The eastern conference finals will begin tomorrow night when the Boston Celtics travel down to South Beach to face the Miami Heat. This series will not be nearly as interesting as the western conference finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, but it is still worth previewing. Even though it may be hard to believe by the way these teams have played in the playoffs so far, they are definitely the best two teams in the very weak eastern conference. Once the Derrick Rose injury happened, the east got opened up and the aging Celtics grabbed a spot in the eastern conference finals.
Because the conference finals are a very big deal and more interesting than the first two rounds of playoff games, I will give a preview similar to my previews for Nets games, where I talk about key matchups and give predictions. First, I will give some background information on the two teams.
Let’s begin with the Miami Heat, who recently defeated the Indina Pacers 4 games to 2 after beating the Knicks 4-1 in the first round. The big question for the Heat is when Chris Bosh will return from his injury and if Miami will have enough size without him. I think they will, because Boston doesn’t have a lot of size either. The Heat are obviously led by their two stars, Lebron James and Dwyane Wade. Lebron led Miami in all their victories over the Nets this season. In fact, the Heat and Celtics were a combined 6-0 against the Nets this season. The Nets had 3 wins combined against the other two teams in the eastern semifinals, the Pacers and 76ers.
After trailing Indiana 2-1 in their last series, the Heat rallied around Dwyane Wade to retake the series lead and eventually win the series. Wade led Miami with 41 points and 10 rebounds in the series clinching game 6 on the road. Lebron also chipped in with 28 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds. These two guys are both capable of scoring 30 points any night, and if the Celtics let them do that, Boston will not win this series. Each night, the Celtics have to focus on stopping 1 of the 2 and hopefully the other will have an off game.
Other than the Big 3, the Heat are really just a bunch of scrubs, led by point guard Mario Chalmers. Chalmers emerged somewhat in the Indiana series and even led the Heat in scoring one game. Other important role players for Miami will be Mike Miller and Shane Battier, who both need to make their 3’s. Both have been very disappointing this season and they need to turn it around quickly as we are now only one series away from the finals. Neither player has lived up to expectations and both are signed to larger contracts than Miami would like.
Moving on to the aging Celtics, who have already played a whopping 13 games in the playoffs. That is one 6-game series and one 7-game series, and the Celtics have not looked especially good in either one. In the first round, they defeated the Atlanta Hawks, and it was not pretty. The Hawks are terrible in the playoffs every year it seems, and the Celtics should have easily handled them. They let the Hawks steal two games, and in my opinion, it was 2 games too many. In the last round, they needed 7 games to defeat an 8-seeded Philadelphia team. Even though the Sixers played better than their record showed, the Celtics again should have finished them off in 5 games. The Sixers were only able to beat Chicago because of a Derrick Rose injury and they did not deserve to be in the second round. In game 4 specifically, Boston blew an 18-point second half lead and lost. They will not be able to pull that with Miami if they want to win the series. They are going to need to hold on to every lead they can get.
The Celtics are led by a Big 3 of their own: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, although Rajon Rondo is their best player right now. The Celtics are going to need big contributions from all 4 of those players if they are going to win because they really don’t have much depth, which is their biggest problem. Each of their Big 4 is going to need to play 40 minutes, and the approaching ancient Allen and Garnett may not be able to handle that. Also, if Allen is forced to guard Dwyane Wade, he may not have a lot of energy offensively. The Celtics were 3-1 against the Heat in the regular season, although 2 of those games were at the very end of the season and the Heat benched some of their good players.
Another problem for Boston is injuries. In their last series, the Celtics lost Avery Bradley, an emerging defensive star, to a shoulder injury, which makes the Celtics even more shallow (opposite of deep). Bradley had been a starter for all the playoffs with Ray Allen coming off the bench, but now Allen will be moved into the starting lineup. They could have really used Bradley’s defense on Dwyane Wade.
