BOSTON - FEBRUARY 13: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat battles Rajon Rondo #9 of the Boston Celtics for control of the ball at TD Garden on February 13 2011 in Boston Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this Photograph user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jim Rogash/ Getty Images)
The journey continues as the Boston Celtics face the next obstacle on their journey to an 18th title -- the Miami Heat -- in the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston and Miami have their injuries, but there is a clear favorite.
The playoffs are great, aren't they? It's where the unexpected happens, where stars are born and where memories are made. Before we proceed, let's take a minute to process what has happened. A team that was two games under .500 at the All-Star break and one that boasted four starters with thirteen or more years of service is one of the last four teams left.
Both teams were expected to handle their second-round series with ease, but that wouldn't be the case. Boston had an opportunity to close out Philly in five games, but couldn't finish the job. Miami, meanwhile, lost the services of forward Chris Bosh in the opening game of its semifinal round series against the Indiana Pacers, which wound up extending the series to six games.
Boston had a great deal of success against Miami in the regular season, winning three of the four meetings and three contests in the month of April. The only Heat win came in the second game of the lockout-shortened season, when Miami posted a 115-107 win (at the time, the Celtics were without injured captain Paul Pierce). Boston would respond with a statement 91-72 win over the Heat on April 1, followed by a 115-107 win and a 78-66 win to close out the season series.
Of course, that was then, and this is now (cliches!). It's the playoffs, an entirely different animal.
Miami enters the series as the favorite, despite the abdominal injury to Bosh, but a Heat series victory is far from guaranteed. With that in mind, here are the keys to the series for the Celtics.
CONTAINING LEBRON JAMES AND DWYANE WADE
This one is pretty obvious. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are the best two players on the floor, and when they're in sync, they can be lethal. You know that, I know that, and you better believe that the Celtics know it, too. It isn't that simple, though, because even when the game plan is to contain James and Wade, that doesn't mean you'll be able to do so. When James was with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Doc Rivers' game plan was to let LeBron be LeBron for the most part and take away the other options. The same can't be done with James in Miami, simply because of Wade's presence (and, when he gets back, that of Bosh). Still, the Celtics will need to put all of their attention on the Heat's star duo. The duties of guarding James and Wade will be handed to Pierce and Ray Allen. Translation? Major advantage for Miami. Back in 2007-08, those match-ups would have been more manageable. Now, Pierce struggles to move laterally and Allen, not known for his defensive prowess anyway, is very limited by a right ankle injury. James and Wade, who are still in their prime, should be able to feast on these one-on-one match-ups. Rivers should, and likely will, consider moving Kevin Garnett or Rajon Rondo to cover James or Wade, respectively, should Pierce and Allen struggle defensively. Unfortunately, they probably will.
GIVE THE KEYS TO RAJON RONDO AND KEVIN GARNETT
In the same way that James and Wade have major offensive advantages against Pierce and Allen, both Rondo and Garnett are in similar situations for Boston. With Bosh on the sidelines, and the lack of a top tier point guard, Rondo and Garnett should have no problem imposing their will on offense. Mario Chalmers will be placed on Rondo, while a mixture of Udonis Haslem, Ronny Turiaf and whoever else the Heat can throw out there will try to guard Garnett. This season, Garnett averaged 15.3 points and 7.3 boards in three games against Miami while Rondo nearly averaged a triple-double with 18.7 points, 13.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds. Boston needs to run its offense through Rondo and Garnett, which won't be that much of a change from the norm. Pierce and Allen will likely be good for some production, but because of their injuries, don't count on it.
CELTICS' BENCH MUST STEP UP PRODUCTION
Even if the Big Four can all produce at high levels, they will still need to sit down at points. Then, it's up to the bench to carry the baton and keep up (or in some cases, re-kindle) the energy. Coming into the playoffs, the Celtics' bench was already paper thin, but the loss of Avery Bradley to season-ending left shoulder surgery did damage to the already depleted group. Bradley's injury forced Allen back into the starting lineup, leaving Boston with Mickael Pietrus, Keyon Dooling, Greg Stiemsma, Ryan Hollins, Marquis Daniels and Sasha Pavlovic to work with. Not exactly a world-beating bunch. Nevertheless, the Celtics' reserves will need to produce. If they don't, it will put a lot of stress on the starters and likely result in a short series (the bad kind).
PREDICTION: If you take off your green team glasses, the reality isn't pretty. Miami may not be a deep team, but its top two players have proven that they can carry a team to the NBA Finals, practically by themselves. However, the Celtics have a reputation for the unexpected. After all, did we expect them to get to this point once again this year? Boston, knowing that this is probably the end of the Big Three era, will scrap and claw, and if they can turn back the clock one more time, they would have a chance in the series. Unfortunately, it seems like father time may have finally caught up with them. Here's hoping I'm wrong, but I predict that Miami will win in six games.