That sound you heard towards the conclusion of Wednesday night’s Heat-Sixers game was the collective pumping of fists from ESPN, ABC and TNT executives, not to mentions those in the NBA’s offices in New York.
Yes, the league’s hype meter is about to be sent into overdrive as Miami’s Big Three (more like a Big Two) clinched a playoff date with the Boston Celtics in a star-studded second round tilt that has been anticipated since the two teams met on October 26 to kick off the regular season (an 88-80 Celtics’ win).
We know that there will be plenty of breathless analysis over how LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will fare against Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, not to mention the James-Delonte West angle and former teammates opposing one another or taking on their former club (James and Shaquille O’Neal, Eddie House and Boston and Chris Bosh and Jermaine O’Neal, just to name a few).
But much has – and hasn’t – transpired since James, Wade and Bosh joined forces in Miami to challenge the Celtics for Eastern supremacy. For one thing, Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls saw to it that neither club would rule the East and, as such, a new title contender and a three-way rivalry was born. Sticking with Boston and Miami, though, identity, chemistry and personnel changes have altered the series from what could have been expected back in October to what will likely transpire once things get underway on Sunday afternoon.
Even though Miami was seen as the great team on paper that would need to learn how to play together, both clubs continue to face issues with getting their personnel on the same page.
James and Wade each had typically brilliant seasons, but still don’t look entirely comfortable on court with one another and don’t seem to fully understand how to play off of each other. It is telling that against Philadelphia in the first round, coach Erik Spoelstra allowed for long stretches of time where one of his superstars sat while the other played. Critics who were quick to scrutinize the Heat when James and Bosh joined the club last summer pointed to a team with two alpha dogs, both of whom would want to put the team on their shoulders. The team was plenty talented enough to dispatch the Sixers without fully resolving the ‘who’s the man’ issues, but you have to figure that the defensive-minded and experience Celtics will find a way to exploit that lack of identity.
However, Boston has personnel issues of their own to work out. When GM Danny Ainge dealt Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the trade deadline, he gave up an imposing interior presence but also lost a key cog from the close-knit core of a team that relied so heavily on unity in getting to the NBA Finals last season. Instead, the two O’Neals can hardly be expected to fill Perkins’ void and Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic aren’t exactly thriving as the players that came the other way. Green will be relied upon as a primary wing defender against James and Wade and could prove his worth should he help contain the dynamic duo, but it remains hard to believe the veteran Celtics face chemistry questions in April.
Each team will have to exploit what are distinct edges they hold over their respective opponents. James and Wade give Miami a near-unstoppable force in transition that the aging Celtics will have to find a way to counter. Allen and Pierce simply cannot keep up with their younger, quicker counterparts, leaving the longer Green as the best defensive option to be found wearing his namesake colour.
Conversely, Boston can really take advantage of a point guard mismatch in which neither of Mike Bibby or Mario Chalmers can offer much resistance against the dynamic Rondo, fresh off a 15-20-11 stat line in game three of the C’s first round series against Toney Douglas and the New York Knicks.
For all the talk that is sure to transpire over the considerable star power of the series, the less-heralded benches of both the Heat and Celtics could loom large. After all, each side has some major reserve X-Factors in play, with Miami holding out hope for a return by injured veterans Mike Miller and/or Udonis Haslem, while Boston could receive a huge boost if the O’Neals could turn back the clock and defy age one last time.
The Heat’s back-up bigs – namely, Joel Anthony and Juwan Howard – aren’t going to earn the moniker of “Twin Towers” anytime soon (in spite of the wishes of the Miami faithful, who serenade Anthony with tongue-in-cheek ‘MVP’ chants when he steps to the charity stripe), but they could do some damage if Shaq and Jermaine aren’t healthy / contributing.
The Celtics can’t expect another series sweep, just as the Heat can’t anticipate a comfortable five-gamer without really playing up to potential. This match-up could well be worth the hype but, despite what some media coverage may have you believe, there will be players to watch not named James, Wade, Pierce, Allen or Garnett.