Rajon Rondo vs. Mario Chalmers. Advantage: Rondo
The Celtics better hope that this advantage goes to Rondo, or else they have no chance at all of winning this series. Rondo recorded a triple-double in game 7 vs. Philadelphia and they may need him to average one in this series. I don’t really know what to think about Rondo. Many think he is one of the best point guards in basketball, but occasionally his decision-making is very strange. He can sometimes make incredible passes that leave you saying “wow”, but he will occasionally try a pass that is way too difficult and turn the ball over. He also can rarely make jump shots and he sometimes misses layups, even in clutch situations. He is fun to watch, but I’m not sure I would want him as the point guard of my team. Chalmers has filled the point guard hole for Miami since their Big 3 arrived and I consider a slightly below average NBA point guard. The Heat don’t really need him and can win without him.
Ray Allen vs. Dwyane Wade. Advantage: Wade
Wade may have a huge series now that Avery Bradley is injured, as I wrote earlier. The Celtics will likely be forced to put Rondo on Wade because at this age, I don’t think Ray Allen can keep up with the much quicker Wade. This may take away from Rondo’s offense, which the Celtics also desperately need. I think that the only way Allen can be useful to his team right now is his shot. When he was younger, he was also a good scorer and was able to get to the rim, but he really can’t do this any more. Look for Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett to set good (although possibly illegal) picks to set up Allen’s shots.
Paul Pierce vs. Lebron James. Advantage: James
First, I want to say how much I like and respect Paul Pierce. He has been an excellent player for a very long time and he is as unguardable as most NBA players, even at this point in his career. He is also fun to watch and I usually find myself rooting for him. But he is no Lebron James. Lebron should theoretically have a huge series. The big question for him will be if he can finally have a good series against Boston. He famously gave up in a second round series against Boston in 2010, his last year with the Cleveland Cavaliers. This prompted many in Cleveland to call him a quitter, and he did look like one in that series. Even though the Heat beat Boston in the playoffs last year, Lebron did not have a great series and he definitely does not like playing against Paul Pierce. I don’t expect a great series from him, and Pierce will need to average 25 points per game. I hope Pierce doesn’t get injured.
Brandon Bass vs. Shane Battier (?). Advantage: Bass
I can’t believe this will be the power forward matchup in the conference finals, but it is, at least until Chris Bosh returns from his injury. Bass has been a pleasant surprise for Boston this year and he can score 20 points occasionally. Battier needs to make his 3’s. That is all he can do at this point in his career. This matchup will not really effect the series.
Kevin Garnett vs. Joel Anthony (?). Advantage: Garnett
I have no idea who will start at the center position for Miami. It will probably either be Joel Anthony or Ronny Turiaf, although Dexter Pittman may get some minutes when he returns from injury. All the Heat want out of their centers is rebounding. They can’t expect to get anything more. Garnett has changed his game this season, moving from power forward, where he has played his entire career, to center. He has also taken many more outside shots this season, because he isn’t able to get into the paint as easily as he once was. The Celtics should have a size advantage with Garnett and Bass over the Miami center and Battier/Mike Miller.
It is again prediction time. My bold prediction for this series is that Dwyane Wade will be the leading scorer for Miami. He will carry the Heat while Lebron James again fades into the background, especially in the fourth quarter. But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Even though Lebron is a consensus better player than Wade, Wade is often a better closer and a better player come playoff time. If Lebron can score for 3 quarters and then let Wade take over in the fourth and Miami wins, that’s fine. This is very similar to the Oklahoma City Thunder situation. My bold prediction in that series was that Russell Westbrook will lead the Thunder to the NBA finals, even though he is typically the second option for OKC. Wade will do the same for Miami. I think the Heat will win the series in 5 games, and Boston’s age will really show. This will be pretty sad, because it is the end of an era in Boston. Garnett and Allen are unlikely to return to Boston next year as they are free agents and the Celtics will have to rebuild to some extent. The Celtics will put up a fight, especially in the first two or three games of the series, but in the end, Miami will just be too powerful. Below you will see who I predict to win each game.
Game 1: Heat
Game 2: Celtics
Game 3: Heat
Game 4: Heat
Game 5: Heat