When LeBron James and Dwyane Wade strolled out of American Airlines arena three weeks ago after their lone victory of the season over the Celtics, they should have left with the knowledge and comfort that they had accomplished ... absolutely nothing.
The Celtics had represented a green-and-white-clad grim reaper for both of them in the playoffs, as the Cavaliers and Heat -- superstars and all -- had been put into the meat grinder and left to ponder their daunting futures as solo acts on the NBA's playoff stage. The Celtics started this business of teaming multiple stars in the modern era, started the NBA arms race that has given the league an incredible postseason and an international profile while spawning Armageddon when the labor rules that allowed such maneuverings expire on July 1.
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Here came the Heat last July, saying to hell with the Celtics and their graybeard version of a star trio. Here came the Heat with their victory celebration and prediction of multiple championships and capitulation from their two key stars: If LeBron and Wade couldn't beat the ruthless Celtics on their own, they'd just have to wear the same uniform, share the same court and ball, and bring Chris Bosh along for the ride while they're at it.
The Celtics took notice, and the whole NBA delighted in Boston's dominance of the new Big Three in their first three regular season meetings. What a delicious angle that Wade, who needed help, and LeBron, who needed better P.R. advice, still couldn't beat the Celtics despite all the faux heroics of "The Decision." The Heat became a national punch line instead of a wrecking crew, igniting healthy debate about experience, compatibility, ego, and the flaws of pampered, modern-day NBA stars who wanted their championships before they'd earned them.
But the Celtics know all too well that titles aren't won during the regular season any more than they are won in July. The real game is on, the clash we always knew we'd get: Celtics vs. Heat. Experience vs. Youth. Guile vs. Brute Force.
Good vs. Evil, or vice versa, depending on your perspective.
The Celtics and Heat meet at last on Sunday in Game 1 of their best-of-7 Eastern Conference semifinals series, a collision that was born in free agency, baked in the regular season, and finally is deemed ready to consume with your favorite beverage.
|Miami needs Chris Bosh to play well against Kevin Garnett and the Celtics. (Getty Images)|
"We can beat 'em," Wade said. "They’ve beaten us three times and they have the series lead. This is the first time for us beating them as a team. You need to see that you can perform against a team and that you can play well and beat a team. I think we proved that we’re a much better team ... than in the previous three."
The Celtics still have the experience of winning together on the biggest stage in the sport, still bring the flawless execution and sixth sense and instincts required of a championship team. The Heat still have mostly talent, though in overwhelming proportions. So why do I think the South Beach Trio are ready to topple their biggest nemesis after being together for only 87 games? Why am I so foolish as to pick against the Celtics, who have defined how a rugged, skilled, devious champion of the Eastern Conference should play during the four years of the Big Three era -- now known as the Rajon Rondo-and-the-Big-Three era?
No, not because I'm hopelessly in pursuit of scorn and public humiliation, but rather because I believe it. Here are five reasons the Heat are ready to slay the Celtics and throw everything we thought we knew about basketball into chaos:
1) LeBron and Wade have figured out how to play together ... sort of. While the Celtics were struggling down the stretch, trying to figure out how to play in the aftermath of the Kendrick Perkins trade, the Heat's Supertwins were starting to figure things out. It finally dawned on them that they're at their most dangerous working together in transition -- and that comes from cohesive and tenacious defense, which both made an uncompromising priority. James began focusing more on defense and rebounding, realizing that Wade was the scorer and he was the overall freak of nature. LeBron has to remain in that role, ceding the end-of-quarter, end-of-game scoring opportunities to Wade for the Heat to pull this off.
2) The Heat's late-game failure rate is greatly exaggerated. Miami is infamously 1-for-19 in the last 10 seconds of games when the score is tied or they trail by no more than three points. NBA.com's John Schuhmann points out that the Celtics are 2-for-14 in the same situation. Though he also correctly points out that Boston clearly has a better track record in this area, and it was on full display in the first-round series against the Knicks. The Celtics got outplayed for the first 47 minutes in each of the first two games at home but won both with late-game execution. This series will be no different; the team that executes better down the stretch will win. I refer to the growth and understanding between LeBron and Wade over the last few weeks of the regular season as evidence that Miami will be better in these situations than the numbers show.
