The Boston Celtics have staggered into the Eastern Conference finals for the third time in five years, their “Big Three” era so close to complete that the moniker is outdated. It no longer even includes their best player, the mercurial and unpredictable Rajon Rondo.
Just 48 hours after Rondo finished off the stubborn, pesky eighth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of a series that was borderline unwatchable for those without a rooting interest, those same time-tested and battle-proven Boston Celtics will be rolling into the arena just south of the South Beach causeway, the scene of the infamous “Yes We Did” celebration in the summer of 2010.
Doesn’t that seem like ages ago?
Awaiting the men in green are the Heat, who no longer have a Big Three of their own because Chris Bosh has an abdominal injury for which a prognosis has not been given. The Heat did a little staggering of their own in their previous series, falling behind the Indiana Pacers 2-1 before finding the moxie and self-confidence to oust those purveyors of “smashmouth basketball” who ended up getting their own mouths and heads smashed as things got ugly in Game 5.
Miami is a huge favorite to put an end to Boston’s Big Three era, and with good reason. The Celtics are battered and bruised, without their best perimeter defender, Avery Bradley, without a decent center, and with Ray Allen looking like a shell of his former self (except when he summoned two huge fourth-quarter shots when they were needed most Saturday night in Game 7.) Rondo also had a pair of daggers in the closeout win over the Sixers, and you have to wonder whether he has emptied his bullet chamber. (The smart guess is no).
LeBron James has been brilliant throughout this postseason after winning his third MVP award, and he was brilliant in last year’s Eastern Conference finals when the Heat took down the Bulls in 5 games.
Except nobody really remembers that, because the memory LeBron sent us into last summer with was a string of fourth quarter failures in the championship series against Dallas.
Here are the five factors that will have the biggest impact on which of these two teams emerges from the East to take on the Spurs or the Thunder for the championship. (Click here for the Five Factors column on the San Antonio-Oklahoma City series.)
- The Rondo Factor. Is it a stretch to say this guy can win a game all by himself? He has been the MVP of the playoffs in the East, going for three triple-doubles in the Celtics’ 13 postseason games to raise his career total to nine, tying him with Wilt Chamberlain for fourth-most in NBA playoff history. As noted above, he is the best player in the Celtics, yet he is the player opponents most often dare to shoot, the player who crashes the boards instead of getting back on defense, the player with the uncanny knack for getting into the paint and wreaking havoc, either by finding an open teammate or finding a way to score. He is averaging 12.2 assists in the postseason, but also 3.8 turnovers. The Heat is a team that thrives in transition, and Rondo’s ability to protect the ball and dictate the tempo of the game will be crucial.
- The Bosh Factor. If he was healthy, Chris Bosh would be the one defending Kevin Garnett, who was looking unusually spry over the early part of the playoffs but seemed to be running out of juice in the latter half of the series against the Sixers. So the task of defending KG will fall to Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem, who will be drawn away from the basket because of the need to respect Garnett’s perimeter game. This will help negate Miami’s size advantage, which is no small matter when you consider that the Celtics were the NBA’s worst rebounding team in the regular season. The Heat showed in Games 4, 5 and 6 against Indiana that they can make up for Bosh’s point production if both James and Wade have their offense in gear, but if one of them is having an off night there will be an opportunity for Boston to keep the score low and keep themselves in the mix.
- The Tempo Factor. If Miami is allowed to run, they will run away with this series. It’s that simple. James is next to impossible to defend in the open court, and the Heat will look for every opportunity to create transition points rather than getting bogged down in halfcourt sets that make them look more ordinary than otherworldly. Even if you count Ray Allen out of the equation when listing each team’s best offensive weapons, the Celtics still have three guys who can score the ball with consistency — Rondo, Paul Pierce and Garnett. The Heat have only two, James and Wade. And if Boston can keep the scores in the 70s and 80s, they can uglify this series to the point where they can compete.
- The Dinosaur Factor: The Celtics looked washed up and finished at this time last year when they were ousted by the Heat in five games, and the storyline throughout this entire season has been whether this is the end of the road for Boston’s aging core. General manager Danny Ainge was ready to break them up at the trading deadline, with deals in place to send Ray Allen to Memphis (Allen even got a call from coach Doc Rivers saying he had been traded) and Pierce to the Nets. But the team stayed intact, hunkered down and finished the regular season with a second wind, then outlasted two postseason opponents who had no one with the talent level of James or Wade. History tells us that teams past their prime eventually crash and burn, and most expect a flameout from the Celtics. But dinosaurs can be stubborn when facing extinction, and no group of oldtimers plays with as much intensity as the Celtics.
- The Wade Factor: Somebody has to guard him, and that somebody was going to be Avery Bradley until his shoulder kept popping out if its socket (it hurts just to type that) and he underwent season-ending surgery. Allen is too old and gimpy to handle the job, which means someone from the threesome of Rondo, Keyon Dooling and Mickael Pietrus will be assigned the task of trying to contain a superstar who came to life following his Game 3 meltdown in Indiana when he cursed at his coach, closing the series with games of 30, 28 and 41 points. If the Celtics can get enough scoring out of Pierce to offset James’ production, the Celtics’ ability to contain Wade will be paramount. The more shots the Heat gets from players other than James and Wade, the better the Celtics’ chances.
SHERIDAN: Heat in 7.
HUBBARD: Heat in 7.
HEISLER: Heat in 6.
BERNUCCA: Heat in 5.
HAMILTON: Heat in 6.
PERKINS: Heat in 5.
ZAGORIA: Heat in 6.
PARK: Heat in 6.