Heat prepare for the 'head of the snake'

MIAMI -- In NBA parlance there’s a crude phrase that refers to the offensive leader of an opposing team. It couldn’t be more applicable to the way the Miami Heat view their upcoming matchup with Rajon Rondo, the Boston Celtics speed demon and headache-maker.

Allow LeBron James to bestow the honor:

“He’s the head of the snake,” James said of Rondo prior to the Heat's last regular-season meeting with Boston.

A more elegant way to praise a talented distributor through the years is to say he is “the straw the stirs the drink.” That, too, has often been said about Rondo, who culls and blends the premium talents of numerous Hall of Famers-to-be like well-aged spirits.

But the Heat are quite settled on the snake metaphor in this case. As in, to kill a snake you must cut off the head. And the Heat view the Celtics, generally, as a snake.

“We don’t like them, it’s simple,” Dwyane Wade said. “None of us.”

Simply, the head of the snake is where the bite comes from and Rondo has been sharpening those fangs. He was fantastic in the Celtics’ sweep of the New York Knicks in the first round, averaging 19 points, seven rebounds and 12 assists and was a blur of energy. It is that energy the Heat will respect, and maybe even fear, the most.

The Heat are one of the best defensive teams in the league, especially in the half court, because they have athletic defenders that can cover ground and be effective in help defense. The Heat’s defensive philosophy is to keep the ball out of the middle. They’re great at it, working together to block driving lanes and force the ball away from the hoop and, eventually, lower percentage shots.

But when the ball gets into the middle, things tend to fall apart quickly. This isn’t as much of a problem against teams where the wings are the primary scorers, because Wade and James are good perimeter defenders.

When the penetrator is the point guard, well, that’s where the Heat are a little softer. It isn’t starter Mike Bibby’s strong suit. Backup Mario Chalmers is better but, under duress, sometimes the Heat ditch having a point guard on the floor at all and throw the defensive assignment to James or Wade.

So now here’s Rondo, who is one of the best in the league at getting the ball into the middle because of his quickness and agility. Then he’s also excellent at exploiting the weakness in the defense as it collapses, usually finding the best shot for a teammate.

That’s where the rubber meets the road and maybe where this series will be won. If the Heat can play together and slow Rondo, they will have the edge. If not, they may have serious problems. Rondo averaged 12 assists against the Heat in the regular season, averaging 16.5 in the first two games but then just 7.5 in the last two meetings.

In the second half of the season, Rondo was bothered by sore hands that he said felt like arthritis. Then his speed was affected by a bout of plantar fasciitis. As he struggled, the Celtics’ scoring dropped and so did their position in the standings.

Now, it seems, he feels much better and it showed as he took apart the Knicks in looking like the wizard that carried the Celtics to the Finals with tremendous play last season.

“It’s hard to keep Rondo out of the paint,” Wade said. “We’ll throw different guys on him but mostly we have to keep him out of transition.”

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra likes to say that Rondo is “unpredictable” because he will come of picks differently, fake passes and change direction so frequently that it's hard to game plan for him. Like when preparing for James or Wade, no single formula works all the time, and there’s some gambling involved.

Play off Rondo to challenge him to shoot jumpers, as the Knicks did, and he can get momentum on drives and better use screens with all that space. Play up on him and he can get past his man without a screen. So, as Wade said, the general book is to change looks to keep Rondo from finding a rhythm, then to try also to keep him out from getting out in transition.

Some of that strategy will include Wade and James defending Rondo for stretches, their length and athleticism assets in potentially slowing him. Some of it will be to simply keep an eye on him when the Heat are on offense. Famously last season, Rondo had an 18-rebound game in the playoffs against the Cavs but had to jump for only a few of them.

How is that possible? Speed. As the Celtics forced the Cavs into jumpers that resulted in long rebounds, Rondo simply outran everyone to loose balls. He caught them in stride and took off toward the other end. When he’s on the run like that, it’s over. It certainly was for the Cavs. Like the Knicks. And it could be the Heat, too, if they’re not ever so careful.

“In transition? Definitely, I don't think anyone can stay in front of me,” Rondo told ESPN Boston this week.

He’s probably right. So the Heat, as part of their game plan, may have to alter their offense to protect themselves from Rondo in full bloom.

It is something they are hyperaware of as they prepare for the high-stakes series. While so much of the focus is on the competing “big threes” from both sides, the Heat are honing their focus for the slithery Rondo.

“Rondo, we feel like, is the key to their team,” James said. “You have to come out and make guys do what they don’t want to do. We can’t allow him to get 20 points and 15 assists like he was doing in the last series. When he gets his own and gets those guys going, they’re tough to beat.”