Rajon Rondo defied logic in the final minutes of Boston’s 85-75 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday which earned them a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals. Rondo, well known as perhaps the league’s worst-shooting point guard (He shot 23% from three and 60% from the line this season; for a point of reference, Sacramento’s sweet shooting Chuck Hayes is a career 61% foul shooter), had been struggling with inconsistent focus the entire game, but up 3 with 2:10 left, Rondo swished through a three-pointer from a good two feet behind the line to seal the deal for the Celtics.
Now heading into a series with the Miami Heat, a team featuring the two hottest players this postseason in Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, Rondo and the Celtics may need some more of that magic in what could be the aging squad’s final shot at another title. But from the Heat’s side, Boston is no pushover themselves, with a rejuvenated Kevin Garnett leading the way. Here are a few key topics that could decide who will represent the East in the NBA Finals.
1. Dealing with injuries
The Heat are prepared to play this series without the help of power forward Chris Bosh, who is out indefinitely with a strained abdominal muscle. His absence clearly complicates things for Miami, particularly on defense.
Garnett has been playing like a man possessed this postseason and is putting up numbers reminiscent of his T-Wolves years, averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds. So with Bosh out, Miami has to decide who to guard KG.
One option is shifting LeBron to Power Forward, as they initially did when Bosh went down. James, however, claimed banging in the post was too heavy a workload for him. Having James, arguably the league’s best perimeter defender, on Garnett would also leave the task of guarding Paul Pierce up to a weaker defender. Ultimately, Miami will likely keep LeBron on Pierce and hope Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, and Ronny Turiaf can keep KG in check.
Boston has an injury problem of their own which, while not as major a concern as Miami’s, coud still have an impact on the series. Avery Bradley, the Celtic’s top perimeter defender who would likely have guarded Wade, will miss the remainder of the postseason after having surgery on his shoulder.
Ray Allen will have to pick up Bradley’s duties, and while Allen did a decent defensive job against Philadelphia, the Heat have a much more potent offense than the 76ers.
2. Star power
The Big 3 vs. The Heatles. The Boston 3 Party vs. The Miami Thrice. The 3 Amigos vs. The Super Friends. This series will have about as much star power and terrible nicknames as is possible.
While the Celtics’ “Big Three” get the title, Rondo has really become the team’s top player, especially in the playoffs where he has 9 career triple-doubles. His performance to close out the Philadelphia series (7 straight points in the last four minutes) exemplifies how much of an impact he can make.
Even with Bosh’s return questionable, the tandem of James and Wade quite possibly trumps all four of the top Celtics combined. Even with his 2-13, 5 point dud in game 3, Wade still managed to average 26 points a game throughout the series with the Pacers. James, meanwhile, managed to top that averaging 30 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists.
3. Defense wins championships
Despite the offensive skill and marquee names on both teams, don’t expect many high scoring games. The Celtics and Heat are numbers 1 and 2 respectively in the points allowed category during the playoffs, both giving up less than 86 points a game. This series won’t be won by who scores the most points, but by who gives up the least.
Prediction: Miami in 6.
Wade and James are just too athletic for the older Celtics to keep up with and are coming into the series on such a hot streak that they’ll be tough to stop. The Celtics’ defense and experience will give them a chance though. As Kevin Garnett said, “Anything is possible.”