Last year, before all of our big series, I would tackle the question of where the Celtics were as a team at the time. I wrote my first one for the Cavs series last year (then two more before the Magic and Lakers series, respectively), making the fairly odd (at the time) prediction that the 50-win Celtics were about to take down the 61-win Cavs. And now, as we prepare to again face a LeBron-led team in the second round of the postseason I feel like I've come full-circle. Once again, we are the underdog in a series against a team many consider to be the best in basketball. Once again, we are facing a team that could very legitimately beat us in the second round of the playoffs.
Once again, I think we are just the better team.
First of all, we are the best defensive team in the NBA. According to basketball-reference we tied the Bulls for the best defense in the regular season, but in the playoffs we surpass our mid-west brethren for a few reasons. First, while the Bulls' dominant defensive unit is their second team (which, by definition plays less in the postseason) the Celtics' dominant defensive unit is the starters. Specifically, the starters led by Kevin Garnett...whose minutes have increased by at least 10% in the postseason with predictably positive results. Thus, our key unit is actually stronger in the postseason than in the regular season. Which is vital, because as I pointed out yesterday, the team we're facing has three incredible individual offensive talents that can overwhelm lesser units. But not us, and that's the key. Our defense has to hold the Heat as a team down to poor scoring efficiency and high turnovers. The question is, how?
The first line of defense will be Paul Pierce, because he will be the one matched up with LeBron. Yes, Wade is almost as good and Bosh is strong as well, but LeBron is the key because no matter what anyone might say, he is the best player on that team. The Heat can possibly survive a lesser performance by Bosh, maybe even a stinker or two from Wade, but LeBron has to be on point for them to have a chance. Thankfully, for us, Pierce is really good at slowing down LeBron.
But a big reason for Pierce's defensive success against LeBron, and as always our defensive key, is the help that he receives from our bigs. The Pierce/LeBron article I linked calculated that Pierce got help on LeBron about 30% of the time, usually from Kevin Garnett, but I think the article under-counts a bit because they only tallied the times when the help actually comes. What they don't count are the times when the threat of the help defenders caused LeBron to pull up for contested jumpers instead of challenging the lane. As Bill Russell once said, "The idea is not to block every shot. The idea is to make your opponent believe that you might block every shot." We need our bigs to be extremely smart about rotations in this series, and not just KG. KG is the lynchpin, but Baby has to rotate and take a couple of charges that make LeBron and Wade hesitate to go all out into the lane. And Jermaine has to also block a couple of shots WITHOUT giving in to his propensity to foul, as he is averaging more than 7 fouls per 36 minutes this postseason.
Rondo is going to be a third important part of the defense, because we need him to be our disruptor. Pierce and Allen will have the main press-up assignments on LeBron and Wade, KG will have to be the second line against them while also keeping his eye on Bosh (though I'd seriously consider putting KG on the center and letting him play rover, with Jermaine on Bosh. I don't know if that's in the offing, though). But Rondo needs to be the energy guy, getting into passing lanes and making it difficult for their 1-on-1 guys to dribble where they want to. The good thing is, according to Jackie MacMullan, Rondo is back in the groove both physically and mentally. So he should be ready to play his important defensive role as well.
If all three units do their jobs, we should be able to really limit what the Heat can do offensively. As I mentioned yesterday, a roving KG may allow Bosh to get hotter than we would like, but I still think we take that trade-off over letting LeBron and Wade go off (and again, I really hope they're considering letting KG guard Joel Anthony so he can rove with fewer consequences). And on the whole, our defense should at the very least keep us in every game. And from there, the onus moves to our offense.
Offensively, the Celtics may need to modify their roles against the Heat. In the early regular season meetings, the Cs perfected a Division of Labor arrangement in which Rondo did all of the distributing, Pierce and Allen were locked in as scorers, and KG locked the defense and glass. It would be wonderful if they can pull off something like that this postseason, as it is really beautiful basketball and difficult to stop when clicking. The problem is, history doesn't suggest that in the postseason it will work like this. And the reason is LeBron, and the unfortunate fact that while Pierce does great in limiting LeBron on offense, LeBron tends to limit him even more.
