BOSTON (CBS) – When the Celtics and Heat opened up the NBA season back on October 26, nearly everyone had a feeling the two would meet up again when spring came around.
Lebron James and the Celtics always seem to meet in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, with the Celtics sending James and the Cleveland Cavaliers home two of the past three seasons.
Now Lebron has a Big 3 of his own since his “decision” to join Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and is looking for his first playoff series win against Boston.
The two teams meet up with a trip to the Eastern Finals on the line with more pomp and circumstance around since, well the last time the Celtics went up against King James in the playoffs. Can Lebron, with his two news all-star teammates, finally beat the Celtics? Or will the veteran trio triumph once again against younger adversaries in what could be their final crack at another run at the title?
While Miami possesses much more talent, and youth for that matter, the Celtics have the experience and the heart.
Boston won the regular season series 3-1, but those results and stats will be a distant memory when the ball tips Sunday afternoon in Miami.
Rajon Rondo vs Mike Bibby
Boston has been saying all season, “As Rondo goes, we go.” That will be the case in this series. Rondo had 17, 16, and 10 assists in the Celtics three wins over the Heat during the regular season, and recorded only 5 in the 100-77 loss in mid-April. Rondo moving the ball and creating shots for others will be just as important as him hitting those wide open jumpers everyone has been giving him.
Rondo showed he can take over a game, or even a series, against the Knicks when he averaging 7.5 points and 12 assists in the four game sweep. He shot 38-percent from the floor, which is not bad for Rondo. He will need to attack the basket this series even with Lebron lurking for those emphatic blocks from behind. Rondo will be called upon to do a little bit of everything on both ends of the court. Much like he was the “pest” on Carmelo Anthony, he’ll have to help defended Lebron and Wade
Mike Bibby has fit in fairly well with Miami since being signed in March and taking over as the starting point guard. Lebron mostly handles the ball, but Bibby is another shooter the Celtics will have to keep an eye on. He brings a lot of playoff experience from his days with the Sacramento Kings (and a few words for Celtics fans as a member of the Atlanta Hawks). Bibby is a shell of his former self but still a dangerous shooter, hitting 45-percent of his shots from the field and 46-percent from 3-point range.
Ray Allen vs Dwayne Wade
Allen may be the aging veteran but he had a great season, and thrived against Miami. The 35-year-old averaged 20.3 points in the four regular season meetings, including a 35-point showing in Boston’s 112-107 win in November. Allen hit seven 3-pointers while Wade was held to just 12 points, his season average against Boston.
But Wade is one of the best players in the game for a reason. He can score nearly any way he wants, be it attacking the rim or creating his own shot. Ray will have to make him work on the defensive end to make sure he does not get into an offensive groove, and the Celtics will have to make sure the paint is closed off so “Flash” does not fly to the hoop.
Paul Pierce vs Lebron James
This is one of the classic playoff matchups of the last few years. Pierce loves to play James, as he does many of the best players in the league. Defensively, Pierce jumps at the opportunity to show that he can play with the best, whether it is Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony or now, Lebron James.
The regular season numbers do not show Pierce’s work, as Lebron averaged 28.8 points against Boston, but making James work for his points and feel uncomfortable will be key in the series. The Celtics need to get in Lebron’s head. Make him press for everything and think too much about the little things. Lebron can fill up the stat sheet, but is he ready to lead a team or will he be on the bench biting his nails, looking for someone to blame if the Heat fall?
Pierce on the other hand has to be willing to do whatever it takes to stop James, even if that means sacrificing his offensive game. Pierce scored just one point in 40 minutes in Boston’s 85-82 win in February, his lowest point total since 1999. That game Lebron was held, and we use that term loosely, to 22-7-7 and missed a crucial free throw with 12.5 seconds left and the game on the line. Granted, Pierce cannot play defense at the free throw line, but that is part of the Celtics being in Lebron’s head. If King James can shake the demons of the past, there is a good chance he could go off for a triple-double or two. Whether they translate into a Heat win is a different story.
