At the All-Star Break, the Miami Heat were 26-27 and going nowhere fast. It was then that Dwyane Wade, impending free agent, began to make noise about the team making improvements.
It was no big secret around the league that Pat Riley had planned for 2009-10 to be a transition year for his team. He had Wade, of course, and second-year forward Michael Beasley, but when the season ended he would have a barren roster and all the cap space that goes with it to build a new team around Wade.
Wade knew all this, but it was still his career and he was in the midst of yet another MVP-caliber performance for a sub-.500 team. So, the obligatory rumors popped up around the trade deadline with the Heat tied to Amar’e Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer. Both free agents in waiting, both potential targets this summer. (See, D, we’re trying!)
Nothing came of it, but a funny thing happened to the Heat on the road to nowhere. The Heat began to win games. They went 21-8 after the break and finished the season on an 18-4 tear that included wins over the Lakers and Hawks.
However, 13 of those final 18 wins came against teams that are not in the playoffs. The Heat feasted on the fat of the land beating the likes of Minnesota, Golden State, Indiana and Philly, and New Jersey twice.
The second win over the Nets came on the final day of the regular season when it appeared that, all things considered, they’d rather lose and play the Hawks instead. The Nets, as they often do, threw a wrench into the plan with their ineptitude and lost in double overtime.
The Heat enter the playoffs with momentum, but they also come into it the same team that played uninspired ball for the majority of the season, which makes them something like the reverse Celtics.
Wade is still awesome. Beasley is still enigmatic and the rest of the roster includes capable, but underwhelming, veterans and a handful of young players who have yet to achieve much in their careers.
If you strip out ancient history, there isn’t much difference between the two teams, and while the Celtics won all three games this season, they all were close. This looks like it will be a competitive series, and if either team can establish homecourt that would be a huge advantage.
Here are five things to know about the Heat:
DWYANE WADE’S GREATNESS
This feature could really be called five things about Wade because he is the focal point of everything Miami does.
Wade has scored almost 1,000 more points than Beasley, the team’s second-leading scorer. He has taken almost 500 more shots and free throws than Beasley and he has more assists than Carlos Arroyo and Mario Chalmers combined, who serve as the team’s point guards.
What makes Wade so difficult to guard is that he can score both inside and out. He lives at the free throw line where he averages nine attempts per game.
He is too strong for most guards to handle and far too quick for forwards. If he has a weakness it’s as a 3-point shooter, where he hovered around 30 percent for the season.
The Celtics often have assigned Ray Allen the task of guarding Wade and the flip side of that strategy is they want Wade to run around all the screens they set for Allen on the other end. Don’t be surprised if the Heat wind up stealing a page from the Lakers playbook and have Wade guard Rajon Rondo instead, much like L.A. does with Kobe Bryant.
Wade killed the Celtics to the tune of 33.7 points, five rebounds and 8.7 assists. The Celtics won all three meetings and it will be interesting to see if they alter their strategy in the playoffs.
Wade is good enough to steal a game or two all by himself. Any more than that and the Celtics will be playing with fire.
One of the big advancements in NBA statistics is the concept of pace, which simply is a measurement of how many possessions a team employs during an NBA game. The fastest team in the NBA, that is the team that uses the most possessions, is the Golden State Warriors, who use over 100 possessions per game.
The slowest team is the Portland Trail Blazers, who use about 87 possessions per game. The Heat rank 28th in this category at 89.8. (The Celtics are 20th.)
There are obvious reasons for Miami to use this strategy. Wade is incredibly difficult to stop in a halfcourt game because of his size and ability, and neither of Miami’s point guards is particularly creative with the ball.
What Arroyo and Chalmers lack in playmaking skills, they make up for in cautiousness. The Heat rarely turn the ball over and that allows them to maximize the fewer possessions they do use.
To make a slowdown game effective you also need a good defense and Miami ranks as one of the league’s best teams on that end of the floor. They have shot-blockers in Jermaine O’Neal and reserve center Joel Anthony and they are also one of the better defensive rebounding teams in the league.
The end result is a slow, grind-it-out game that helps keep the scoring down and allows Wade to take over down the stretch. Count on a lot of low-scoring games in this series, but also look for the Celtics to try and push the pace whenever possible.
It’s no secret that Rajon Rondo is at his best when he’s allowed to operate in the open floor. It’s also no coincidence that the Celtics play their best when Rondo is allowed to run free and easy.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF MICHAEL BEASLEY
In his rookie season, Beasley showed potential as a scorer befitting his choice as the second player picked in the draft. He wasn’t quite as dominant as he was projected to be, but the raw materials seemed to be in place.
Then came the summer when a picture on his Twitter account showed a mysterious baggie in the background. He checked into a Houston rehabilitation facility, although it remains something of a mystery as to what he was in rehab for – he denied it was for substance abuse.
On the court, Beasley has regressed slightly although his per-game averages increased with more minutes. He can score inside but he drifts too often to the perimeter.
He also has been wildly inconsistent. He scored just two points in a game against Toronto and followed that up with a 28-point effort the next time out against Detroit.
Beasley is still just 21 years old and possesses immense talent. He is something of an X-factor in this series because no one really knows what he’s going to do.
SOUTH BEACH BLUES
The Celtics, of course, have not been good at home. Their 24-17 record at TD Garden is tied for the worst home record of all the playoff teams.
But the two teams that share that undistinguished home record are Chicago and Miami. It seems that the Heat have not benefitted from the conventional NBA wisdom that visiting teams are lulled into lethargy by the beaches, mojitos and nightlife that Miami has to offer.
In truth, there have been numerous distractions for the Heat this season. There was Beasley and the uncertain roster situation. Wade is involved in a contentious custody fight involving his two children. Arroyo and reserve forward Dorrell Wright were each arrested in separate driving incidents. Rafer Alston arrived at mid-season and then left the team acrimoniously.
All of this is yet another testament to just how good Wade has been this season. If either team can establish homecourt, it would go a long way toward winning the series.
Depending on how it shapes up, Game 4 could be a very interesting game. It’s scheduled for 1 p.m. on Sunday and the Celtics have never played well in the daytime.
THIS ISN’T ABOUT MIAMI
Not entirely, anyway. Statistically, the Celtics and Heat are very close. They both play solid defense and while the Celtics have more options, the Heat have the best player in the series in Wade. All signs point to a long series, either six or seven games.
But the Celtics feel that this entire season has been about their inability to put it together and that their problems are internal.
As Ray Allen said Wednesday night, “It has nothing to do with the other team. It’s all about us.”
The Celtics should win this series. They have a more diversified offense, more depth, more experience and they do have homecourt, for whatever that’s worth in this matchup. They have pinned everything, up to and including their reputations, on the playoffs. It is all about them.
Prediction: Celtics in six, and it won’t be easy.