After a week of waiting - or perhaps a full season's worth - the Celtics and Heat will finally lock horns in the NBA Playoffs on Sunday afternoon, when they play game 1 of their best-of-seven, Eastern Conference Semifinal series in Miami at 3:30 p.m. EDT, on ABC. About the only surprising aspect of the matchup is that it comes a round sooner than most people, likely including the two teams themselves, would have predicted.
The Celts have been here before, as recently as last season, when they played the Cleveland Cavaliers without the benefit of home-court advantage in the same round, yet dispatched the Cavs and LeBron James in six games en route to the Finals. It was the second time a James-led team failed against the C's in the playoffs and was seen as one reason James chose to bolt Cleveland in favor of South Beach. The C's have won 18 of 21 against the Heat and not only bounced James from last year's postseason, they gave Dwayne Wade the boot too, in the first round.
For the C's, the key to this series seems simple enough: slow down one or more of Miami's Big Three just enough to make one of the Heat's bit players have to step up. The Heat are dangerously thin beyond the troika of James, Wade and Chris Bosh and obviously have had their most success this season when all three are humming at once. The league's better teams seemed to understand this as the Heat were a pedestrian 18-19 against opponents with records above .500 during the regular season. They managed to beat the Celts just once in four tries and it came in the season's final week, a 100-77 beatdown that came while Boston was in complete, mail-it-in mode. The other three meetings were Celts victories, on opening night in Boston, a couple weeks later in Miami and then on a Sunday afternoon in February back at TD Garden.
In the position battles, the one spot where the C's have a distinct advantage is at point guard. Rajon Rondo, who dominated in the first round against the Knicks, averaged 7.5 points and 12 assists in the four regular season games against the Heat, and that includes the seven-point, five assist stinkbomb he unleashed in the April 10, loss. He posted 43 assists in the three Boston wins, spearheading the Celts offense all three times and Celtics fans all know what kind of havoc their team wreaks when Rondo is on his game. Elsewhere, Ray Allen may well be matched up with Wade, but it barely hindered him during the season. Allen scored 20.3 points per game against the Heat this year, a Celts team high which includes a middling 13 in the late season loss. He's hot at the right time too, carrying a 22 PPG average for this postseason into the series, a number that includes his blistering, 32-point outburst in Game 3 against the Knicks, a night on which he drilled 8-of-11 from 3-point range.
Of course, the Celts will have their hands full with James and Wade. Paul Pierce will spend as lot of time following LeBron while Jeff Green will also get several cracks at him. One of the more pertinent reasons the C's traded for Green in the first place had to do with his ability at 6-9 with great quickness and athletic ability, to potentially stay with James on defense. Down low, it will be up to defensive maven Kevin Garnett to slow up Bosh, who had three double-doubles in the Heat's first round win over Philadelphia. Miami went 24-7 during the season when Bosh posted a double-double. Bosh averaged 15 points per game against the C's this year, almost four fewer than his season average.
Not surprisingly, Celts center Shaquille O'Neal traveled with the team to South Beach and the C's hope to have him back at some point during the series. In other news, the earth is round and the sky is blue. In all seriousness though, Sunday's Game 1 is obviously enormous for both teams, and not just for the conventional reasons. The Celtics are a lofty 51-5 in best-of-seven series in which they've won Game 1 and 7-0 in the Big Three era.