Eastern Conference Finals Preview: (2) Heat vs. (4) Celtics
By Anthony Macri
Things have started to appear normal again for the Miami Heat. After losing Chris Bosh in Game 1 of their conference semifinal series with the Indiana Pacers, the Heat have managed to stabilize their team and actually look better in some ways than they did when Bosh was healthy. Their quest for a championship, however, will require a lot more than they were able to give against the Pacers. After overwhelming the New York Knicks in their opening round matchup, the Heat encountered a foe that refused to back down in Indiana -- but that may have been just the wake-up call Miami needed, as the Heat closed that series out looking very strong down the stretch. Led by a big two of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the real question for Miami is where its other production comes from -- and, maybe more importantly, if it needs it.
The Boston Celtics faced more resistance than expected from the No. 8 seed Philadelphia 76ers in the conference semifinals, going the distance before outlasting the upstarts from the City of Brotherly Love. Their prize for victory? Facing a hungry and rested Heat team for the right to go to the NBA Finals. Everyone talks about the Big 3 for Boston -- Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen -- and at different times, each of them has stepped up with big shots in big spots. However, the straw that stirs that drink is most definitely Rajon Rondo, who has been beyond impressive most nights. Combine his stellar play with the emergence of support scoring from Brandon Bass, and you have a team that has the feeling of an aging boxer looking for one more knockout.
These two teams played each other four times during the regular season, something that didn’t happen too much in this lockout-shortened schedule. Boston was victorious three of those four times, beating Miami by an average of 8 points per game. It should be noted, though, that the fourth game of that season series was a throwaway, with both teams resting key players. With that said, the Heat’s only win over the Celtics this season was in the second game of the season, way back in late December. That lack of success may mean something as both teams scratch and claw for any edge they can find.
Most expected this would be a series between the Heat and the Chicago Bulls, but it appears fans were granted the second best thing in the Celtics. Can older, creaky players stay on the court with the young, refreshed legs in South Beach? Or, will the absence of Bosh become magnified against the better defensive experience and scheming of the team from Beantown?
Five Keys to the Eastern Conference Finals
1. Chalmers vs. Rondo
Many will talk about the matchups between Pierce and James, Allen and Wade (though I wouldn’t expect to see them facing each other too much), and Garnett and Bosh (if he can return). However, the real key to the series is the matchup between Mario Chalmers and Rondo.
Chalmers is a nightmare matchup for most defensively. He maximizes his pestitude, getting into the personal space of the player he is guarding, and does an excellent job of closing out and choking off driving lanes with his body. Rondo, his last-minute performance of Boston's Game 7 win over Philly notwithstanding, is not a great shooter, but does an excellent job of trapping defenders into areas he wants them to be and keeping them there.
The reality is that Rondo’s contributions are much more important to Boston’s success than Chalmers’ contributions are to Miami. Because of that, expect to see Chalmers dogging Rondo all over the court for most of the game, using a combination of high intensity pressure and relaxed containment. In addition, late in games, LeBron may take a turn or two against Rondo to bother him with his length and strength, two advantages that Rondo typically has over opposing guards.
2. Battle on the glass
The main thing that Miami has been missing with the absence of Chris Bosh has not been his scoring, which it can make up in part from superhuman performances of the big two and the occasional third scorer stepping up, but his rebounding. Bosh’s activity level and his status as a player that opposing teams must account for when preparing their rebounding schemes means there was a gaping hole when he was unavailable. This was where the Heat needed two games to understand that other guys would need to chip in on the glass.
The result was a Game 4 and 5 domination of the Pacers at both ends in the rebounding column, including a 75-52 advantage for the Heat on the defensive backboard. And while the pure numbers were tied on the offensive side (both teams grabbed 21 offensive rebounds in those two games), Miami achieved a higher percentage of possible offensive rebounds grabbed than Indiana did on both nights.
Boston will not want to follow up its inconsistent rebounding performances from the Philadelphia series, because Miami as a whole is much better at making teams pay for poor rebounding than the 76ers were. Expect Miami to send at least three and a half players to the glass on every possession in an attempt to apply constant pressure on the Celtics. Boston’s ability to withstand this onslaught will be critical to its success.
3. Ugly it up
Unlike the Western Conference finals, which a lot of people expect to see as a tremendous display of offensive basketball, this series promises to be much more of a defensive slugfest. Boston was at or near the top spot in most defensive categories this year, and Miami was no slouch either, finishing in the top five in both opponent points per game and defensive rating.
Both teams use their defensive identity as a calling card, which may make for some aesthetically unpleasing basketball. Boston relies heavily on screening action, and the physical contact that screens create tends to give problems to good defensive teams: the bottom line is, every screen forces the defense to think, and thinking leads to breakdowns. Miami, on the other hand, uses penetration actions and a more cut-and-replace style that can get seriously mucked up by really physical defensive teams like Boston.
The uglier the series is, the more it favors Boston overall. But that advantage is certainly not by much.
4. Occupying defenders
One of Miami’s more pressing problems coming into the series is whether it has enough different offensive weapons to prevent Boston’s defense from keying on the big two in Bosh’s absence. Boston’s great rotations will allow its primary defenders to almost completely ignore Joel Anthony as a ball-screener, meaning we can expect to see Wade and LeBron trapped off ball screens a great deal.
Unless a shooter emerges for Miami (and it can’t just be the shell of Mike Miller or Shane Battier), the Celtics will commit their entire defensive strategy to plugging up areas that Wade and LeBron like to operate. Philly’s balance offensively gave Boston problems because the Celtics could not key on any one guy (incidentally, this was also the biggest problem for the 76ers, as they went into extended offensive droughts all on their own and could not find a scorer).
Miami’s best solution to this issue is three-pronged: first, run at every opportunity to create seams and cross-matches against the Boston defense; second, hit the offensive glass on any jump shots to prevent Boston from loading too far and missing box-out assignments; and third, set LeBron and Wade up in the post area off cutting action that sucks the defense in and allows shooters to be more open for shots.
5. Offensive lulls
One of Boston’s main weaknesses is its identity as a jumpshot-reliant team. A large number of plays that the Celtics run are actions to get either Garnett or Bass a jump shot. Paul Pierce can be an effective option when he gets open on curl screens, but a strong defensive team like Miami will take that away as well. The real issue for Boston is that it tends to go into offensive lulls, which can last 6-8 minutes of gametime or longer, and the Celtics rely on jump shots to get a spark.
This may only get amplified due to the extremely quick turnaround the Celtics will have after their Game 7 win over the 76ers. There are no extra breaks scheduled in this conference semifinal series with the Heat -- just one day off in between each game -- so any tired legs will not have a chance to fully recover.
During those periods of futility, expect Miami to go to a steady diet of Wade. Boston has no one on its roster that can match up with Wade anywhere on the court. While the Celtics will send multiple defenders his way, between his individual ability to get where he wants and the focus his teammates will have on moving to open areas for easy shots or offensive rebounds, the issues for Boston are compounded.
The Celtics must find ways to avoid the dead time offensively. Two easy tricks they may want to employ in order to create positive actions: first, they can look to invert their offense with Rondo or Ray Allen as ball screeners and Paul Pierce or even Garnett as handlers. The action is much harder to guard and puts a lot of pressure on the Heat to rotate perfectly. Second, the Celtics must make full use of their off-ball screening actions by having both the cutter and the screener be threats. The cutter off the screen uses the screen, and is usually guarded well. But this makes the screener even more dangerous as he presents back to the basketball.
Prediction: Heat in seven (if Bosh is not available); Heat in six (if Bosh is available).