Headed into Sunday's showdown, LeBron James has lost his past six games against the Celtics.
The redemption of Dwyane Wade
If you’ve been hanging around the Heat in recent days, you’ve noticed that Wade is growing anxious to tip off against the Celtics on Sunday. Why? He wants to put his past three duds against Boston behind him and move forward. With three straight makes to begin the last meeting, it seemed Wade was ready to do just that -- and then the second quarter started. Wade played as if he was under a Beantown spell, throwing the ball to green jerseys, telegraphing his plays and jump-passing without a cause. Four of his game-high six turnovers occurred in the second period and the Heat blew an opportunity to put the Celtics away after a strong start. Wade refuses to believe that Ray Allen and the Celtics have his number and he may have a point; his brilliant performance against the Celtics in last season’s playoffs may go down as his best since the title run. Wade has said that he’s the victim of some bad luck with his shooting against Boston, and a review of his shot selection reveals that he has a case. Wade has attacked the rim the way he typically does but the ball hasn’t fallen through the net. In fact, he has made just six of his 18 layups against Boston (33 percent), which is half his normal conversion rate of 66 percent on the season. And looking at the film, many of them were good looks that simply didn’t drop. For the Heat to win, they need Wade to turn the page and continue pounding the basket. If he hesitates, chances are the Celtics will sweep the regular-season series.
Locking in on defense
The Celtics haven't been lighting up the league offensively, but they still have an uncanny ability to execute in the half court with misdirection, quality screens and Rajon Rondo's orchestration. Take the last possession of the first half against Philadelphia on Tuesday. For 24 minutes, Boston had been subsisting on a steady diet of pick-and-pops, but with a few ticks remaining, Paul Pierce sets a high screen for Rondo, and the C's get the mismatch they want. Then, Kevin Garnett -- who still sets the best pick in basketball -- gives Pierce a strong screen that allows Pierce to flare out to the arc while Rondo sizes up Andre Iguodala. This action by Garnett has the Sixers' normally tight defense completely flustered. Evan Turner struggles to fight through Garnett, so Elton Brand has to come to the rescue. With both of those Sixers defenders desperately trying to catch up to Pierce, Garnett dives hard to the hole. Rondo finds him and, well, you know the rest. Should the Heat be worried? To an extent. This is precisely the kind of stuff the Heat were defending with gusto earlier in the season but have been getting destroyed on lately. The Celtics probably aren't going to rack up 112 points as they did the last time they stepped foot in AmericanAirlines Arena. But if the Heat don't account for Boston's stack screens and baseline action for Allen and don't close out on the Celtics' bigs who love to face up at 17 feet, they'll get beat.
The pros and cons of Mike Bibby
If you're the Miami Heat, what are some useful things to have in your toolbox when facing the Boston Celtics? For one, how about a point guard who can deliver the ball to LeBron James or Wade, then set up on the weak side and bury a 3-pointer when the ball is reversed? As the primary point guard for the Heat over the past month or so, Bibby has improved the Heat's spacing and offensive efficiency. He's shooting 49.3 percent from beyond the arc, not turning the ball over, and setting screens (of varying legality, but almost always useful) for James and the Heat's bigs. Unfortunately for Miami, you also need a point guard who can slow down Rondo and handle a mismatch if necessary and Bibby gives you very little of that. On one hand, Erik Spoelstra prefers for his point guards to play a bit off Rondo, which, in theory, should help a laterally challenged defender like Bibby. But Rondo has proved that, when he's playing well, he'll just gobble up all that space, draw the defense, then unleash a sick pass to a cutting teammate. The other thing about Rondo? He actually doesn't kill the Celtics from midrange, where he shoots 41 percent between 16 and 23 feet -- better than Jameer Nelson or Joe Johnson. The biggest concern for the Heat might be covering for Bibby on the switch. There isn't a small forward in the league who loves drawing a mismatch more than Pierce does. So if Bibby is on Rondo, watch for a slew of 1-3 pick-and-rolls, which will allow Pierce to draw Bibby, post him up and back him down. At that point, the Heat's help defense will have to make quick, smart, sharp decisions.
The big picture and LeBron
Wade said at Heat practice on Saturday that, in sizing up Boston, we can't go on what we see on TV. The way the Celtics play against the rest of the league isn't the way they play against Miami. The Celtics clearly don't like the Heat. That much was evident on opening night and, though much has changed for both teams, that dynamic hasn't changed a bit. Over the course of the season, both Wade and James have spoken deferentially about the Celtics. They've tipped their hat to the collective time the Celtics spent together as a cohesive unit and the intensity born out of that mutual experience. What they haven't done is beaten Boston once in three chances this season -- and Sunday is Miami's finally opportunity. For the Heat to overcome the Celtics, Wade must play better (as discussed above) -- but LeBron must play transcendently. Usually we caution LeBron not to be lured into long jumpers, but with Boston that's not an issue. Whether he decides to launch from the outside or put the ball on the floor, the Celtics will be primed. Pierce can't wait to torment LeBron, to claw at him on the perimeter. He'll tease LeBron with the slightest opening, then use his heft to push LeBron off course. All of the offseason optics, prognostication and hype really come down to one thing: Can LeBron James accomplish in Miami what couldn't be accomplished in Cleveland? Sunday afternoon is the first graduate-level test of that proposition.
No Perkins, no problem?
At Saturday’s practice, Spoelstra was asked whether the Celtics are more vulnerable now that Kendrick Perkins is gone. Spoelstra’s answer? It’s exaggerated. “They’re still very good defensively. There’s always an adjustment period when you add players and we went through the same thing. You have to respect what they’re capable of.” While Perkins was a one-on-one stopper, it’s a reach to suggest he was the anchor of the Celtics' defense. That responsibility falls on Garnett, and he’s still as strong a deterrent as any player outside Orlando. In Perkins’ place, the Celtics will likely deploy a three-headed attack with Jermaine O’Neal (who missed Friday’s game against the Wizards but is expected to return to the C’s starting lineup Sunday), Nenad Krstic and Glen Davis. The days of O’Neal stuffing opposing offenses are long gone, but he still takes up space in the interior and alters shots near the rim. And as the Heat have learned this season, when the Celtics “go small” and insert Davis into the lineup, they aren’t really going small at all. Davis has the quickness, size and IQ to stay with any of the Heat’s centers and, for good reason, Doc Rivers never shows hesitation in playing him when he needs a body there. And Krstic? He’s a mirror image of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and he hasn’t held the defense back. In fact, the Celtics have allowed two points fewer per 100 possessions (that’s good for the Celtics) with Krstic on the court compared to Perkins. The Celtics' defense has been airtight ever since Perkins left; don’t let the one-game sample size of the Bulls assault fool you.