On the surface, the matchup looks awfully familiar. The Celtics, the league’s best defensive team, meet the explosive Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But with a year elapsed since Miami’s five-game series victory over Boston—and a year’s wear and tear added to the Celtics’ veteran odometers—why should we expect this installment of the rivalry to be any different?
As it stands now, however, history can’t tell us much. Injuries have distorted these teams’ makeups such that games from last season, or even earlier this season, are not particularly instructive for predicting what will unfold between the two teams starting tonight. Still, it’s worth examining the matchups we will see in this series to get a better sense of the task now facing the Celtics.
Miami’s offense all season has been predicated on the pick-and-roll penetration of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But without the deadly 15-foot jump shot of Chris Bosh, who accounted for 18 percent of the Heat’s scoring during the regular season, the Celtics can follow the Pacers' blueprint and clog the lane against that penetration. The Heat's other candidates to knock down the pick-and-pop jumper: Udonis Haslem (39 percent from midrange) and Joel Anthony (yikes).
For Boston, the primary difficulty will be finding adequate defenders to slow down James and Wade. Paul Pierce has done a so-so job defending James the last two seasons; in 11 games dating back to last year, LeBron has averaged about two points more per 36 minutes with Pierce on the court than when he’s on the bench.
But the biggest concern, with shoulder surgery ending Avery Bradley’s season, is finding anyone to stop Wade. By default, that role falls to a hampered Ray Allen, and if Wade keeps up the level of offensive production he displayed over the last three games against the Pacers (33.0 points per game on 61.5 percent shooting), Allen won’t be in any position to stop him.
Slowing these two down, then, will require a total team defensive effort, which means peripheral defenders coming off their men to help out and double team. Perimeter shooters Mike Miller (45.3 percent from three), James Jones (40.4 percent) and Shane Battier (33.9 percent) will get their open looks, and if they knock them down consistently, the Celtics are in trouble.
Of course, the Celtics do have Rajon Rondo as their trump card, but it’s unclear whether his superiority over Mario Chalmers will be enough to counterbalance the prolific play expected from James and Wade. Michael Wilbon wondered aloud on ESPN whether the Heat’s two “great, great” players could defeat Boston’s four “great” players, and, by at least one metric, it appears they can. A look at Win Shares—a measure of how much a player contributes to his team’s wins over a season, offensively and defensively—on basketball-reference.com shows the Heat’s top four remaining players (not including Bosh) enjoying a 30 to 23.5 advantage in Win Shares, with James and Wade alone contributing 22.2.
Yet, despite that bleak assessment, I still expect the Celtics to take the floor at AmericanAirlines Arena tonight, and the only information we can be sure of is what we see once the ball tips. Far be it from me to dismiss these Celtics, who have warded off the dark embrace of Father Time for another series with stifling defense and timely shooting. Unfortunately, the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers are not the Heat, and, as sad as it is to admit, the end of an era probably starts tonight.
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Stats Driven features a closer look at statistical analysis, sports strategy and trends within Boston sports. Andrew Mooney, a student at Harvard College and an active member of the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective, is the primary contributor. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @mooneyar.