Alright. NOW the real season begins. Celtics, Heat, Spurs, Thunder...this is one of the best final fours that I can remember in recent years. Here are a few thoughts that I have leading into the Eastern Conference Finals, where we'll be facing off against a familiar foe...
LeBron...again. In every year that Kevin Garnett has played in the playoffs for the Boston Celtics, the Celtics have faced a team led by LeBron James in the postseason. In 2008 and 2010 the Celtics sent LeBron home, and in 2011 LeBron returned the favor. And the games have been split right down the middle...the teams have played 18 total games, with the Celtics winning nine and LeBron's squads winning nine.
Rondo vs the Super-Athletic-Donut: Rajon Rondo is always a wild card, but in this series perhaps even more than normal because the Heat are built so uniquely...they either are ripe for Rondo to dominate due to their lack of interior help defenders, or they are built to stop Rondo because of their super-athletic wings that can block Rondo's quirky shots when he drives. The answer to this particular riddle will play a big part in determining how this series goes...if Rondo can get into the paint and either finish over Haslem/Anthony/Turiaf or create easy shots for teammates, then the Celtics will be hard to deal with. If, on the other hand, Wade and James are able to hound Rondo and block enough of his attempts to keep him off balance, that could really blunt one of the Celtics' main offensive weapons.
The absentees. Chris Bosh is an All Star and nominal member of the Heat's so-called Big Three, but the Celtics' loss of Avery Bradley is arguably just as big in this match-up. I wrote about this earlier in the season, but Bradley and his defensive athleticism was a HUGE weapon against Dwyane Wade. Wade has individually torched the Celtics in each of the last two postseasons, and Bradley was our best hope to change that trend this year. With Bradley out and Ray hobbling, I see Wade as an obvious aggressor in this series. However, Bosh's injury does help to mitigate the loss, because Garnett will be able to play more help defense and help on the inevitable Wade penetration. We don't have to STOP Wade and LeBron in this series (not sure that's possible), but if we can keep them under a combined 55 points on reasonable or less efficiency, the Celtics will be in a very strong position.
Truth and Sugar Ray: Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have been gutting through their injuries like the champs that they are. The question now, is, how much do they have left and how injured are they? Pierce seems to be the healthier of the two, and he will have to put pressure on LeBron. He doesn't have to consistently win the match-up, as that's probably asking too much of anyone, but he has to make LeBron work hard on both offense and defense to blunt the MVP's attack. Similarly, Ray doesn't have to counter Wade completely...he doesn't even have to blunt Wade as much as Pierce does LeBron...all we need from Ray is to get confident again with his jumper, and to continue to knock down the timely trey that forces the Heat to protect their perimeter. The Celtics started game 0-for-14 from downtown, and had many other games where they struggled from deep. If the Captain and Shuttlesworth can stretch the floor this series, it would pay huge dividends for Rondo and KG inside.
Bass the shooter: Brandon Bass was a revelation for our team this regular season. But he was largely ineffective for much of the first 10 games of the postseason because his jumper wasn't falling. And when it stopped falling, Bass seemed to lose confidence on both offense and defense. That's because Bass's game is entirely predicated on him hitting that jumper...when he does that, he knows where to be, he feels comfortable, and he's an asset. When he's not hitting...he's not an asset. The Celtics have to overwhelm the Heat with balance, and they have to punish the Heat for playing small. Thus, we need Bass the shooter to knock down his open looks, crash the boards, and generally make himself a nuisance.
But all of that said, the key to the series is that whenever the Celtics play LeBron's team in the playoffs, the...
Winner is always determined by KG and LeBron: In the 18 playoff games that the Celtics and LeBron's teams have played in the past five years, the winner is almost always determined by who plays best out of Garnett and LeBron.
In nine Celtics wins, Garnett averages 20.4 points on 58% TS%, 11.2 reb, 2.6 asts and a +19.5 on/off +/- per 48 while LeBron averages 24 pts on 39% TS%, 7.8 reb, 6.6 asts and a +2.5 on/off +/-.
In nine wins by LeBron's teams, the story is exactly reversed. LeBron averages 30.2 points on 57% TS with 8 reb, 6.1 ast and a +20 on/off +/- per 48 min, while Garnett's averages drop to 15.3 points on 49% TS with 8.4 reb, 2.3 asts and a +7.4 on/off +/- in the losses.
If you're curious, each of Pierce, Ray and Rondo have negative on/off +/- averages in the Celtics' nine wins, and either positive or less-negative on/off +/- scores in the Celtics' nine losses. In other words, when looking at the Celtics' win/loss record in the postseason against LeBron's teams, by FAR the key factor to look at is whether LeBron or Garnett are able to control the action. So for THIS series, even though they won't be guarding each other, the key match-up is Garnett vs LeBron. Whoever can put their stamp on the action will put their team in a great position to win.
I've made it clear that I think this year is destined to end in number 18, and I won't change my tune now. This Celtics team is gritty, has too many weapons, and is just too tough for these Heat. I like the Celtics to steal one of the games in Miami, then to hold serve on their own court.
Celtics in 6.