3-on-3: Celtics vs. Heat (Game 52 of 66)

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Dwyane Wade and the Heat are back in the Garden for a Sunday showdown.Three months and much of the NBA season have passed since the Boston Celtics (29-22, 18-8 home) and Miami Heat (37-13, 16-11 road) last clashed in December, but the two rivals will see each other three times in the next 24 days -- with the strong possibility of a playoff date to follow. The play-dates start Sunday with a national television showdown at TD Garden (3:30 p.m., ABC). To preview the big game, we go 3-on-3 with ESPN Boston's Greg Payne and CelticsHub's Ryan DeGama.

For the Miami perspective, check out a 3-on-3 by our friends at the Heat Index.

1. What has been the biggest change for the Celtics since the first meeting with the Heat in December?

Payne: The Celtics are in shape and they're playing together. I don't think we should underestimate the perplexities that this shortened season brought forth, as there's no question this club has grown in virtually every area since the second game of the season. It's become pretty obvious of late that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have steadily worked themselves back into shape as the season has gone on, and they're arguably the two biggest reasons why Boston's seen this mini resurgence of late and have reclaimed the outright lead in the Atlantic Division. On top of that, the Celtics are finally starting to play with the offensive balance that has been crucial for them over the past few seasons (Rajon Rondo's play has a lot to do with that), and when Ray Allen returns, I think he'll blend right back in pretty seamlessly.

DeGama: The inclination is to note the mass of injuries, but that hardly counts as news in this Celtics era, so I’ll say it’s the surge from Garnett, who has routinely been the best player on the floor since the All-Star break. Boston's offense is more dangerous with Garnett at the 5-spot and the burden (however unwanted) of being the team's key rebounder and scorer has served to focus KG. That leads to a significant downstream benefit: few other players in the league engage their teammates more than a brightly burning Garnett. Right now, he's practically radiating.

Forsberg: The biggest change is probably having a healthy Pierce back on the floor. But look at Boston's rotation from that first meeting and there's changes everywhere. From Garnett shuffling to the center spot and Brandon Bass joining the first unit to Avery Bradley and Greg Stiemsma emerging as key role players -- the Celtics won't look much like the team the Heat saw the first time around (particularly if Ray Allen is still unable to go due to right ankle soreness that's forced him to miss five games). But it all comes back to Pierce. He's so vital to Boston's success against the Heat and having him back on the floor makes this a much different matchup than back in December.

2. What will you be focused on in this matchup on Sunday?

Payne: I really want to see how Avery Bradley defends Dwyane Wade. If Ray Allen does return, Bradley won't see as much time as he has over past handful of games, but I see him as a player who can have a very distinct impact on the game defensively, by helping to slow down Miami's offensive juggernaut. I highly doubt Boston can stop the Heat completely (who can?), but if Bradley can help to stymie at least a portion of the three-headed monster, the Celtics will have a much better chance of knocking off the Heat.

DeGama: Something that’s key to a prospective playoff series between these teams: the extent to which Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce can put their offensive imprints on the game. The Celtics need all three of these guys asserting themselves, which means Rondo needs to tear up the hardwood in transition and attack in the half-court, Garnett needs 18+ shots and Pierce needs to be on from the arc and drawing fouls off the dribble. Otherwise, the C’s won’t be able to score enough against Miami’s hyperkinetic defense to win.

Forsberg: Let's start with turnovers. Boston gave up the ball 24 times (leading to 33 points) in the first meeting and there's virtually no way you overcome that against a team like the Heat (at least not without having to junk up the game with a zone defense to rally back). Boston has valued the ball far better in the second half of the year and that must continue Sunday. The other focus should be on the glass. For all of that's made about their height woes, opponents still struggle on the glass against the Heat. Boston built its team last year around trying to win that battle -- alas the O'Neals couldn't stay healthy -- but the Celtics have more athleticism now with Garnett at the 5 and that might allow them to be more competitive there.

3. Should the Celtics be leery of playing the Heat in the first round?

Payne: Of course, but they should have the same reservations about seeing Miami in the second round or even the conference finals. They're going to need Mickael Pietrus if they have any hopes of knocking off Miami, and it sounds like he won't be ready until playoff time (but who knows if that means he'll be ready to go for Game 1). I still say the Celtics will be better off landing a higher seed and an easier first-round matchup, and from there they'll have to cross their fingers and hope that they get everyone healthy, that everyone stays healthy, and that the same doesn't hold true for Miami.

DeGama: Boston’s only chance to take four games in seven will be on the backs of the Big Four and, assuming Doc Rivers carefully manages their April minutes, they’ll be freshest for that first-round series. So, that's the time to play Miami. The likelihood is the Heat would win because Boston’s elder stars can’t bring it game after game the way Miami’s younger stars can, but in the event of an upset, the Celtics would hit the second round with an alarming amount of confidence. Then things could get really interesting.

Forsberg: Let's face it, if Boston goes out and gets walloped three times this month and the Heat sweep the season series, then, yes, absolutely Boston should fear settling for a 2-7 matchup with Miami. But if Boston continues to play this team tough and we see hints that they still match up well with them, then maybe a first-round joust isn't the death sentence some make it out to be. I'll continue to scream it from the rooftop: If Boston looks like it will have to expend an inordinate amount of energy over the final weeks of the season just to make a run at the Atlantic Division crown (and the No. 4 seed), then the Celtics should absolutely take the foot off the accelerator, pace themselves to the regular-season finish line, and simply put themselves in the best position possible to deliver their best punch in the opening round. There's this line of thinking that Boston would be better served as the No. 4 seed because it would be an easier first-round matchup with the likes of the Pacers. I don't think it's a stretch to say that any series with a playoff team is going to be a grind for the Celtics, who have allowed the Bobcats of the world to hang around at times this season. If it comes down to Celtics-Heat in Round 1, Boston shouldn't be leery, it should be inspired. Meet the challenge head on and see what happens.