Fresh off a first round victory over the 76ers, the Miami Heat move on Sunday to their first major test of the playoffs: their nemesis the Boston Celtics.
Before the NBA season began, the Heat and Celtics were seemingly on a crash course towards a highly-anticipated playoff matchup that would pit the winners of two of the last three Eastern Conference crowns against the Three Kings.
Most NBA analysts expected the two to meet in the Eastern Conference Championship, but the Chicago Bulls' surprising regular season run ensured a Heat-Celtics matchup would come one round early.
The Celtics won three of four regular season games against the Heat, including an 88-80 win at home to open the season which single-handedly deflated much of the hype surrounding the new-look Heat.
In their most recent meeting on April 10, the Heat soundly defeated the Celtics 100-77, but Heat coach Erik Spoelstra played down the win at the time, saying, "We proved we can beat them tonight. That's about it, in my mind."
Boston finished the regular season 56-26, the third best record in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics swept the New York Knicks in the first round.
Can Miami get over the hump and dispatch the Celtics? Boston has proven it can stop the Heat's fast-paced offense, two of the Heat's three lowest-scoring regular season games came against the Celtics.
But when the Celtics dealt center Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City before the trade deadline, they may have given up one of their biggest advantages over Miami: defensive presence at the center position. In his place is the aging duo of Shaquille and Jermaine O'Neal, both of whom are in the twilight of their careers.
The Heat's biggest question mark defensively heading into the series will be whether they can contain Celtics PG Rajon Rondo, who notched a triple-double in the teams' third meeting in February. Considering Mike Bibby's suspect defense and Mario Chalmers' tendency to disappear for long stretches, the Heat could have their hands full with Rondo.
With many of their key players over the age of 33, this year could be Boston's last realistic shot at a championship in a while. With that in mind, expect the Celtics to give it all they have in this series. But with home court advantage and a team finally hitting its stride, Miami could be peaking at just the right time.
David Hill is a Miami native and former owner of a youth replica Rony Siekaly jersey.