This is what we have all been craving since July. Even before the Celtics’ blowout-turned-nailbiter on opening night, this is what we wanted. The Miami Heat are finally about to play some meaningful ball.
Make no mistake. Despite finishing the season at a less-than-overwhelming 41-41, Doug Collins’ crew deserved to be here. In light of an atrocious start to the season, the seventh seed in the East, along with a playoff win is probably more than Collins would have dared hope for on Thanksgiving. After posting a 3-13 record through 16 games, the Sixers proceeded to win 38 of their final 62 to earn their way into the postseason.
With that said, and with all due respect to the 76ers, after a summer and regular season in which the Heat have had to overcome scrutiny and schadenfreude on a scale seldom, if ever, seen before in the NBA, no first round opponent would have felt like anything more than mini crab cake at a mildly-non-unpleasant after-work office cocktail party (I’m ditching LeBron’s breakfast analogy- I’ve had some hard-to-finish breakfasts). The closest Miami could have come to a prime time Round 1 matchup would have the New York Knicks. Even if they’d drawn the Knicks, it’s unlikely the resulting series would have been much more competitive than either of the ones in which the teams actually partook. However, with the added star power on the floor, along with a dozen year-old rivalry spawned by the franchises’ shared disdain for aesthetically pleasing basketball in 1990s, the series, short-lived though it may have been, would have at least felt relevant.
All season long, the Heat have been targeted by not only their on-court opposition, but by a legions of hoops-loving armchair shrinks- not pointing fingers, I did it too. And all season long, those same people- enraged by a) the unfairness of two of the league’s five best players (and three of the ~top-25) colluding (no proof that this actually happened, but it did seem to have been in place for a while) to join forces and b) the Superfriends’ victory celebration the night after “The Decision,” as premature a “happy ending” as one could bestow upon oneself- spent countless hours posing questions and constructing narratives, all aimed at building the same case- why the Miami Heat cannot triumph in June. (Note: I didn't do this part)
However, despite the occasional bout with regular season inconsistency and a less-than-dominant disposal of the spirited, but overmatched Sixers, barring injury- in Wade’s case, further injury- none of this matters anymore. They boast a top two that’s better than any other in basketball, one that is poised to attack the paint with vengeance. That duo, along with Bosh, and frankly not a whole lot else, carried this team to 57 regular season wins (including 28 on the road, tied for tops in the league with the Mavericks) and the distinction of being the only 2010-11 NBA squad ranked in the top-ten in efficiency at both ends of the floor.
Now, with the nuisance of the initial 82 behind them, and with Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams in the rearview, it’s finally time for the Heat to get down to business. At 3:30 on Sunday afternoon, in front of about 4,700 (give or take) “white hot” fans at the American Airlines Arena, the Heat and the Boston Celtics will fire the opening salvos in the most compelling matchup in what could be the most compelling conference semifinal round in NBA history. The storylines abound- the Eastern Conference's proud, old guard, and the team that has flummoxed LeBron James on multiple occasions in the postseason, and the team that eliminated him and Wade in consecutive rounds of last spring's playoffs, squaring off against the Association's "test tube superpower," one formed
A quick side note on Miami’s supporting cast: For all that’s been made of the lack of depth and talent on the Heat bench, through one postseason series, it has outperformed its opposite number from Boston. Whatever your thoughts on +/- statistics, these numbers, passed along by Danny Martinez (@DannyMartinez4 on Twitter) of HotHotHoops.com, an excellent Heat blog, will likely surprise you. In Miami’s opening round series (5 games), Joel Anthony recorded a fantastic +72, while Mario Chalmers and James Jones posted +57 and +28, respectively. The trio hardly set the world on fire from the field against Philly, making just 30 of 75 shots (40%), but shot a comparable 18-for-46 (39%) from beyond the arc.
I decided to then take a look at the guys off of the Celtics’ bench that received the most floor time in Round 1 (I'll take Shaq into accoutn when I actually see him in uniform). In four games against the defenseless Knicks, Delonte West (+/- of -23), Nenad Krstic (-4), Jeff Green (-19) and Big Baby (-9) combined to hit just 25 of their 65 field goal attempts (38%), including just one of 11 3-pointers.
So, that's maybe something to think about. Anyway, moving on...
As for concerns about the Heat's collective reaction to "postseason intensity" and playing in a hostile climate (this is always a fun one to speculate about), consider that a) neither LeBron nor Wade is a stranger to either the NBA postseason, or the spotlight in general and b) these guys have basically been playing road playoff games since October. If anything, the Heat are probably better prepared for hostile surroundings and increased scrutiny than any team other than the Lakers. Throw in a tighter playoff rotation, with fewer minutes for subpar bench guys, along with a steady stream of potentially the deadliest play in basketball, the Wade-LeBron pick-and-roll (which was far more prevalent in the regular season’s final weeks), and there’s suddenly plenty of cause for optimism in South Florida.
In the months that have followed the opening night hookup, the team have met three more times, with Boston winning twice (once in each city, by a combined eight points) and the Heat once. It’s worth noting, however, that Miami's win- a 100-77 thumping at home- came with the second seed in the East on the line (the only truly "meaningful" game played between the two sides thus far) and was the lone regular season meeting that featured rosters resembling the ones we’re going to see in this series.
Speaking of the Celtics' new and, well, new roster, over their last 21 regular season games, the Celtics were 10-11. Don’t worry, the similarity to last season, which the C's ended on a 27-27 run before improbably making a run to Game 7 of the Finals, is not lost on me. However, this is not last season, and this is not the same team. The Celtics are offensively challenged, the Big Three are another year into their 30s and their playmaker has been (to put it mildly) inconsistent since, paraphrasing Bill Simmons, they traded away his best friend on the team, who was also their starting center, for a seventh man and Nenad Krstic.
In Round 1, despite eliminating the Knick in four straight, Boston was pushed to the brink twice, at home, eviscerated by Carmelo Anthony in Game 2, and only managed to win in dominating fashion against a hobble Amar'e Stoudemire. I'll go out on a limb and say that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade may have success on the wings and attacking the paint. Finally, as Boston tries to keep Wade, James and Bosh from getting to the bucket, or any member of the Heat off of the offensive glass, they will be looking squarely Kevin Garnett, who'll be looking to Jermaine O'Neal, Krstic, Big Baby and whatever remains of Shaq for help. Efficiency and top line talent win out in this league.
Taking this, as well as Boston's insufficient defense on the wings, Shaq's inability to stay healthy and an unhealthy reliance on Jermaine O'Neal to do so into account, the Heat are my pick to prevail over the Celtics- in fewer games than most expect (5)- in what I've taken to calling "Boston's last stand."