Five things to watch in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN):
• Miami’s offense: In the flow?
The Heat had a possession early in Game 6 where they operated the way they’ll have to play more often to win Game 7 and ultimately have a realistic chance to beat the Thunder in the NBA Finals. It started with Chris Bosh holding the ball at the left elbow as LeBron James cut from the right corner, darted around two screeners and caught the ball near the foul line. LeBron’s man, Paul Pierce, had somehow fought through both screens, and so the Heat went into their next option: Bosh ran to the left corner and screened for Dwyane Wade, who came sprinting around the pick to catch a pass from James.
Boston passed that test, too, as Ray Allen managed to stick with Wade. So Miami moved on to option No. 3: a quick-hitting Wade/James pick-and-roll, which finally broke the defense. Allen had to switch onto James, who used his huge size advantage to post up the Boston guard and score.
Miami’s half-court offense has too often lacked that commitment to steps two, three and four in the conference finals. That was even the case for the most part in James’ epic explosion Thursday in Boston. Wade’s shot selection, in particular, has been awful, as he has too often settled for pull-up jumpers in transition and when coming off that first screen in the corner. Wade is 11-of-40 on mid-range shots in the series. The Heat have taken nearly 28 percent of their shot attempts from three-point range, up from 19 percent in the regular season, according to NBA.com’s stats tool. And as others have noted, an unsustainable percentage of James’ season-saving 45 points in Game 6 came on contested mid-range shots, some out of ho-hum isolation plays that Boston will happily give him almost every night.
The Heat will have to do better, whether it’s Saturday or in the Finals. The James/Wade pick-and-roll has been more effective and prolific in this series than at any time over the last two seasons, forcing Boston into repeated compromising switches. As for the threes, there are good threes and bad ones, and the Heat would be wise to limit their tries to those attempted by role players (Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Mike Miller) who find themselves open as Boston’s defense tilts toward the Miami stars. (Note: It’s a cliché to say each team needs its role players, but each team needs its role players.)
• Defending Rondo, and countering that defense.
The Heat have tried every strategy imaginable against point guard Rajon Rondo. But with their season on the line in Game 6, they went back to the old standby of having Wade sag way off Rondo, go under high screens and rove around to muck up things elsewhere. Boston has seen this strategy before and devised dozens of small ways to beat it, but those methods don’t work every night. Loose defense helps Rondo see the floor, but it also destroys Boston’s spacing below the three-point arc.
Boston, a poor offensive team all season, finally showed its true colors in Game 6 after scoring at an almost a top-10 rate through the first five games of the series — the biggest reason the Celtics were a win away from the Finals. Boston was due for a stinker, but Miami’s anti-Rondo strategy helped produce it. The pick-and-roll baskets on which Kevin Garnett thrived in Game 5 were gone because Wade was disrupting the roll by bumping KG and darting under screens to prevent Rondo from turning the corner.
Rondo took advantage of the extra space early, scoring 19 first-half points, but he also piled up seven total turnovers, many on the sort of too-cute interior passes Boston resorts to when it cannot generate any real spacing. The Celtics turned over much of the offense to Pierce in the second half, and that just hasn’t worked in this series, one of the worst of the Boston small forward’s illustrious career. He can’t score consistently against James one-on-one, and the Heat have increasingly switched defenders on those plays in which Pierce pops off a Garnett screen, catches the ball and looks to attack.
Miami is confident its big men can deal with Pierce and that James can at least credibly contest Garnett in the post, especially if the Heat can send him help off an unreliable shooter such as Mickael Pietrus.
It all worked for Miami in Game 6, but Boston knows the counters. If a traditional Rondo/Garnett pick-and-roll isn’t working, the Celtics will run two consecutive such plays, hoping the Heat defenders eventually get tangled up in the scrum around the Garnett pick. They’ll have Garnett roll into a screen for Allen instead of looking to score himself. Or Garnett will set one of those nasty moving picks in which he essentially forces Miami to switch by rolling right into Wade’s chest and pushing him down into the post.
