Howlin' Around the NBA: Eastern Conference Finals Preview

Rajon Rondo and the Celtics stand in the way of a return to the Finals for LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

Rajon Rondo and the Celtics stand in the way of a return to the Finals for LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

Note: Since the Wolves season has come to a close, this is the third in a series of email exchanges between Tom and Derek about the NBA playoffs. Enjoy! As always, Derek can be found on Twitter (@DerekJamesNBA), as well as Tom (@Tom_NBA)

Tom: Alright. We’ve broken down the Western Conference Finals, so let’s talk now about the Eastern Conference.

I feel like there is a race among many of the top NBA writers to discredit the Celtics’ current run, and I understand it to a certain degree. Boston faced Atlanta and Philadelphia on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals, and neither foe was on the level of, say, healthy Chicago or Miami. Worse, Boston didn’t look particularly good against teams that are clearly inferior Miami.

But here’s the thing: I watched this team during their run after the All-Star break, and they didn’t play particularly well in those games either. They just won. Sometimes, that meant playing down to their opponent. But sometimes they played up to them as well.

Maybe I’m a contrarian, maybe I’m a Celtics homer, I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s time to completely count the Celtics out yet. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not picking them. But I do think that there is a chance they could win this series, and while that chance is small, it’s also a little larger than most people seem to think. Here’s my reasoning: Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are going to demolish the Celtics. Badly. But apart from those two, wouldn’t it be fair to say that the Celtics have three match-ups in the starting lineup where they soundly defeat the Heat, if Miami is without Chris Bosh? If Brandon Bass can get back to his regular season production (and in two of the last three games, he has), he has an advantage over Udonis Haslem. Garnett is clearly better than whoever Miami trots out to defile the court from the center position (although a fairly convincing case could be made that Garnett will be worn down from a seven game series…if that’s your counter-argument, I will probably buy it). And Rondo is better than Chalmers.

I want to talk a little more extensively about Rondo, like most people do as he continues to confound us. I saw a lot of Twitter chatter after Saturday night’s game about how Rondo “actually played a bad game, he just had a good fourth quarter” which is half of a fair criticism. He certainly looked disinterested and ineffective through three quarters. But why does that mean he played a bad game? When Boston desperately needed him to come through, he stepped up as big as his 6’1 frame would allow. I know we get annoyed with the clutch debate, but didn’t Rondo’s incredible fourth quarter mean that he actually played a good game?

Rondo’s fourth quarter was representative of the Celtics’ second half in general, actually. Mediocre statistically, stellar when necessary, effective overall. I don’t think Boston wins this series. The gap between LeBron/Wade and their opponents is bigger than the gap between Rondo/Bass/Garnett and their opponents. But I think there is a possibility that this series will be closer than most people think.

Derek: I don’t think you’re being a contrarian. Probably not even Devil’s Advocate. Voice of reason is more like it. But, I’ve looked at this series, and tried to find some hope for the Celtics. Turns out hope is at a premium in New England right now. I do believe that Boston played down to their opponents at times during the first two rounds, but they won’t be able to do that here. Let me run through the reasons why I like Miami:

  1. Depth. The past two games the Celtics’ bench has scored a whopping 12 points combined. That’s 12 total; not each. Say what you will about Miami’s bench, but Boston’s is worse. Look at the minutes from Game 7 and you’ll see that all of Boston’s starters played 38+ minutes. Add that into a long series, and you have to be worried how that veteran lineup will respond to a rested Heat team. We’ve already seen Garnett start to slow a little after starting the playoffs hot, and Ray Allen was flat-out bad in Game 7, too.

The Heat’s bench may not be great, but they can do better than Ryan Hollins, Sasha Pavlovic, and Mikael Pietrus.

2.      No Bosh, No Problem. This isn’t to say the Heat are better without a Top-15 player, but they can get away with their rotation at the 4, especially with Haslem back. Is anyone worried about Brandon Bass going off? This is where point number one will come into play: the Heat’s role players will have to prove that they’re better. I think they can.

3.     The Heat Can Play Defense Too. The Celtics may have been the best team in defensive rating during the regular season, but Avery Bradley was a big part of that, and he’s not walking through that door anytime soon. Dirty little secret: Miami was 4th in Defensive Rating. Contrast the offenses, and the Heat were 8th and Boston was 27th. Boston can only hope to limit the Heat, whereas the Heat can make the Celtics’ offense disappear. And you know how dangerous this Heat team can be, by turning small deficits into marginal leads in the blink of an eye

4.     One More Dirty Little Secret. The Heat finished 16th in pace, while the Celtics finished somewhere in the 20’s, I believe. This may not be quite the track meet some people think this could turn into. Still, Boston probably should avoid any form of footrace with this Miami squad.

Rondo is certainly nice, but even if he starts dropping triple-doubles, he pushes this series to probably 6, instead of, say, 5. I agree with you though, this series will be closer than people think, but I think Miami will just be too much.

