The Boston Celtics did a lot of what they needed to do on Saturday night in Miami for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. They shot the ball well, at 47 percent from the floor. They had balanced scoring from all five starters, and a triple-double from Rajon Rondo at 22 points/10 rebounds/14 assists. They had Miami in a jump-shooting contest for extended periods as the more athletic Heat inexplicably launched 26 treys (and they only made nine lest you think this was a team afire). And they had a one-point lead with eight minutes to go. When all that happens, and you still lose, there’s not much to do but acknowledge the best team in the Eastern Conference advanced, and that’s ultimately what happened as Miami pulled away with a 101-88 win.
Miami didn’t get a historic night from LeBron James like in Game 6, instead settling for merely a very good one, with 31 points/12 rebounds. In reality though, the Heat were better on Saturday than on Thursday, because Dwayne Wade found his offensive game down the stretch and ended with 23 points, most of them backbreakers as the Celtics were trying to stay in the game. And surely nothing was more stunning than Chris Bosh. That the power forward would hang a 19/8 would have been considered heartening for Heat fans given his injury, while not surprise. But he stepped out and hit 3 of 4 three-point shots from behind the arc—ironically the one Miami player who hit consistently from downtown.
While Boston shot well, Miami was even better, hitting 51 percent against a defense that’s normally much better. A big part of this is that the Heat also went through extended stretches where they really committed to driving the ball to the basket, the area where the Celtics had no chance to stop them, and where LeBron did the bulk of his damage. Watching the Miami offense was like watching two different games—you had the Heat that were lazy and in streetball mode and jacked up a three. And you had the Heat that operated like a professional basketball team playing a huge game that stayed focus on its strengths and worked on attacking. Once the latter began to surface starting late in the third quarter, there was no going back. For the Celtics, maybe the die was cast early in the day at the Belmont Stakes. Veteran jockey Mike Smith had the lead coming down the stretch, but the old vet was caught and passed in the end. It wasn’t a day for the old guys on Saturday.
The NBA Finals are set to start Tuesday night when Miami goes to Oklahoma City. TheSportsNotebook will have a historical piece on some of the great recent Finals set for tomorrow and then on Tuesday morning we’ll have the official Finals preview on the board.
The Boston Celtics continue to follow in the path of the Oklahoma City Thunder, as each underdog in the conference finals has moved to take control of the series. Boston did its part last night with a 94-90 win in Miami to put them within one game of the NBA Finals, a development nothing short of stunning to anyone who followed the Celtics for the first half of the regular season or even the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Kevin Garnett was superb last night with 26 points and 11 rebounds. And while Paul Pierce’s overall numbers were not efficient—6-of-19 shooting, he hit several big shots in the second half including a three-pointer in the face of LeBron James that gave the C’s a 90-86 lead.
But it’s really Miami’s offense that I look at as far as an overall key to the game. The Heat are not going to beat the Celtics shooting over the top, yet they launched 26 treys, making only seven. Some of this bad luck—Mario Challmes, a genuinely good three-point shooter went 1-for-5. But LeBron James went 2-for-6. To give you the perspective of a Boston fan, when I see LeBron or Wade take a three, I immediately think “good defensive possession.”
That’s not to say they can’t hit the shot—James buried a big one in Game 4 and Wade came within one bounce of doing the same with one that could have won that game. But at the end of the day, if the Heat win this series, I want them to do it going over the top. If they shoot the ball and win, more power to them. Because, as ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy is correctly harping on, Wade and James are at their most effective going to the basket. With Avery Bradley injured, the Celtics have no real defensive stopper on the perimeter and if nothing else, drives to the basket can create foul trouble with Garnett.
So with help from a cooperative Miami offense, the Celtics won because the held the Heat just under 40 percent shooting and can now clinch the East on Thursday night in Game 6.
Before we get to Boston, we have to go to Oklahoma City tonight. The Thunder being one home win from the Finals isn’t as surprising as the Celtics, but the Thunder had a more respected and hotter opponent to go through in San Antonio. Tonight’s game is about Tony Parker. If the Spur guard can get back into the flow of the offense, hitting his shot and creating looks for Manu Ginobli from downtown and Tim Duncan in the blocks, San Antonio can certainly win. Head coach Gregg Popovich was correct to point out that if his team can’t win one game on the road they don’t deserve to be champions anyway. By this level of the postseason, no team should count on sweeping four at home, so while San Antonio would surely have preferred to avoid this do-or-die spot, they are still in the same position a realistic person would have placed them at the start of the series—needing to win one on the road.
