Two star-studded, high-profile teams that, for very different reasons, are especially desperate to win a championship this season square off in an Eastern Conference finals series that features at least a full handful of future Hall of Famers and an unusually high quotient of drama and uncertainty.
The Celtics are trying to win their second title since adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to franchise anchor Paul Pierce five years ago. After winning a ring in their first season together, 2007-08, this iconic but aging Big Three, who have a combined 34 All-Star appearances, are engaged in a poignant and prideful potential last hurrah, knowing that Garnett and Allen are in the final year of their contracts and that the team's future revolves around 26-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo.
The Heat followed the Celtics' example by adding perennial All-Stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh to franchise anchor Dwyane Wade in the summer of 2010, with the players talking up a reign that would produce multiple championships. But they came up short last season, as James, like he did at times in Cleveland, inexplicably disappeared for crucial stretches of big games. Not even his justly deserved third MVP award this year -- the finest season of his marvelous career -- can remove that stigma. It will require a championship.
As if that weren't enough drama, both teams are hobbled by significant injuries. Celtics guard Avery Bradley is out for the season after shoulder surgery; Miami has not announced a timetable for Bosh's return from an abdominal strain; bone spurs in his ankles have made Allen a shadow of his vintage self; and Pierce and Wade are playing through knee issues.
LeBron James vs. Paul Pierce. The closest Boston came to elimination during its 2008 title run was a classic Game 7 when James scored 45 points and Pierce had 41 as the Celtics edged the Cavaliers 97-92 to advance to the conference finals. That was merely the most titanic of many storied battles between these two. Since then, James has widened his advantage in pure talent and versatility, while Pierce has retained his edge as the more proven, reliable player in the clutch. The hypercompetitive Pierce defends James about as well as anyone in the NBA, mostly by making the MVP work harder to score and otherwise reducing his playmaking -- LeBron's assist totals are consistently lower when Pierce is guarding him, according to stats from NBA.com.
But perhaps more important, Pierce needs to keep James preoccupied on defense, so that the Heat superstar can't jump passing lanes for steals or break out in transition. Miami thrives on the chaos and momentum generated by a flurry of layups and dunks derived from steals and court-length passes off rebounds, and LeBron is the primary catalyst of that attack. Pierce, one of the game's most deliberate and efficient half-court scorers, has to simultaneously put up points and slow the pace if the Celtics are to spring the upset. By contrast, if his shot isn't falling and his balky knees act up to the point where he can't handle the LeBron freight train, goodbye Boston.
Celtics: Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus. Losing Bradley deprives the Celtics of their best perimeter on-ball defender and a player whose cuts to the basket in the half-court offense were tailor-made for assists from Rondo. While that defense was less effective against the larger Wade, Bradley's absence increases the already-significant advantage Miami appears to possess at shooting guard.
In the final three games of Miami's second-round series against Indiana, Wade reprised the prime-time superstardom and pugnacious offense that propelled the Heat to the 2006 championship. Wade, who reportedly had his left knee drained before Game 3, averaged 33 points on 61.5 percent shooting as the Heat eliminated the Pacers by winning three straight. Meanwhile, Allen's ankles are hindering his mobility and affecting the balance and accuracy on what is usually the NBA's most dependable three-point shot. (The 36-year-old is hitting 26.9 percent from beyond the arc and averaging 9.9 points in the postseason.) That's poison for a player who relies on constant movement to pick off his man, and then a quick release, to score -- a player who also desperately needs two good wheels to stay with the relentless Wade.
A big reason for Boston's 3-1 regular-season record against the Heat was its 51.7 percent shooting from three-point range, including 8-of-12 from Allen in two games. If Allen can't deter Wade or nail his three-pointers, Pietrus must fill the void. The 6-foot-6 swingman, a key component of Orlando's lengthy playoff runs in 2009 and 2010, has the length and athleticism to stay with Wade. Perhaps most significant, he specializes in the corner three-pointer, taking more from that spot than anywhere else this season and making 42 percent, according to NBA.com. The Heat's primary defensive weakness is defending the corner three; Boston shot an amazing 76.2 percent (16-for-21) from that area in the four matchups this season. Pietrus, who hasn't played against Miami this year because of injuries, is shooting only 28 percent on corner threes in the playoffs. But he could provide an enormous boost if he can regain his stroke and stick with Wade on defense.
Heat: Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier. Rondo ran roughshod over Chalmers in regular-season matchups, shooting 62 percent and averaging 22.7 points per 36 minutes when they were both on the court. Given Boston's woes at shooting guard, Chalmers needs only to ensure that Rondo doesn't erupt for spectacular triple-doubles. But is he up to even that modest standard? And on offense, when the Celtics inevitably double-team Wade and/or James, Chalmers will have his share of open three-pointers. If he continues to make them at his postseason clip of 40 percent, Miami is in good shape.
If Bosh remains sidelined or is markedly limited by injury, Battier becomes a major X-factor for his ability to guard power forwards in small lineups -- like the Celtics' Brandon Bass, a deadly mid-range shooter. Like Chalmers, Battier will be presented with many open three-pointers. Unlike Chalmers, he has extended his regular-season slump from distance, converting 29.5 percent -- not to mention 0-for-6 on shots in the restricted area in the playoffs. A few more easy buckets will ease Miami's passage to the NBA Finals.
This is a series of birth dates and bandages. The Celtics are old and banged up, and Bosh could be bothered by his injury if he plays at all. But this is also a series of pride and legacy. For all the grit and soul that Boston's three veteran stars have shown since uniting, they have but one championship to show for it. For all of the individual awards on LeBron's mantle, there is no ring on his finger.
Boston has thrived on pressure in the past, while James has occasionally shrunk from it. But for Boston to win, Garnett and Rondo must be at the top of their games, Pierce must continue to seize the big moments and either Allen or Pietrus must deliver from three-point territory. The now-fabled Celtics resilience will ensure that many, if not all, of those things happen. But even so, if Wade is allowed even more leeway to romp than in the final games against Indiana, and James plays at an MVP level, without coming up small at key moments, the Heat, even without Bosh, will triumph. I suspect there simply isn't enough sand left in the hour glass for Boston to prevent it. Heat in six.