The Celtics have played 13 postseason games against LeBron James in their last two in-tact playoff runs. Here is how Pierce has done in those 13 games:
Pierce in game 7 of the 2008 series: 41 points (57% FG, 11 made FTs at a 92% clip)
Pierce in the other 12 games: 14.8 points (35% FG, 3.4 made FTs at an 82% clip)
The Captain showed that he can step up against LeBron in a given game, but on the whole he tends to really struggle offensively in the postseason against LeBron. Maybe it's because of all of the energy he expends at the other end, maybe it's because LeBron is a physical mutant from another planet, but for whatever reason he gives Pierce fits defensively. But the really, really, really good thing is that the Celtics and Doc should know this and plan accordingly, like they did last year.
This year's Heat are actually remarkably similar defensively to the 2010 Cavs. They give up approximately the same scoring efficiency to opponents, utilizing a similar wing-centric defense that aggressively helps and hides their defensive weaknesses at point guard and big man. This works against most teams, but the problem for them is that the Celtics were built to exploit their weaknesses. Just like they did against the Cavs.
The first line of offense, if you will, is Rondo. Expect the Heat to start with Bibby trying to sag off of him and test the jumper, but eventually Rondo is going to be able to get into the paint. It's what he does. And when he gets into the paint, he will find that the Heat have no dominant defensive Big to dissuade him. Explosion. Expect Rondo to approach the numbers he put up against last year's Cavs: around 20 points, 11+ assists, maybe a triple-double or two. He will be an offensive key. But not the only one.
Because KG will have to be right there with him on offense. And history tells us that against LeBron/Ilgauskas frontlines in the playoffs, KG tends to get aggressive and shine. Take a look at last postseason, when (in hindsight) Garnett still wasn't close to fully recovered from his knee injury. He averaged 12 field goal attempts/game against the Heat, Magic, and Lakers. But against the Cavs? KG upped that to 16 shots per game, making 52% of them on the way to a playoffs-best 19 ppg. In '08 KG also was the primary scorer, averaging 20 points on 57% from the field. We will need him to display that same aggression and production offensively this year, going at the Heat's soft interior and making his offensive presence felt.
FInally, the third offensive key is Ray. And while for Pierce, Rondo and KG the best comparisons are to last year's Cavs (starting 2/3 of the same front line, similar soft interior defense, etc.) for Ray it's different. Because Ray rarely drives, and he's rarely guarded by LeBron. No, for Ray the best stats to look at are how he did against Wade and the Heat in last year's postseason because Wade likely gets the assignment again this year. And the good news is that, last year against the Heat in the postseason, Ray averaged about 20 ppg on 52% FG and 52% shooting from downtown. Numbers that are very similar to what he did against the Heat this year in the regular season. Numbers that are ALSO very similar to what he did to the Knicks just last week. Ray can be streaky, but we need for him to be hot-Ray this week. Because if Rondo is penetrating, KG is finishing in the paint, and Ray is firing from downtown we won't NEED Pierce to score against LeBron. We'd be golden. And ironically, that kind of production from elsewhere would likely open things up for Pierce to maybe have another one or two of his hot games as well.
Conclusion: Who are we to the Heat? We are their worst nightmare. Or at least, we should be. You never really know how it's going to go, but on-paper the Celtics should have the better matchups. We are built to take advantage of the Heat weaknesses and blunt their strengths. And this is even without planning at all to have Shaq, and who knows...he's been coming back "next week" for about 13 weeks now, so maybe this is our lucky turn? Either way, Shaq or not, when healthy the Celtics are better than the Heat. And if no further injuries occur, the Celtics should win. If I were brave I'd say Celtics in 5, but I'll go with the more conservative call. Celtics in 6. The path to #18 continues.