The tactics the Heat used in Sunday's 99--90 win over Boston should have looked familiar to the Celtics: They were beaten at their own game. Miami employed Bostonian ball movement to create open shots for Dwyane Wade and James Jones, loaded up its defense to squelch Rajon Rondo's driving lanes and played a veteran mind game to bait Paul Pierce into a fourth-quarter ejection.
Pierce's alarming absence of self-control was exposed with 7:59 remaining when he up-faked and then was clobbered around the neck and shoulders by Jones, whose intent was to prevent a jump shot. Pierce responded by rubbing his nose against Jones's left cheek—the softest of head butts—and both players were given technical fouls. Just 59 seconds later Wade ran hard through a Pierce screen, baiting him into a reaction that resulted in another double technical, and Boston's hopes of recovering from a 12-point deficit followed Pierce out the door. Said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, "You knew what they were going to do: They were going to be chippy. If you know that then you've just got to take it. And we didn't do a good job of taking it."
The Heat approached this second-round series as a defining moment, not only because Boston had won three of the four regular-season meetings but also because Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh had spent the previous three years being victimized by the Celtics. (Their teams were a combined 14--39 against Boston, including the playoffs.) The three had come together as free agents in Miami to do what they couldn't accomplish individually, and the initial postseason result couldn't have been more promising. "I know that I don't have to average 30 points against Boston like I have done in the past," said James, who had 22 points, five assists and two blocked shots. "Good stats for me, but they didn't get me anywhere. [It was] nights like this that I thought about when I made the choice."
That choice—or Decision, as it were—was affirmed most of all by Wade's 38 points, five assists and two blocks. Hours of film study showed him where he could find open shots, and he attacked relentlessly in order to reverse a yearlong trend of poor performances against the Celtics, who had limited him to 12.8 points and 5.3 turnovers during the regular season. The other weapon was Jones, who attempted seven shots (all threes) and made five on his way to 25 points, in addition to his crucial role in Pierce's sabotage.
The Celtics may not be able to bring Wade back down to his regular-season level. But they can try by playing through Rondo in order to control the pace, which will keep Wade out of transition and let Boston set up its half-court defense. The Celtics will also get a boost if, as expected, Shaquille O'Neal is able to return from the injuries to his right calf and Achilles tendon that have limited him to 5½ minutes since Feb. 1. (Rivers said on Sunday that O'Neal was "close" to returning in Game 2 and "sure" to play in Game 3.) Shaq's size around the basket would enable Boston to extend its defense to challenge Wade on the perimeter. The best way to slow down Wade is to turn him into a defender by controlling the game offensively, and the Celtics' troubles are bound to grow unless they beat him to the punch.