Monday, May 28, 2012

Heat-Celtics: Eastern Conference Finals Preview

It's almost pre-ordained in a way. An old, battle tested team making possibly their last run together facing a younger team built for facing them.

The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics are facing each other for the second time since Heat forwards LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined guard Dwyane Wade in Miami. Both teams are coming off two semifinal rounds where their mettle was greatly tested. The Heat are coming into this series still missing Bosh due to an abdominal strain. The Celtics are coming into this series having lost rookie guard Avery Bradley for the rest of the playoffs to a shoulder injury.

Here is how each team got to this point:

Miami Heat

One word can be used to describe the Heat's mindset coming into season: redemption. After falling short in last year's NBA Finals the Heat have been on a championship-or-bust mode. James in particular has been on a personal mission to get back to the Finals and erase the perception of him falling apart at big moments. In a season that earned him his third Most Valuable Player award in four years, James averaged 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. Wade missed 17 games due to injuries and finished the season averaging 22.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game. Forward Udonis Haslem had a down season offensively after coming back from injury in last year's Eastern Conference Finals averaging 6.1 points per game.

In the playoffs the Heat had both an easy and tough matchup. In the first round they faced the New York Knicks in what many hoped would be the sexy series of the playoffs. Instead it became an almost Heat sweep due to Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony having an outstanding Game 4. In the semifinals the faced the Indiana Pacers in a tough, physical matchup. It was in this series that the Heat lost Bosh to injury in Game 1. After that the Pacers seized on their size advantage in Games 2 and 3. James and Wade responded in kind afterwards with almost unstoppable performances in Games 4, 5, and 6. James in particular had a historic Game 4 with 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists, a stat line not seen in the playoffs since 1961.

Boston Celtics

The Celtics came into the season with the possibility of it being the last of the Big 3 era. Forwards Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, along with guard Ray Allen were not getting any younger and the franchise was dealt a blow when forward Jeff Green (whom they traded center Kendrick Perkins for) was lost for the season due to an aortic aneurysm. The team also made some moves like acquiring forward Brandon Bass in a sign-&-trade deal involving forward Glen Davis. Pierce finished the season averaging 19.4 points and 5.2 rebounds and was the healthiest of the Celtic Big 3 only missing four games. The same couldn't be said for Allen as he missed 20 games and finished the season averaging 14.2 points and 3.1 rebounds. At one point Allen was almost traded to the Memphis Grizzlies for guard OJ Mayo. Garnett, after looking sluggish early on, picked it up late averaging 15.8 points and 8.1 rebounds at season's end.

In the playoffs the Celtics had two unexpectedly tough matchups. In the first round they faced the Atlanta Hawks and lost Game 1 along with guard Rajon Rondo to a one game suspension for bumping a referee. While the Celtics did win the next three games it wasn't an easy task. The series went to six games, almost all of them tough. Garnett ad some of his best play in this series averaging 18.7 points and 10.5 rebounds. The semifinals found the Celtics not facing the expected foe in the Chicago Bulls, but the Philadelphia 76ers. This series was...not pretty to say the least. Each team seemed to bring out the worst in each other basketball-wise. This series is also where Bradley was lost to the shoulder injury.

With this matchup both teams have problems. The Heat don't have a complete answer in trying to stop Rondo from penetrating. The overall health of the Celtics may be exposed by the Heat's transition offense. Bosh being out frees up Garnett to get his game going. Bradley being out frees up Wade to continue his recent tear. One matchup though will be a key for each team.

LeBron James vs Paul Pierce:

It is no secret that the Celtics have caused James problems in the playoffs during his days with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Last year's playoffs helped James overcome this stigma. Unfortunately his NBA Finals performance brought the questions of toughness back. Now he is facing the Celtics once again. Pierce is a good defender has been known for clutch performances in the playoffs. Pierce is not healthy coming into this series though. With James putting up jaw dropping games lately it will take a gargantuan effort from Pierce for Boston to have a chance.

Prediction: Heat win series 4-1

The Heat are on a mission of redemption, and the series with the Pacers may have woken up a sleeping giant. Bosh being out has made role players like guard Mario Chalmers, guard Mike Miller, and forward Shane Battier step up. Couple that with Haslem finding his jumper and the recent play of James and Wade and it will be too much for a Celtics team that is limping their way ti this series.