3) Boston's regular season dominance also is greatly exaggerated. The outcome of regular season games has little bearing on the outcome of a playoff series. But something about past history does matter -- how teams perform and behave against one another. And thanks to the ridiculously useful StatsCube at NBA.com, the Heat and Celtics behaved statistically against each other pretty much as they did against everyone else all year -- staying within 10 percent of their season averages in all but two of the 12 categories measured there. The lone exceptions are 1) 3-point percentage (Boston shot 45 percent against Miami, nine points better than its season average, while Miami shot 29 percent, eight points worse than average); and 2) point differential per 100 possessions (Miami was about the same defensively but nine points worse offensively against Boston, while the Celtics were three points worse than their season average defensively and four points worse offensively). Those numbers are skewed by the small sample size and Miami's 100-77 victory in the fourth regular season meeting, but they suggest that the season series was much closer than it appeared.
4) Miami doesn't have anyone to guard Rondo? Not true. Most teams facing the Celtics have to put a bigger defender on Rondo and load up the paint in a mostly futile attempt to limit his penetration. The Lakers used Kobe Bryant at times in the two Finals matchups between the teams. But that's an awful lot to ask of your primary scorer on the defensive end. Miami, to the contrary, can have Wade and LeBron split time on Rondo so each can conserve a little fuel for the other end of the floor. The risk, of course, is finding someone else to handle Paul Pierce when LeBron is on Rondo, and finding someone else to chase Ray Allen around screens when Wade is on Rondo. But Wade probably will welcome a break from Allen duty anyway, and overall this is a problem that plenty of teams would like to have.
5) The Heat finally have made Bosh into a weapon instead of something akin to that overpriced wall hanging you wish you'd never bought. A key adjustment Erik Spoelstra made over the final weeks of the season was featuring Bosh offensively during spurts when LeBron and Wade are on the bench. That way, Bosh didn't have to struggle to get touches while his two ball-dominant teammates took turns pounding the ball. This will be a tall task against Kevin Garnett, who clearly is homed in on shutting Bosh down. And when the starting lineups are on the floor, Garnett almost certainly will shut Bosh down. But Garnett can't stay on the floor forever, and if Spoelstra can find key moments in the game to feature Bosh against a backup like Jeff Green or Glen Davis, those can be some effective moments for the Heat.
Is that it? Not even close. Miami will need to make more adjustments to fulfill its stated mission of brushing the Celtics aside and getting a chance to claim the prize that neither LeBron nor Wade has been able to capture alone during the Big Three era. For one, Spoelstra will need to jump out of character and juggle his starting lineup to more effectively contend with Boston's size and Rondo's elusiveness. That means goodbye Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mike Bibby and hello Joel Anthony and Mario Chalmers. There's something to be said for getting energy and defense from your bench, but Miami's only flaw in the first round against the Sixers was getting badly outplayed and outscored when their starting lineup featuring Bibby and Big Z was on the floor.
Starting lineups shouldn't be as sacred as most coaches make them. They should be situational, based on the opponent. If the Celtics start getting buckets from Jermaine O'Neal, the Heat are in trouble; Anthony can neutralize him. As for Chalmers, Spoelstra can try him on Rondo and see how it goes. If Rondo runs free, Chalmers has the speed to chase Allen around all those screens while Wade takes Rondo for a bit. It would give Spoelstra more flexibility, which is what you need -- among other things -- to beat the Celtics.
All things considered, that's what I think Miami is going to do. It's going to take seven games, and it's going to require LeBron and Wade to back up their preseason boasts and play better and more cohesively than they ever have before. That’s why I'm dumb enough to pick against the Celtics. I can feel the scorn and smell Red Auerbach's cigar smoke already.