What Miami will have to do is figure out, without Bosh, how to make Garnett less effective. Matt Moore (CBS, Hardwood Paroxysm) tweeted that he was much less effective on the Pick and Pop this season when he had to dribble. Who can do that- LeBron, Haslem, or Anthony? Or do they go small if they are getting killed in those instances and bring in Battier and move LeBron to the 4 to help out. If they make Rondo shoot, I think they can be successful.

The Celtics will need a rejuvenated Kevin Garnett to hold up to increase their chances against the Heat.

The Celtics will need a rejuvenated Kevin Garnett to hold up to increase their chances against the Heat.

Tom: One thing about Garnett that you are forgetting: he’s playing the center position for the C’s this year. LeBron won’t be guarding KG at all this series. We might see Joel Anthony on him, and if we do, God rest his Canadian soul. But you can see that Garnett is more comfortable off the catch and shoot than off the dribble. That statistic doesn’t surprise me at all.

You are 100% correct about the bench. Without Bradley, Rondo’s back up is (I can’t believe I’m saying this about an Eastern Conference finalist…) Keyon Dooling. And it actually gets worse from there: Ryan Hollins and Greg Stiemsma both get regular minutes. One bench player I actually expect to see more from is Mickael Pietrus. Pietrus was expected to be a savior for the Celtics by overenthusiastic fans, and he has been far from that. But one would like to believe that Pietrus will progress to the mean in shooting percentage. In each of his last two trips to the playoffs, Pietrus shot well over .600 in TS%. In these playoffs, he is shooting .456 in TS%, and just 24% from three point range. Boston will desperately need production from him in this series.

In regards to Bosh’s absence: John from Red’s Army posted an interesting article speculating as to whether it might be a bad thing for the Celtics. The gist of the article was that Bosh was a negative against Garnett this season (again, I don’t think he’d be guarding Garnett this series, but anyway…) and he took possessions away from Wade and LeBron. It included a quote from Frank Vogel, questioning why we thought that having the ball in Wade or LeBron’s hands more was a good thing. This seems like sound logic, until you remember that Chris Bosh is one of the best power forwards in the game, and they really need his spacing. So it SEEMS like his absence is bad for the Heat…right? Is there something I’m missing?

I’ve tried hard to come up with a scenario in which I see the Celtics winning this series, and I can think of a couple. The most likely one (to my mind) is a pissed off Rondo, looking for revenge from Wade’s takedown in last year’s Eastern Conference semis, beats the tar out of Mario Chalmers in Games 1 and 2 and single-handedly wills the C’s to victory. Up 2-0, the Celtics grind out the rest of the series.

But I don’t think that or any other of these scenarios are likely to happen, and none of them are based in metrics, just narrative. And I hate narrative. So. I have two picks, contingent on the results of the first two games. If the Heat win both at home, I think they close this one out in five, a gentleman’s sweep. But if the Celtics can split the first two home games with Miami, I think Boston will push Miami all the way to Game 7 in Miami before bowing out.

So my pick is either Miami in five, or Miami in seven.

How much will Chris Boshs absence affect the Heat?

How much will Chris Bosh's absence affect the Heat?

Derek: Woops, perhaps I should’ve been clearer. I meant that if KG starts going off and they need to make an adjustment, or in terms of help defense.

You’re right about Pietrus, but Doc’s rotations were difficult to figure out. Even with Bradley, he’d run the full roster like a youth fair-play league, and even without Bradley, run the starters 38+ minutes and seldom use the bench (8 players were used in Game 7, I believe). Getting a guy like Pietrus off on the right foot will be important, and will also need up to 7 games of the best basketball of Dooling, Hollins’, and Sasha Pavlovic’s lives.

Vogel is right that the ball in the hands of LeBron and Wade is a good thing, but, and I’ll repeat, he’s a top-15 player, and no team is better without their top-15 player. It’s not as absurd as the talk about the Heat being better without Wade early in the season, but it’s on the same level of ridiculousness. Certainly, Bosh would help stretch the floor, and, *psst* come closer, Bosh has quietly turned into pretty darn good defender in Miami. They don’t need him to put the Celtics away, but they’d most likely do it sooner with him.

There is one advantage for the Celtics neither of us have touched on yet, and that is the Heat’s focus. We know that in the regular season they were prone to coasting, and gave off a, “Wake Us for the Playoffs. K, Thx.” vibe. Now that we’re in the playoffs, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I was going to say Heat in 5 before I read your theory on the C’s splitting Games 1 and 2. Which got me to thinking that the Heat absolutely don’t want to drop Game 2 and have to go to Boston with Boston having the momentum, and risk setting up a longer than expected 6 or 7 game series. Would that rattle the Heat? Last year’s team maybe, but it would be a good way to measure the growth of their mental makeup.

However, I’m going with Heat in 5, since there’s no reason to overthink this thing.

About Jonah Steinmeyer

Been a Wolves fan for probably way too long to be considered a sane human anymore. An avid golfer in my free time. I cheer for Minnesota sports but live in Florida.

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