NBA Conference Finals Preview: Miami-Boston

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.

The Oklahoma City-San Antonio series in the West starts tonight. Preview that series here.