Commentary

What to watch for in Celtics-Heat

Breakdown of first-round series suggests Wade won't be enough against Celtics

Updated: April 16, 2010, 6:35 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

Statistics suggest the Miami Heat are a challenging first-round opponent for the Boston Celtics. So why is everyone picking Boston to win?

In a poll of 10 ESPN NBA experts, all 10 picked the Celtics to prevail, though none picked the series to last fewer than six games.

Even still, given Boston's inconsistent play since Christmas (27-27) and the fact this is a matchup of fourth and fifth seeds, it's a bit surprising that seemingly no one is giving Miami a chance to win.

We scratch beneath the surface of those statistics to reveal Miami's strengths and show why they might not be enough to get past Boston in this first-round matchup.

Value the ball | Style points | Trending topics | Healthy outlook | Wade factor | Loose balls | My prediction

Value the ball

Carlos Arroyo's season stats -- 6.1 points and 3.1 assists per game -- hardly jump off the page, but there's one thing Miami's point guard excels at: Not giving the ball to the other team. And what should become apparent playing the Heat is how much they value every offensive possession.

Arroyo's 4.17 assist-to-turnover ratio was second best in the NBA this season behind only New Orleans' Chris Paul (4.29). By comparison, Rajon Rondo finished eighth in the league at 3.23.

The Heat will almost certainly win the turnover battle, but that didn't translate to winning games during the regular season against Boston. The Celtics committed 57 turnovers to Miami's 36 in three games, but Boston still swept the season series.

The Celtics, while sloppy at times, were good at limiting the damage inflicted by turnovers. In addition to keeping their giveaways to a minimum late in the season (Boston still finished tied for 21st in the league with 14.9 turnovers per game), the Celtics allowed only 13.8 points per game off turnovers, second best in the NBA.

"In the playoffs, each possession is slowed down," Rondo said recently. "You have to value the ball and take care of it."

Miami can't just value the ball, it has to make Boston pay every time it doesn't.

Style points, or lack thereof

This series will be a matchup of two of the top five teams in the NBA in terms of points allowed. Miami finished second in the league at 94.2 points allowed per game, while Boston tied Cleveland for fifth at 95.6.

But what sets Miami apart is that it finished second in the league in defensive field goal percentage, allowing teams to shoot a mere 43.9 percent this season (Orlando topped the league at 43.8 percent).

[+] EnlargeRajon Rondo
Albert Pena/Icon SMIRajon Rondo understands the importance of taking care of the ball in the playoffs, but can he win the turnover battle over Heat point giard Carlos Arroyo?

Boston struggles mightily when opponents limit its shooting percentage. The Celtics were 12-16 when held under 44.9 percent shooting this season and an underwhelming 23-24 when held below 49.9 percent shooting.

Trouble for Miami is that Boston had absolutely no problem hitting its shots in the regular-season series. Boston connected on 51.4 percent of its total shots (109-of-212 from the field overall) while averaging 103.7 points per game.

And Boston plans to keep a breakneck pace against a Miami team that would prefer a half-court battle.

"We should be able to push the ball," Rondo said. "If they miss shots, we'll get in transition and go."

Conversely, the Heat have won their past 10 playoff games in which they've shot 50 percent or better from the floor. Trouble is they shot just 44.4 percent against Boston this season (111-of-250 overall).

Trending topics

The Celtics and Heat basically played inverse seasons of one another. Boston opened at 23-5, then went 27-27 the rest of the way to finish 50-32. Miami started its season at 27-27, then closed out the year at 20-8 to finish at 47-35.

But while Miami won 12 of its final 13 games in surging to the fifth seed, those wins came against lower-tier opponents. After dropping back-to-back games to San Antonio and Orlando, the Heat reeled off nine straight wins. Three of those wins came against playoff-bound teams -- but only ones seeded behind them in the Eastern Conference (Milwaukee, Charlotte and Chicago) and the rest was a hodgepodge of lottery-bound teams (New Jersey, Toronto, Detroit, Indiana, Minnesota and Philadelphia).

While Miami posted a better record against the brass of the East by going 5-9 against Cleveland, Atlanta and Orlando (Boston was just 3-9), the Celtics had a better mark against East playoff teams as a whole with a 13-12 mark (Miami was 11-16). Take away a 3-1 series advantage over the Hawks and Miami was a mere 8-15 against playoff teams in the East and just 5-11 against Western Conference playoff teams.

Healthy outlook

The Celtics are in the best health of the season and that's not encouraging news for Miami.

Boston had its typical starting five in just one of the three meetings this season, coasting to a 92-85 triumph on Nov. 29.

The Celtics didn't have Kevin Garnett during the teams' overtime thriller in January, and played without Paul Pierce in a February nail-biter. When the Green had their typical starters this season, they had a 38-18 mark (just 12-14 without them).