San Antonio’s the opposite of Miami. We know the Heat can bring it and win because of their defensive ability, but they fade in and out and there’s questions about the intangibles. There’s no question marks about the effort and mental intensity the Spurs will bring tonight, but we’ve seen nothing in these playoffs and nothing in this series that suggest San Antonio can deliver a lockdown defensive effort—i.e., holding OkC to sub-40 percent shooting from the floor. That’s why Parker is going to have to play the game of his life tonight.
As I watched the perfect playoff run of the San Antonio Spurs come to an unceremonious ending last night in Oklahoma City, I thought of a line by former Laker coach and current Heat president Pat Riley. In his book Showtime, the story of the 1987 Lakers, Riley recalled when his team won the first two games of the Finals over the Celtics in decisive fashion and then lost Game 3. “Great, Riley, recalled thinking. “No more talk about sweeps.” I wonder if Gregg Popovich, similarly hard-nosed, although less adept at covering it up as the Spurs head man, is thinking the same thing the morning after Oklahoma City opened up a can in Game 3, to the tune of 102-82.
The Popovich-Riley analogy is the positive view for San Antonio fans to take, and indeed, continuing to keep winning like they were was completely unrealistic. As Riley pointed out in his book, when teams reach this level of the postseason, they’ve done so because of effort. Oklahoma City was going to bring everything they had with their season on the line, just like Boston did back in 1987 (and on Wednesday night in Miami for that matter).
But the flip side to that is this—the Spurs let OkC beat them by 20 points mostly by self-infliction. Oklahoma City played well to be sure, but it was not their best game. They shot 45 percent, they only hit 6-of-22 from three-point range, they only won rebounding 44-41 and the trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden only had 47 points. But San Antonio committed 21 turnovers and only forced 7. Tony Parker, after being a hero in Game 2, was responsible for five of those turnovers. Tim Duncan had just two rebounds. So if you’re San Antonio you have to feel like a chance to put the series away slipped through your fingers, while Oklahoma City can feel like they still have a better game in their back pocket when these teams return to the floor on Saturday night.
Boston now tries to do what OkC pulled off and that’s get a survival win in Game 3 in front of a raucous crowd when they host Miami tonight. There’s been plenty of discussion of officiating going against the Celts in the first two games. As a C’s fan, I’m not unbiased obviously, and consequently this is an area I tend to avoid when it comes to my favorite teams, because we all remember the calls that went against our teams and forget any breaks we got.
The spate of technical fouls called on Boston in Game 1 were absurd, but also inconsequential given how decisively Miami won. The free throw disparity on Wednesday was disturbing, given how frequently the Heat settled for three-point shots and the Celts went to the hoop with greater ferocity than normal. But unless I actually rewatched the game and evaluated the calls individually, that’s a tough decision to make. I do believe that the public controversy makes it more likely than what I was already expecting will come to pass—the league, wanting some drama for a Game 4, will get the C’s 40-50 free throws tonight. Now the officials have extra justification.
When the NBA playoffs started the prospect of a Boston-Miami battle in the Eastern Conference Finals seemed appealing, and when Chicago’s Derrick Rose got hurt one day in, it became the matchup fans began waiting for. When each team was three games into their second-round series, the Celts had just demolished Philly on the road and the Heat were in a 1-2 hole against Indiana. The talk was that the veteran C’s had one more run left in them. Now that the anticipated Boston-Miami matchup is set to tip Monday, the thinking has changed. If you want to bet the Heat to win, you’re giving up odds of 1-5. You can take the Celts at 4-1. Is this really that big a mismatch? TheSportsNotebook previews the Eastern Conference Finals…
Both teams will play a pace that’s a relative grind-it-out style. With Boston the emphasis on halfcourt play will be in the extreme, while it’s more moderate with Miami. But if this is your first time really settling into watching NBA hoops this year, know something that’s been documented very well by Jeff Fogle over at Stat Intelligence—in spite of what you hear from the media, the Heat stopped being a run-and-gun team eons ago and all the highlight reels of LeBron filling the lanes on the break don’t change that fundamental fact. Now they may choose to push it more in this series and exploit the older, slower Celtics, but it’s not Miami’s game.
In addition to an emphasis on half-court basketball, both teams play very good defense and even with the Celtics injury and age problems that’s been the case in the playoffs. They held Atlanta in the low 40s percentage wise in five of six games and consistently shut down Philadelphia. The Heat had some shaky moments defensively against the Knicks, but really clamped down against Indiana, and the only game the Pacers shot well was their must-win home game in the series finale.
