Be smart about combatting the Celtics' stingy D
Most opponents have employed a consistent defensive strategy against the Heat this season. Whenever Dwyane Wade or LeBron James have the ball on one side of the floor, defenses send an extra body to the edge of the lane in an effort to clog up the route between player and basket. It's not an unfamiliar tactic. In fact, the Celtics apply that kind of strong-side pressure against most teams they face. The scheme comes with a few inherent risks. For instance, this system leaves the weak side of the floor extremely vulnerable to reversals and skip passes. Yet the Celtics' strong side defenders are so adept at strangling opponents on one sideline, while the back side guys are so prompt with their rotations, they rarely miss a beat. For the Heat to succeed offensively Sunday, they'll need to keep the ball in the middle of the floor. By doing so, Miami forces Boston to guard each and every Heater on the floor. To stretch the Celtics' defense further, expect Erik Spoelstra to maximize his floor spacers -- Mike Miller, James Jones and Eddie House. That's a natural antidote for a defense that puts a premium on loading up. If the Heat can establish a drive-and-kick game that originates at the top of the floor and generate opportunities on the weak side, they have a chance to push back on the Celtics' suffocating defense.
Stop Rondo and roll
If you haven’t read Brian Windhorst’s latest, you may have missed a subtle defensive adjustment Tuesday that has big implications for Sunday. Specifically, Spoelstra trusted James to guard Darren Collison down the stretch, a quick and penetrating point guard similar to Rondo. Seeing that Rondo is a pass-first point guard, sticking James on him can shut off some passing lanes that would otherwise be open against a shorter defender. In the first two games, that assignment belonged to Carlos Arroyo, who is buried on the Heat bench now, and Rondo consequently dropped 33 dimes. Many of those dishes were in the open court but Arroyo was utterly defenseless against Rondo’s entry passes when he stood six feet off. Those passes become dramatically more difficult with James’ length in the lanes. Spoelstra will tab Mario Chalmers with Rondo-guarding duties from the outset but when the coach decides to go unconventional with Miller in the lineup, don’t be surprised to see James claim Rondo. It may be the Heat’s best option.
The unconventional lineup can help on defense, too!
The discussion surrounding the Heat's point guard-less lineup that features James, Wade and Miller usually focuses on the unit's offensive capabilities. But there's also a defensive component at work. For instance, James is sometimes assigned to cover the opposing point guard, but at other times he'll handle a power forward. Against the Celtics' dizzying array of rotating pick-and-rolls, the Heat can use the versatility their big perimeter guys like James and Miller provide -- along with the quickness of a big man like Joel Anthony -- to deploy different strategies. Where most teams might get caught in a mismatch against the Celtics' pick-and-roll attack, the Heat have some wiggle room. If James gets switched onto Rondo, the Heat don't lose much -- nor do they if James lands on Kevin Garnett, or Anthony momentarily guarding the perimeter. Miller can rebound from just about any spot, and Wade has the strength to hold his own at three positions. The Celtics' size and physicality won't be easy to contain, but the Heat's numerous positional options make that task easier.
The Thin Green Line
Since the last time these teams met, in November, the Celtics have gained Kendrick Perkins but have lost Shaquille O’Neal, Semih Erden and Jermaine O’Neal. No, the Heat don’t feature any bruising centers who can attack Perkins underneath and push him into foul trouble, but the Heat do have James and Wade, two of the best in the NBA at drawing whistles. And help defense is precisely where Perkins tends to get foul-happy, not in post-up situations, as one might suspect. It will be interesting to see if the Celtics’ lack of frontcourt depth affects Perkins’ aggressiveness in rotating on the backside. The Celtics’ defense hinges on sound, airtight defensive rotations, but if Perkins leaves his feet to stop a penetrating James, that’s almost a whistle waiting to happen. If he doesn’t, then it leaves an open window for a lay-in. The best way for the Celtics to protect the basket -- and, in turn, protect Perkins -- is to prevent penetration altogether on the perimeter. The Celtics are certainly capable of doing that.
Play with confidence
We normally shy away from platitudes at '5 things,' but there's a strong undercurrent present when the Heat speak about the Celtics. Whether it's a defense mechanism or a means to explain away their 0-2 record against Celtics, Miami is constantly contrasting its roster's short track record as a team with Boston's longevity as a single unit. Spoelstra, Wade, Bosh and James have all made reference to the chasm of experience between the teams. "We're way behind those guys," James said recently. "Just look at the number of games played, the number of playoff series those guys have had. We're only a few months in together -- 40-something-plus games. I've seen the statistics. Boston has like 250-plus games played together. We're way behind those teams." James is entirely correct that familiarity is a vital ingredient for team success. But it's not as if we hear any of the Celtics' principal stars telling the media, "Miami's three best players are in the primes of their career, and we just can't compete with that. We have guys who were once top-five or top-10 players, but not anymore, and our point guard is still a couple of years away from his projected prime. We've seen the statistics." The Heat have appeared overwhelmed and if not intimidated, then certainly beleaguered during their first two meetings with the Celtics. On Sunday, they need to take the floor with a level of assurance they demonstrated in Los Angeles on Christmas Day.