Not many people are giving the Celtics a chance to beat Miami in the Eastern Conference finals. While it’s been a nice final ride for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo as a core, this is where the journey ends against three-time MVP LeBron James and a rejuvenated Dwyane Wade. In other words: Good job getting through those bewildering 76ers and not suffering the ignominy of a Game 7 loss on your home court, but yeah, good luck with that.
This is not necessarily the overriding feeling in Boston, where memories of the 2010 Celtics going on a similarly unexpected postseason run and knocking off Wade’s Heat and LeBron’s Cavs in the process are still fresh. (Also Dwight Howard’s Magic, which made it a triple play of vanquished superstars in their prime and remains an underrated accomplishment of this era.)
Locals can also point to various times the Celtics have had the number of the would-be superteam. It wasn’t until late in the 2011 season when Miami finally broke through against its tormentors. The Heat then blitzed past them in 4-1 conference semifinal romp that was punctuated by real elation and relief on the parts of Wade and James. So it continued early in the current campaign when Miami ran an out-of-shape Celtics team out of South Beach.
Then something changed. In April, the C’s announced their return to prominence with a brilliant 91-72 victory highlighted by Avery Bradley’s rim-block on Wade and Rondo’s out-of-this-world triple double. They did it again nine days later in a barrage of mid-range jump shots, which happen to be Kryptonite to the Heat’s suffocating defense and the only real offensive strength the Celtics’ possess. (The last game was a glorified scrimmage.)
While Bradley is out for the playoffs after undergoing shoulder surgery – an incredibly significant loss – the Heat are also missing Chris Bosh with an abdominal strain. Sending a hobbled Allen out to defend Wade is a gruesome reality, but surely Garnett will have the opportunity to do damage against a depleted Miami frontcourt. That’s the hope, anyway.
Understand that whether anyone thinks they can do it, the Celtics truly believe they can win this series. Defying most rational logic, as well as their own horrific offense and lack of depth, they are nonetheless convinced of their ability to not only win this series, but also a championship, as well. Belief can be a powerful thing in sports -- even delusional belief -- and it exists within their locker room.
Here’s how they can do it:
KG AND RONDO
If there is any player that gives Miami nightmares it’s Rondo. When he’s at his creative best, Rondo is a destructive force. Too fast for Mario Chalmers, too crafty for Norris Cole, the Heat simply don’t matchup well here at all.
In the past they have used Wade to guard Rondo in much the same way the Sixers used Evan Turner: put a taller, athletic player in his way and dare him to make jump shots. Rondo has seen every conceivable defense at this point in his career and he has ways to beat them all, but this strategy has by and large proven to be the most effective.
Yet with Wade having to carry more of the scoring burden and facing a potentially huge matchup advantage of his own, asking him to play a key defensive position may be one responsibility too many. If the Celtics are going to pull this off, Rondo has to be consistently great. Not sometimes transcendent – all the time great.
The same goes for Garnett whose outside shooting should take the underrated Joel Anthony away from the basket and open up the paint for Rondo and Pierce to attack off the dribble. Anthony presents his own issues in that he’s the kind of solid, tough-to-move big man who gives Garnett trouble in the post (see: Jason Collins, Lavoy Allen, etc).
Anthony offers little on the offensive end in terms of individual ability, but he sets one of the best screens in the business and hangs around the basket for dunks and put-backs. The Celtics defense is at its best when Garnett doesn’t have a difficult one-on-one matchup to deal with and he’s free to stalk the paint like a panther, but he can’t let Anthony position himself to kill them on the offensive boards.
Garnett’s pick and roll defense may help neutralize Anthony’s role in Miami’s halfcourt offense, but it also opens the door to other strategies – paging the LeBron-Wade pick and roll. Like Rondo, Garnett has to have a great series and he has to do it on both sides of the ball, especially on the defensive glass.
If they aren’t two of the three best players in the series, the Celtics don’t have a chance.
THE D-WADE PROBLEM
In their series against the 76ers, Turner posted up Allen whenever he wanted. That is to say, whenever he wasn’t driving past him and causing trouble in the paint. Swap Turner for Wade, especially the Wade who scored 99 points in the final three games of Miami’s series with Indiana, and here lies the single biggest issue facing the Celtics.
This has all the makings of a disaster, but if the Celtics have any depth at all it’s on the wing where Mickael Pietrus offers the kind of versatile defender they lacked in last season’s playoffs. Pietrus will have his work cut out for him in this series, as he’ll not only be tasked with supporting Allen, but also Pierce.
Can he do both jobs? Pietrus has had a shaky postseason, offering little offensive punch thanks to his wayward 3-point shooting. He played 75 minutes in the three games after Bradley was shutdown, although his talents as a rangy perimeter defender were largely wasted against the 76ers’ attacking guards. This series should play to his strengths, but he’ll have to get it done against two of the best wing players of their generation.
The Celtics also have Marquis Daniels and Sasha Pavlovic. Neither of them had much value in the semifinals, but they could see significant playing time in this round, especially if Allen continues to struggle, or of Pierce gets in foul trouble. Make no mistake, this is the biggest area of concern for the Celtics, but at least Rivers has bodies to throw at the problem.
PIERCE VERSUS LeBRON
LeBron has long passed Pierce as the best small forward in the league, but Pierce still offers one of the toughest possible matchups for James. He’s one of the few players who can hope to withstand LeBron’s punishing, physical style and challenge him on the defensive end, as well.
Over the years, Pierce has held up reasonably well against LeBron. This season he averaged 20 points, five rebounds and five assists to James’ 26-7-6 in their meetings. There will be games when Pierce is simply overwhelmed, but if they can get that kind of exchange they’ll take it.
Pierce must stay out of foul trouble and be able to handle James for at least 36 minutes a night. He’ll have help, but this matchup is his responsibility.
THE ROLE PLAYERS
Brandon Bass, meet Udonis Haslem. Both players thrive on mid-range jumpers and opportunities created by others. Both players are tough, sometimes maligned and occasionally difference-makers. The Heat don’t need Haslem to win this matchup, but the Celtics need Bass to give them 12-16 points every night and be solid in the pick and roll defense.
On the wings, the Celtics can’t afford to let James Jones, Mike Miller and Shane Battier beat them from 3-point range. If some combination of Pietrus and Daniels/Pavlovic can keep them under wraps and knock down a few shots of their own, it would go a long way toward offsetting Miami’s other advantages. These are matchups the Celtics simply can’t lose.
The Heat play a number of smaller lineups that offer a variety of problems, but may also minimize the need to play Greg Stiemsma and Ryan Hollins too many minutes.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This the matchup they wanted and the series that everyone expected after Derrick Rose went down with a torn ACL. For the Celtics, this comes down to a long series of ifs.
If Rondo and Garnett can be dominant, game in and game out … If Pierce can hang with LeBron … If the Celtics can minimize the damage done by Wade … If their role players can outperform Miami’s … If Bosh doesn’t come back … If they can avoid turning the ball over and giving away easy transition baskets … If they can hold Miami to one shot … If they can make 45-50 percent of their midrange jump shots and enough 3-pointers to keep them honest … If they can overcome their age, injuries and the lack of homecourt advantage.
If enough of those things happen, the Celtics can steal a game in Miami and make this a long series. They’re playing with house money now and if the Heat get tested, brace yourself for all kinds of mental anguish and psychodrama. But they have to play above and beyond what they’ve shown so far in the postseason to make it a possibility.
The smart play is the Heat in five. The belief here is the Celtics have enough left to force a Game 6 in the Garden and take the series back to Miami.
The pick: Heat in seven.