So we can reasonably assume that we’ll see a slower tempo series with very physical defense. Rebounding, even without Chris Bosh, promises to be a solid edge for the Heat. They were virtually even with both the Knicks and Pacers on the glass, even though both of their teams have strong frontcourts, much more so than Boston. While Bosh was part of that for the New York series, he was missing for 5 ½ of the 6 Indiana games, and the Pacer rebounding duo of Roy Hibbert and David West vastly stands above Kevin Garnett—who prefers to roam the perimeter and Brandon Bass. Unless either the Celtics or Heat changes their M.O., Boston’s looking at a lot of one-and-dones, and while Miami might not look pretty, they’ll get their share of second-chance points. If the Celtics lost the rebounding battle to a Sixer team that was not good on the glass all year, what’s going to happen in this series?
Let’s move to the three-point line. If we have a grind-it-out series, the bombs from long range can open things up and obviously in a lower-scoring game, the impact is much higher. Miami has won both ways, beating New York decisively from the perimeter, while losing the trey battle to Indiana. The Celtics lost the long-range war to Atlanta, while it was a non-factor either way against Philly. Ultimately this comes down to the health of Ray Allen. He’s playing on ankles that have drastically restricted movement and even if he just looks to spot up and shoot off a screen—the tactic the Celts have tried—well, if you’ve got really sore ankles go out in the backyard and try and push off and shoot from more than 23 feet away. Then report how difficult it is. Allen’s three-point percentage has dropped from 45 in the regular season, an outstanding number to 26 percent in the playoffs. Virtually all players see their percentages drop in the postseason—the defenses are playing with more intensity and there’s no nights against Charlotte or New Jersey to fatten your average—but the 19-point drop by Allen is much sharper than the norm. Boston has to hope the two big bombs he hit in the fourth quarter of Game 7 are a sign of things to come. Although Miami’s got hope too, and it’s that Mario Challmes awakens and realizes he’s in the playoffs and that his team could use him to open up the lane a little bit.
Now let’s come to star power. Miami just finished playing a team that was probably better on paper—there was no reason Indiana couldn’t have overwhelmed Miami inside all series—but the Pacers lacked the go-to players to take over a game when necessary and in general lacked the intangible of knowing how to win. Now the Heat play a team precisely the opposite. No one doubts that Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett know how to win. But can their bodies still respond. Pierce’s postseason has been mostly built on an extraordinary night in Game 2 of the Atlanta series when he virtually willed his team to a must-win game without Allen and Rajon Rondo in the lineup. Otherwise, the knee problems are obviously slowing him. Garnett has looked like he’s ten years younger and is playing at a championship level, and coupled with Rondo at the point, at least gives the C’s a puncher’s chance.
But if Boston’s only got two players at an elite level, would you really take them over LeBron and Dwayne Wade? James has dropped a 29-point average through the playoffs, while Wade is averaging 24, including a monster 41-point game in the road clincher at Indiana. Furthermore, let’s emphasize that phrase road clincher. Miami had the mental toughness to close out a good team on the road. Boston lacked the capacity—most likely physical rather than mental to do the same to a mediocre team in Philadelphia. Unless Allen and Pierce can suddenly get healthy, all of Boston’s intangibles have found their ceiling in winning two playoff rounds—an occurrence, we should be reminded, that would have been considered unthinkable in January, even if someone told you then that Rose would be out.
As we bring this to a conclusion, I’m reminded of a scene in the 1989 John Candy and Steve Martin film Planes, Trains & Automobiles, as they look to get out of a snowbound Wichita airport. Candy approaches Martin and says simply “There’s no way on earth we’re getting out of Wichita tonight…we’d have a better chance playing pickup sticks with our butt cheeks…” That’s about the same odds the Celtics have on winning this series based on what we’ve seen lately. I’m emphasizing that point, because we need to be reminded it was only ten days ago that everyone felt like Miami was beatable and Boston was on the rise. Things can change and as the ABC/ESPN crew in the studio last night (Michael Wilbon, Jon Barry, Magic Johnson) noted the Celtics do have an M.O. of playing to the level of their competition. As a Celts fan, that’s the thin reed I’m holding onto, but it’s about as thin as thin gets. The reality—the Heat win the series in five games, with Boston winning a Game 3 at home—the one David Stern does everything in his power to make sure they win and keep the series competitive a little longer.