THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Matchup is a happening

Celtics-Heat bout was long expected

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / May 1, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Almost immediately after LeBron James announced July 8 that he was taking his talents to South Beach, the Heat and Celtics appeared to be on a collision course, destined in the eyes of most experts to decide Eastern Conference supremacy for the 2010-11 season.

The NBA played along, matching the two budding rivals for what became the most overhyped season opener in league history.

The same day, four Globe writers offered their season forecasts; all had Miami and Boston meeting in the conference finals. On a more national scale, of the 25 media members who gave playoff predictions on ESPN.com before the season, 23 had either the Heat (17) or Celtics (6) winning the East.

Most everyone expected the teams to meet in the postseason, two squads with championship credentials and superstar rosters. After four games between the two in the regular season, we assumed we’d get at least four more in the postseason.

“Well, we all knew it would probably eventually happen, at one point or another,’’ said Celtics captain Paul Pierce. “We knew before the season that if we were going to get where we need to be as a championship team, we knew we’d have to play Miami. It’s finally here.’’

The timing might be unexpected, but the matchup certainly isn’t. Instead of playing for the right to advance to the NBA Finals, as many thought, the Celtics and Heat instead square off in the Eastern Conference semifinals, with Game 1 today at 3:30 p.m. at America Airlines Arena in Miami.

Thanks to the decision by James, Miami has been able to copy the Celtics blueprint that has brought two trips to the Finals and one title in the previous three seasons. By signing James, re-signing Dwyane Wade, and signing free agent Chris Bosh in a span of 48 hours, Miami had its own Big Three to send out against the Celtics’ Big Three of Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. Boston’s triumvirate won the 2007-08 championship in its first season together. Miami is hoping for a similar return on its expensive investment.

The 2007-08 Celtics breezed through the regular season, going 66-16, then survived a pair of Game 7s before beating the Lakers in six games for the franchise’s 17th banner. Pierce, Allen, and Garnett combined to average 55.8 points per game that year, 55.7 during the playoffs.

Miami, which struggled in a 9-8 start before finishing 58-24 this season, is much more reliant on its three stars. James, Wade, and Bosh combined for 70.9 points during the regular season, 66.2 in the first-round win over Philadelphia.

The Heat Three might have the edge in points, but the Celtics own the advantage in experience, which can be looked at two ways. Pierce, Allen, and Garnett have four years’ worth of being teammates, figuring out how best to divide up points, shots, and expectations.

James, Wade, and Bosh haven’t finished their first season together yet, but they aren’t nearly as old as Boston’s Big Three. Wade is 29, Bosh 27, James 26. Among the Celtics’ Three, Pierce is the youngest at 33. Garnett is 34, Allen 35.

What’s more important this time of year? Younger, fresher legs, or more games played together? Or will execution, depth, or regular-season success (the Celtics won three of the four meetings) prove paramount to which team keeps playing?

“We’re not going to go out of our way to be different,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “We’re just going to be us.’’

The Celtics, actually, are a Big Four, with Rajon Rondo becoming one of the league’s best point guards, one who’s capable of winning a game by scoring, rebounding, or setting up his All-Star teammates. How the Heat defend the fourth-year pro could go a long way toward determining their fate.

James and Wade are the unquestioned leaders of Miami’s nickname-heavy team — Heatles, MoHeatos — but Rivers and the Celtics point to Bosh, the lowest-scoring member of the trio at 18.7 points per game, as the key.

“When Bosh plays great, they play great,’’ Rivers said. “He stretches the floor, and they’ve done a better job the second half of the year involving him more. He’s part of their offense now.’’

Said Garnett, “We’ve got our work cut out for us. When Bosh plays really well, they blow teams out. It’s not even close.’’

Individually, the Heat Three have had trouble in the past with the Celtics this time of year. Wade and Miami lost in last season’s first round to Boston; the Celtics then ended the James Era in Cleveland with a second-round win. Only Bosh has yet to face the Celtics in the playoffs.

So much has happened since James and the Cavaliers walked off the Garden floor last May. Since then, the actions of a few have affected the fortunes of many, with every step bringing the Heat and Celtics closer to their inevitable postseason meeting. Starting today, we’ll see which Big Three moves on.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com.

Celtics Video

Follow our twitter accounts