When the Chicago Bulls lost PG Derrick Rose to an ACL injury on the first weekend of the playoffs, most NBA observers penciled in a Boston Celtics-Miami Heat tilt as the likely match-up in the Eastern Conference Finals. After Chicago fell to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round sans Rose, all that was left was for Miami and Boston to oust Indiana and Philadelphia, respectively, to set up a rematch of 2011's Eastern Conference Semis.
But Miami ran into a rough patch against the Pacers, falling behind 2 games to 1 to start the series, and Boston needed a full seven games to top the Sixers. Nonetheless, both teams survived the gauntlet and are ready for a much-hyped Eastern Conference Finals.
"Inevitable. It's the match-up the game of basketball wants," the Heat's Dwyane Wade said Sunday afternoon. "Obviously, with the Chicago Bulls being out, this is the biggest matchup the Eastern Conference can have. So we accept the challenge and we look forward to the series."
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra added, "Was there any doubt that it'd be us and Boston?"
This is the third playoffs in a row both Wade and teammate LeBron James faced Boston. In 2010, the Celtics topped the Heat in the first round, then eliminated James' Cleveland Cavaliers in the semis. Miami won in five games in the 2011 semis. The Celtics and Heat have combined to win 5 of the past 7 Eastern Conference Titles.
"I wouldn't have it no other way, personally," James said. "It's really the only team I'm accustomed to playing in the playoffs. No matter where I go, I find a way to play Boston. ... We've got a lot of history."
The Celtics won 3 of 4 games against Miami in the regular season, just as they did in the 2010-2011 regular season. Even so, the Heat are favored over the Celtics, in large part because of the perception that the Celtics are older and slower than the Heat. Spoelstra called that assessment "ridiculous."
"No. Get out of here with that," Wade said. "I don't believe none of that. No feet hurtin', no tired, no nothing. This is the Boston Celtics. They're all 100 percent to me because when they play the Miami Heat, different ballgame and vice versa. Ain't no story lines, no excuses. ... Last year, yeah, we beat them in five, but man, it was like a nine-game series, it felt like."
Making things a little easier for Boston, Miami's Chris Bosh might be unavailable for the entire series. He is doubtful to play in Game 1 Monday, still recovering from a strained abdominal sustained in Game 1 of the Pacers series. The Heat have said Bosh is participating in light conditioning activities (like riding a stationary bike), but has not been on the court in practice since his injury.
Without Bosh, Miami could resort to a ton of pick-and-rolls against Boston, with Wade and James trying to free each other up against the Celtics' tight defense. The Celtics gave up the second fewest points per 100 possessions during the regular season (Miami was fourth). They will definitely be the toughest defense Miami will face in the playoffs (New York was 5th, Oklahoma City 9th, Indiana 10th, San Antonio 11th).
Boston struggles on offense though (scoring just 99 points per 100 possessions, 24th in the NBA), but is one of the better shooting teams in the NBA (5th in field goal percentage and 7th in 3-point percentage). As with Indiana, Miami will succeed if it can keep Boston out of the paint and force a ton of long, contested jumpers.
Just like the Pacers did before their series, the Celtics are making it known that they think they can beat the Heat. "We feel we can beat Miami," Boston PG Rajon Rondo said Saturday. "Obviously, we got to this point. There's no doubt in our mind we can. We got to go down there and take care of business."
Boston will get their first crack at Miami at 8:30 p.m. at the American Airlines Arena.