mirrors the way Miami's season has gone. Most of the Heat's struggles and adjustments to new personnel came at the beginning of the season. The Celtics' woes are coming at a far worse time -- the end.
Since winning their first five games after trading Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, the Celtics are 9-9 heading into Sunday. Rajon Rondo, the thorn in the side of Miami, Orlando and Cleveland in recent postseasons, was thoroughly outplayed by the top-seeded Bulls' Derrick Rose on Thursday night, prompting a postgame heart-to-heart with coach Doc Rivers and some rare strong comments from the Boston point guard.
"It better be a wakeup call," Rondo said after the 97-81 loss in Chicago. "If not, we won't make it far."
The final regular-season meeting with Miami on Sunday is meaningful on so many levels. Aside from the obvious impact of playoff seeding and homecourt advantage with the teams on a collision course for a rematch in the conference semifinals, there is the psychological aspect of Miami needing to beat the Celtics before seeing them again in the playoffs. But given the Celtics' recent struggles, don't the Celtics need a confidence boost, too?
"We have to play with a better sense of urgency as a habit," Rivers said. "And if I have a concern, we've had this turn-off, turn-on thing, and I don't think with this group, that works."
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"We go small at times, we have a faster lineup, and we have a little bit more experience together," Chris Bosh said. "We were shooting more jump shots back then, and we didn't put as much pressure on the rim as we do now."
Coach Erik Spoelstra, treating this final stretch of the regular season as a playoff series, also made a lineup tweak Friday night that he said could be permanent: Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who started with James in Cleveland, is back as the starting center in a move that helps stretch the floor so James and Wade have more room to attack. The Heat are different at the point guard position, too, though the jury is still out as to whether Mike Bibby will have any more luck containing Rondo than Mario Chalmers and Carlos Arroyo (now with the Celtics) did in the three previous meetings. (Hint: He won't.)
But even though Perkins didn't play a prominent role in the Celtics' three regular-season victories over the Heat -- they beat Miami twice without him and once with him -- the Celtics are the team that's in adjustment mode now more so than Miami. Rivers is trying to discern the most effective way to deploy Green and Krstic and is still searching for the right lineup combinations. Given that Wade is in attack mode now as opposed to shooting jumpers -- an approach that resulted in him getting dominated by Ray Allen in the first three meetings -- that's bad news for Boston without Perkins lurking in the paint to protect the rim and deliver retribution at the end of Wade's drives.
"We haven't seen them with the new group," Spoelstra said. "They've added a new dynamic and they're starting to get a little bit of rhythm. They look the same to me when you still have the Big Four. We respect them, but we think we're a different team than the three times we've played them."
On Sunday, behold the first glimpse of what that means -- and know that it's only a preview of what's to come. The Celtics and Heat have known since July they’d be standing in each other's way come spring. Now they'll be toe-to-toe, the boogeyman his carefully crafted nemesis, right where they knew they'd be.
"I don't want to put a tag on it and say it's the monster team,” Bosh said of Boston. "We're the monster team. That's how we feel going into each and every game. But they're a good team. They're very experienced. They're the defending Eastern Conference champs, and they're trying to get back. So there's a clash there. We want what they've gotten before."