Kevin Garnett vs Chris Bosh
Kevin Garnett is healthy, and that is the most important factor. He is playing some of his best basketball in a Celtics uniform, and the intensity on the defensive end will just get ratcheted up for this series. Getting into Bosh’s head and under his skin, like Garnett does with most if not all players he goes against, will lead to frustration from the player who is relatively new to playoff basketball.
Bosh should not be taken lightly though. Paul Pierce called him the key to the series for Miami. Bosh was seen as the third wheel when the season began, but played well against Boston in the final two matchups of the regular season. Bosh went for 24-10 in April’s near comeback, and finally showed some fire in Miami’s late season win.
This will be a physical matchup that will likely contain some choice words between the two, but in the end Garnett should come out on top. KG will also be called upon to clog the lane, keeping Wade and James from their highlight dunks.
Jermaine O’Neal vs Zydrunas Ilgauskas
These two players are responsible for two things: Play defense and rebound. Jermaine O’Neal has done that well since returning from knee surgery in April, but will have a lot more to worry about now with Wade and James as the attackers. If O’Neal can keep his focus on defense and not worry about his offensive showings, which he has done very willingly, he should play a big role for the Celtics. He could be a huge X-Factor if, paired with KG in the paint, they can turn Wade and Lebron into jump shooters rather than highlight makers. Big Z, although always a threat to sink a long jay, is a liability on the defensive end for Miami. When he is on the court, Boston should take advantage as much as they can.
Jeff Green, Glen Davis, Delonte West, Nenad Krstic, ShaquilleO’Neal (????????) vs Mario Williams, Joel Anthony, Eddie House, Eric Dampier
Neither bench is great, but they each have serviceable players that could make the opposition pay. The key for the Celtics will be Jeff Green. He will be called upon to defend Lebron at times and will have to hold his own while out there on the court. The Celtics bench has had the reputation of giving up leads while the starters rest, this CANNOT happen against Miami. Glen Davis has been in situations like this, and with the driving forces of James and Wade, will have to sacrifice his body in hopes of drawing a charge.
And of course, there is Shaq. Will he play again, ever? That question has been like shaking the Magic 8 ball and getting a different answer every time. If the Celtics get anything out of Shaq this series, consider it a bonus. He could be a huge help clogging the lane for 5-10 minutes a game, but don’t hold your breathe.
As for Miami’s bench, they have guys that can shoot. Mario Williams can go off at any time if the C’s focus too much on whatever star(s) are on the court. Celtics fans know what Eddie House can do in the playoffs, although he has declined mightily since 2008. But the fiery House will be looking to show his old team what they missed, especially after they sent him to the basketball doldrums known at the Knicks in 2009. Joel Anthony will be another big man for Boston to worry about, and cannot let him sneak in and get double-doubles. If Anthony pulls down rebounds, especially on the offensive glass, it will be hard for Boston to win games.
Edge: Celtics (even without Shaq)
Doc Rivers vs Erik Spoelstra
No contest. The Celtics listen to and trust everything Doc Rivers says. The same cannot be said for the Heat and Spoelstra. The Celtics execute Doc’s plays in big situations, the Heat do not (they were just 1-19 in the final shot while trailing by three or less in the regular season).
There has been talk about Doc leaving after this season, but only because he wants to enjoy some time as a family man. There has been talk about Spoelstra leaving, but it is because Pat Riley is standing over him, ready to take over.
The one thing Doc will have to instill on his team is turnovers. If there is one team in the NBA that will make you pay for turning the ball over, it is Miami. They get out on the break better than any team, and when Lebron and Wade start running, it’s hard to stop them. If the Celtics lose this series, it will be beause they are sloppy with the ball and Miami turned that into points.
No doubt, this will be another series for ESPN Classic. Much like the Celtics-Cavaliers series over the last few years, look for Lebron to do anything and everything to finally beat Boston. Now that Wade and Bosh are by his side, there is no better chance to actually pull it off. But the Celtics are hungry to get the championship that slipped away last season. They will not let Lebron James and crew get in the way of that.