In the NBA, the playoffs are about matchups. In the regular season the majority of the games are decided by talent disparity and/or energy/focus level, but in the playoffs that all changes. Especially by the second round, as there are few huge talent disparities and everyone is as focused and energetic as they can be. And at that point, the dominating factor in wins and losses becomes how one team matches up with the other. So before I could begin to forecast what I expect from this upcoming tilt with the Heat, I had to take some time and focus on exactly who the Miami Heat are. And more specifically, who they are to US.
Everyone knows the hype of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh playing on the same team. They were brought together specifically for this time of year, to win championships. They were three of the best individual players in the league, and were supposed to form a dynasty ("Not one (championship), not two, not three, not four...). But forget all of that. Outside of the hilarity of having a "Yes we did!" championship rally before playing a game together, the hype and expectations are pretty meaningless. Almost a year in, now...what do the Heat have for us on the court?
1) The dynamic duo. Well, first of all, in LeBron and Wade the Heat have two of the best iso offensive players in the league. Perhaps THE two best. With the ball in their hands, both LeBron and Wade are extremely difficult to stop 1-on-1. They both pose huge mismatches with their quickness, power, and athleticism around the rim. Both are magnets at drawing fouls. And in LeBron's case, he also has the advantage of being built like Karl Malone in addition to having Allen Iverson's speed. So there's that.
But LeBron and Wade are more than just scorers. Defensively, they form perhaps the most dynamic wing combo since Jordan and Pippen. Both use their extreme athleticism to provide more help defense from the wing than most teams can provide. Both are great at playing the passing lanes, and both are excellent shot-blockers for their positions (Wade had 10 blocked shots in the first round against the 76ers). In addition, quietly, LeBron is also one of the best 1-on-1 defensive wings in the league when he chooses to be. Their defensive strengths contribute strongly to the Heat's top-5 team defensive rating this season.
2) The forgotten third. While the signing day hype was that the Heat now had a Big Three, no one ever believed that the three were created equal. Bosh was always the lesser partner, and for much of the year he has been forgotten on the court as well. Bosh's main offensive strength is iso scoring...unfortunately for him, he's not as good at it as his two more talented teammates. On top of that, because he's not a guard, he is completely reliant on them giving him the ball...which doesn't happen nearly as much as he's used to. Thus, on offense, for much of the year Bosh was more of a safety valve than a main option. He spent most of his time floating around the mid-range and taking spot-up jumpers instead of getting the ball on the block, facing up, and drawing fouls as is his preference. And as such, he hasn't been nearly the offensive force that he was in Toronto. BUT, and this is important for this series, he shouldn't be forgotten. Because he is the player that, IMO, has the ability to be an offensive monkey wrench to our defensive schemes (more on that below).
Defensively, Bosh also hasn't been as bad as his reputation. His on-court/off-court defensive +/- of -4.21 was a close second to LeBron's -4.51 on the Heat, suggesting that he was making a reasonable defensive impact. And I don't have access to Synergy sports, but I've seen several references through the season of Bosh having a surprisingly low scored-against rate in 1-on-1 situations. His opponent PER of 14.6 (according to 82games.com) is very solid for a big man, and would support that claim as well.
3) The rest. Outside of LeBron, Wade and Bosh the Heat really just have a bunch of role players of questionable value. Most of their other rotation players are primarily shooters...James Jones, Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers each attempted four or more 3-pointers per game in the first round of the playoffs. Their main offensive function (along with Mike Miller and Eddie House, if they ever get back into the rotation) is to set up at their spots on the 3-point line and wait for a spot-up shot set up by their talented teammates. Starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas is also mainly a spot-up shooter at this point in his career, preferring the 15- to 18-foot jumper. But back-up Joel Anthony actually gets more playing time than Big Z, as he is expected to be their defensive role-playing big. Anthony is a good shot-blocker, but at 6-9 he is undersized to be a post defender.
What that means to us. The Celtics are extremely familiar with LeBron and Wade in the postseason, having faced and defeated their teams three times in the last three years. Of course, that was with them not on the same team. The thing is, from what we've seen so far I'm not fully convinced that having LeBron and Wade on one team makes them dramatically more dangerous to the Cs than they were individually. There are three reasons for that:
First, the Celtics' defensive scheme is built to hinder iso scorers and limit their strong-side options. The best ways to attack the Celtics' defense is through ball-movement that frees up weak-side shooting options and/or through post players that can take advantage of the defensive overloads with easy looks at the rim and offensive rebounds. But the Heat don't do much of that. Instead, LeBron and Wade essentially take turns running their isos and do a lot of kick-out passes to the strong side. If the Celtics can force them into that same game-plan over this series, that will go a long ways towards blunting the primary offensive half-court options of the Heat.
Second, LeBron and Dwayne seem to be a Megatron version of the Carmelo Anthony/Amare Stoudemire combo we saw last round. John Schumann pointed out that the Knicks tended to play better with either Melo OR Amare on the floor than they did when both were there together. We actually saw that in game 2, as Amare's absence seemed to allow Melo to become the focus of the offense in his much more comfortable role and the team got vicious. Well, the Heat have a similar dynamic with LeBron and Wade. They've just never seemed to mesh fully together because they essentially replicate and hinder each other. Whereas apart they can flourish. That's a strong reason why, IMO, LeBron's Cavs of the last two years both had better records than this year's Heat team.
Thus, third, the way that LeBron and Wade have been able to maximize their output is by getting out and running whenever they can. The same athleticism and skill that makes them excellent iso players also makes them vicious fast-break finishers. But once again, this is minimized against the Celtics because our defensive schemes are built to minimize opponent fast breaks. We all lament the lack of offensive rebounding on our team, but the flip side of that coin is that our bigs (Kevin Garnett especially) tend to fall back on defense instead of going for the offensive board. Which slows down our opponents, and further blunts the way the Heat like to do things.
But, despite those things playing into the Celtics' strengths, there are still areas where the Heat can take advantage of Celtic weaknesses. And the first way is with Chris Bosh. Now, I have absolutely no doubt that if KG makes Bosh his defensive focus he can take him out of the game. But the thing is, against the Heat I doubt that Bosh will be his main assignment. No, just like in past meetings with LeBron and Wade, KG will be tasked with being the second line of defense that prevents them from being effective in the iso. Which means that Bosh is likely to get his fair share of open mid-range shots. I believe that the Celtics are willing to make that trade, to let him get his if it means limiting LeBron and Wade. And on the whole I would make that trade too. But Bosh is a player that has averaged more than 25 points in a season, and if he gets enough open looks to get hot it could be problematc.
And secondly, with the shorter playoff rotations the Heat should be able to go the entire game with either LeBron or Wade playing in all 48 minutes. This means that the Heat should get at least 10 minutes or so each game with a superstar-led unit going up against our second unit. Our second unit which hasn't been...stellar. If the Heat are able to go +10 or +15 in those minutes on a nightly basis, that could also hurt.
Conclusions: so, who are the Miami Heat to us? They are a potentially dangerous opponent, with enough talent to potentially win games even when the Celtics work their strategies well. BUT, they are also a very beatable opponent. First, because in-fact the Celtics are built to blunt their primary strengths. But second, as I'll discuss later, the Celtics are just better. But better or not, the Celtics need to bring their A-games against the Heat. Because honestly, they are the only team in this playoffs that gives me pause east of Hollywood.