This long awaited series is between teams with striking similarities but telling differences. It is as if they are looking in a carnival mirror-house to find at a distorted version of themselves. All-Stars at the SG, SF and PF—check. Questionable and spotty play from the bench—check. Center by committee without luster—check. Organization emphasizing defense from the top brass on down—check. Big Three in place—check. Multi-headed offense that defies loading up to stop primary threat—check. It is only fitting that the playoffs bring this clash between the powerhouse that Danny built and the colossus that Pat constructed by enlisting the 3egos this past summer.
Yet while the union of stars at the same three positions would seem to auger similar teams, this really isn’t the case at all. There is a valid argument that the young guns of Miami are in their prime and should overwhelm their tricenarian counterparts; but it turns out that the difference is a two-edged sword. Playing to their strength, the Heat present a take-turns offense as their consummate one-on-one players alternate attacking the defense, mostly generating their own shots and only occasionally dishing to a fellow star and even less often setting up an opportunity for the supporting cast. The Celtics on the other hand blend their talents with a motion offense that features both ball and player movement in a plethora of screens, cuts, and plays that feature numerous options to take advantage of the defense’s reactions. Both teams thrive on early offense but the deeper into the playoffs you go the fewer lapses there are that present fast break opportunities. When forced into the half-court offense Miami attacks with a physically dominant player while Boston forces a myriad of screens, cuts, and ball reversals often ending in a breakdown that surrenders an open shot. The results are quite impressive in both cases but Miami takes and makes more difficult shots while the Celtics feast on easy opportunities created by Rondo’s penetration or a rotational error in the 5th or 15th forced defensive adjustment.
Even, perhaps especially, on an individual level the mirror image is distorted. Wade and Allen are both All-Star shooting guards and yet their games could hardly be more different. Ray weaves between, behind, and fades off of a series of screens until the defender loses a step and then a timely and pin-point pass (often from Rondo) leads him directly into his smooth and rapid release of his deadly shot. Dwayne is a spotty shooter from outside who vastly prefers slash to the rim, relishing the contact and using his strength to finish whether a layup or short jumper. Both players are prone to off games scoring but Wade seems to let this drive him into a funk much more than Allen.
Bosh and Garnett may provide the closest comparison, at least offensively. Both have a deadly mid-range jumper, both work well around the basket although somewhat reluctantly, and both readily defer to their big-name teammates. On defense however, Garnett is the verbal and physical leader with a disposition resembling a rabid Doberman while Bosh is not quite a French Poodle but certainly is not known for his ferocity.
The marquee matchup is Pierce and LeBron James. Both play a power small forward rather than finesse but the differences are marked. Lebron is younger, taller, more athletic, and faster. He is a mismatch against any player in the league but Paul Pierce plays him as well as, if not better, than anyone. Pierce will force him left and into his help defense, denying James, as often as possible, his favorite ploy of rushing the basket scattering defenders like bowling pins and secure in the protection of the zebras. No player stops LeBron but the Celtics do quite well in forcing him away from his comfort zone. In the past this has left Pierce exhausted but it is hoped that the addition of Jeff Green will afford Paul more rest and put another long muscular body in the path of James and wear him down as well as make him earn his points. Paul is a far better outside shooter although James is streaky from long range. Pierce has a superior midrange game if only because his guile, herky-jerky moves, and step-back jumper offer more unobstructed looks at the basket. While lacking the overwhelming nature of LeBron’s athleticism, Pierce uses that same deception to effectively attack the basket. As Paul has matured his shot selection has improved as well as his willingness to find the open man when he draws a help defender. So long as Pierce doesn’t get drawn into a “You think that was good, well watch this” duel with James this small forward matchup will favor the Heat less than perhaps against any other team.
The fun-house mirrors are particularly apt as Jermaine O’Neal will likely see the ghosts of playoffs past when (just last year) he was suited out for Miami. Similarly might Eddie House feel whose attempts to bring the hot to Heat were being employed by Boston at the beginning of last season. The zero-degrees-of-separation continues with coach Doc Rivers who played for Pat Riley, as did Shaquille O’Neal. Carlos Arroyo does them one better—he has suited up for both the Heat and the Celtics during the current season. There are probably more but we can add Heat assistant bob McAdoo who briefly played for the Celtics before going on to LA.
Only at point guard does there seem to be no reflection as Rajon Rondo has no equivalent, nor match. If the youthful stars of Miami give them an edge of Big Three’s (not a given), then Rondo’s ability to wreak havoc provides a significant edge for Boston. Both teams depend on center-by-committee but Jermaine should give Boston an advantage. This is heavy on irony since a lot of blame was ladled onto Jermaine’s plate for his miniscule contribution to the Heat’s offense as the Celtics eliminated them in last year’s playoffs. Fortunately Boston doesn’t need much of a contribution on offense from O’Neal. If he anchors the defense and provides a hard landing place for LeBron’s and Dwayne’s forays to the rim, he will have done his job. Any offense will be gravy, hardly the expectations he faced in his role as number two weapon on last year’s Heat.
Finally, Boston will be basking in the backing of the national audience, truly a fun-house reversal from the norm. This is due not so much because the general dislike of the Celtics has faded, but more the antipathy garnered by the Miami 3ego whose celebration of their signing exceeded most Championship displays. Their South Beach glitter has carried arrogance to a whole new level. For we Celtics’ fans, seldom is there a matchup in the playoffs that fosters more angst and anger than one with the dastardly Purple and Gold. But even in that slugfest there is a grudging admiration and acknowledgement of a worthy opponent. This time I think most of us will be able to root without reservations, revile an opposition seemingly without redeeming qualities, and, hopefully, rejoice in turning back “The Future,” at least for this year.