On a simpler level, Boston just needs more from Pierce, who is shooting 33.6 percent and not generating his usual share of foul shots. Pierce is dealing with a knee injury, and every player suffers against the defense of James and Battier. But Pierce also missed several open threes early in Game 6, and the Heat (especially James) have been occasionally careless tracking Pierce in the sideline/corner area. The Celtics will need some of those shots to fall. They’ll also need Pierce to avoid foul trouble.
• Minutes watch.
It’s never, ever wise to stake anything serious on the outcome of one game, but if there’s one reason — or two, actually — to favor Miami beyond the obvious home-court advantage, here it is: The Heat are plus-71 in the 233 minutes Wade and James have played together in this series and a borderline unbelievable minus-50 in the 65 minutes either one or both (but usually just one) have been on the bench, per NBA.com
The Celtics, on the other hand, are basically dying when either Rondo or Garnett hits the bench. Boston is plus-13 when those two play together and minus-34 otherwise. No other two-man combo that has logged major time has been anywhere near as effective.
Bosh’s return eases some of the pressure on James and Wade, but we know LeBron is prepared to go the full 48 if necessary. Rondo has already logged 53 minutes in one game this series, so he could do the same. Garnett, on the other hand, has cracked 40 minutes in just six of 19 playoff games, and three of those six have gone into overtime. Can he give the Celtics, say, 44 minutes of productive ball in Game 7? If he can’t, Boston is going to need to survive the non-Garnett stretches somehow — by timing them with Wade’s rest, getting more from Pierce and/or having one its role players hit more outside shots than usual.
• Transition, transition, transition.
The Heat’s transition defense in this series has been as poor as Rondo claimed in that halftime interview with ESPN. Though they cleaned it up some in Game 6, there were still a few possessions in which Wade’s lolly-gagging resulted in some dicey mismatches and one play in which James and Chalmers bumped into each other at mid-court due to a miscommunication.
Miami is capable of starving Boston’s offense if it minimizes points the Celtics get via transition and delayed transition. No defense can eliminate them completely — not with Rondo pushing the pace, probing the defense and directing his teammates into open spaces. But limit the Celtics to transition points that they really earn, and they often struggle to crack 85 points.
Boston has no such hustle issues, but it must look more like the turnover-phobic team it was in the first five games of this series and less like the cough-it-up machine it was during Game 6 and the entire last half-decade. The Celtics simply cannot afford to give Miami easy points.
• Garnett on the block.
Garnett reminding the world what a wonderful two-way player he has been is one of the best stories of the playoffs. He already has posted more 20-point, 10-rebound games in the postseason (nine) than he did in the regular season (seven). The Celtics only need to prop up the offense from “bottom-six”-level to “average” in order for their defense to give them a realistic shot of winning, and if they aren’t going to get that boost from Pierce or some extra transition fuel, Garnett’s post game is probably the place they’re going to have to find it — barring another monster scoring game from Rondo.
Garnett was 4-of-8 from the lower half of the paint in Game 6, so it’s not as if his interior game vanished. It just wasn’t a constant, and the shot attempts carried a greater degree of difficulty than Boston would have liked. The Heat removed those pick-and-roll gimmes Boston got in Game 5 when Miami trapped Rondo and let Garnett roll free to the hoop.
The Celtics are going to have to find other ways to establish Garnett, and they have done that well in this series. They’ve cleared his side of the floor to give Rondo easier passing angles over Miami’s fronting defense. They’ve had Rondo give up the ball outside, cut toward the rim and suddenly back his rear end into Garnett’s man, setting a surprise pin-down. And they have used the pick-and-roll as means of posting up Garnett on the move.
They’ll need that creativity in Miami. They’ll also need Garnett to make shots over smaller defenders if Miami continues to switch James onto him. And as usual, they’ll need his jumper to fall; Garnett was just 2-of-6 outside the paint in Game 6. That won’t do in what Boston coach Doc Rivers always describes as a “make-or-miss” league.
Bottom line: The odds favor Miami, but this Boston team just continues to survive. Can the Celtics do it again on Saturday?