"It didn't look good three months ago, or two months ago," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We started out great, I mean we started out in great health, and then it went away. And we've struggled getting it back, but this is the healthiest we've been.

"I think this is the best Kevin [Garnett has] been since early in the season. I think Paul [Pierce] is feeling fantastic right now. So this is the healthiest, this is the best we can be right now. And that's the good part."

Rivers admitted health was more important than playoff seeding to the Celtics down the stretch.

"[The 2009-10 season] started out well, we started out 23-5 and everyone was healthy, but then we had a slew of injuries, and really struggled getting back our rhythm while getting guys healthy," Rivers told ESPN Radio on Thursday. "It became very difficult from that point on, coaching and managing minutes. My only thought was to get to the playoffs healthy. If you can get in great position, get in, but health was more important than any of those things."

The Heat are likewise healthy, with only Jermaine O'Neal (sprained ankle, hyperextended knee) recovering from injuries sustained in late March.

The Wade factor

The Heat are 19-2 lifetime when Dwyane Wade scores 30 points or more in postseason play, including a perfect 11-0 at home.

[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade & Kendrick Perkins
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesDwayne Wade averaged 33.7 points per game against the Celtics this season, yet his Heat lost all three games to Boston.

Considering Wade averaged 33.7 points per game against Boston this season, twice reaching the 30-point plateau (including a 44-point effort), that would appear to be a troubling stat for Boston.

And in a way, it is the most noteworthy of the bunch. While Wade's big games didn't hurt Boston in the regular season, superstars have slayed the Celtics over the final weeks of the regular season.

Take away Boston's final loss to Milwaukee on Wednesday night and here were the top scorers in the Celtics' previous five defeats:

* April 9 vs. Washington -- Andray Blatche: 31 points
* April 6 at New York -- Danilo Gallinari: 31 points
* April 2 vs. Houston -- Aaron Brooks: 30 points
* March 31 vs. Oklahoma City -- Kevin Durant: 37 points
* March 28 vs. San Antonio -- Manu Ginobili: 28 points

Rivers acknowledged that limiting opposing teams' leading scorers was a problem the Celtics had to fix heading to the postseason.

"Defense is what we hang our hat on and we haven't done a good job with two things: high field goal percentages -- teams are making [3-pointers] -- and high point totals," Rivers said. "Then the last thing is the fact that the best players are beating us. That, to me, stands out over all of them. Every night, the best player on the other team is having a big game against us. That's something, hopefully, we can fix."

The Celtics' strategy can still be to allow Wade to get his and challenge the supporting cast to beat them. If the regular season is any indication, the Heat might not have enough to get by, even if Rivers gushed about the players around Wade.

"It's a tough matchup," Rivers said of Wade. "You never really want to go into a series where the best player has a chance to be on the other team, and that's Dwayne Wade. He's an MVP candidate each year and he's what makes them go. But we can't just focus on him. What Dwayne and the rest of the team have done such a good job of is using the guys around him, and that's what makes them so dangerous."

Loose balls

A few other noteworthy tidbits on Celtics vs. Heat:

* Get on them early: Since Nov. 21, 2004, Miami is 29-1 when leading at the half during postseason play. Ironically, the Celtics have been at their worst when coming out of the locker room with leads this season, but clearly they'll be well served to generate early advantages. In each of the three regular-season matchups, Boston led at halftime and prevailed despite being outscored in the third quarter each time.

* First time for everything: The Celtics and Heat have never met in the postseason. As far as playoff experience goes, Boston has a decisive advantage, particularly with the core of its 2008 title team still intact. Only three players remain from Miami's 2006 championship team in Udonis Haslem, Wade and Dorell Wright.

* Keys to success for Boston: Before he even knew his opponent, Rivers opined on the keys to Boston's success: "We do have to be a better rebounding team in the playoffs than we were in the regular season. We have to take care of the ball better than we did the second half of the season. And we have to have better weakside defense. On the ball, you would prefer, but when guys are getting beat, that guy has to be there. And we've been inconsistent in that."

My prediction

My not-so-expert pick in this series? Celtics in 5.

Crazy you say? Sure, the Celtics have given few signs that they are even capable of winning four games in a five-game stretch lately. The Green did boast two four-game winning streaks in March, which suggests it's at least possible for them to string together a handful of wins.

But, more than anything, I think this team needs to win in five games or fewer in order to give it some confidence heading into a second-round matchup against the Cavaliers. If Boston struggles against the Heat and limps into the second round after yet another grueling, seven-game series, it might be a swift second-round exit.

On the other hand, if Boston makes short work of Miami and convinces itself that maybe -- just maybe -- it is flipping some sort of switch, then maybe that sends the Celtics up to Cleveland oozing the swagger the 2009-10 regular season lacked.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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