- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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The Boston Celtics awoke Saturday morning to learn they are now No. 2 in the Eastern Conference. They have already beaten the No. 1 team twice this season, but will need to do it again Sunday to regain the top spot in the conference.
Going 3-0 against the Miami Heat? That is a tall order, given the current states of the two teams this Valentine Day's weekend. Miami is rolling (again). The Celtics are injured (again) and stumbling.
The Celtics' 2-0 advantage over Miami this season is wildly misleading because, as we've all come to understand, regular-season matchups are impossible to use as gauges for the long term.
Miami opened the season at Boston after not having had Dwyane Wade (hamstring) for pretty much all of training camp and the exhibition season. It showed. Wade was 4-of-16 from the field in the 88-80 Boston victory. Smug Celtics fans showered the Heat with chants of "overrated." The teams met 16 days later in Miami with the Celtics prevailing 112-107. Miami still was not clicking; it was the Heat's third loss in four games.
But oh how things have changed in the past three months. Miami bottomed out at 9-8 and then went on a 21-1 run from Nov. 29 to Jan. 9, temporarily overtaking the Celtics for the top spot in the conference when Boston lost at home to Houston on Jan. 10. But the Heat then went into a brief, injury-induced tailspin, dropping five of six. They had been chasing the Celtics ever since until finally overtaking them with their win against the Detroit Pistons in the Palace of Auburn Hills on Friday night.
"They're a lot different than the team we played earlier in the year," Pierce said. "They have been able to put some games under their belt, figure out who they want to be and it's evident. They went on a big winning streak. When they're healthy, they're one of the best teams in the league, record-wise. This is a chance to see where we are with the elite teams."
The Heat come into Boston having won eight straight while the Celtics have dropped two in a row and three of four. The Celtics have not had a three-game losing streak this season, but with their bench decimated by injuries, they will find Miami to be every bit as tough and determined as the Lakers and Mavericks, the last two teams to beat the Celtics in TD Garden.
The Celtics also have not lost to a conference foe at home this season and can clinch the season series with Miami by continuing that trend Sunday. Miami, meanwhile, registered its conference-best 19th road win against the Pistons. The Spurs and Lakers also have 19 road wins. (The Celtics have 15.)
The team statistics point to what everyone already knows: This is a matchup of league powerhouses at both ends of the floor. The Celtics lead the league in field goal shooting percentage; Miami is No 2. The Celtics lead the league in fewest points allowed; Miami is No. 5. The Heat are No. 1 in defensive field goal percentage and No. 2 in 3-point defensive field goal percentage. The Celtics are No. 3 and No. 6, respectively, in the categories.
And in the all-important point differential category, Miami ranks No. 1 and the Celtics rank No. 4. In between them are the Lakers and Spurs, which gives you an idea of how that particular statistical category separates the NBA wheat from the chaff.
"They're just better. They're not different, they're better because they've been together longer,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of the Heat. "Personally, I think they trust [coach] Erik Spoelstra now. It takes time with a lot of new players for guys to trust the stuff that they're putting in. Early on, they just didn't have it. Now they have it."
The Heat, despite leading the Celtics in the standings, still view Boston as the team they need to beat. They look at the Celtics the same way the Celtics looked at the Pistons a few years back, as a team that has been there, done that and, until dethroned, is the de facto champion.
After the Detroit victory Friday night, James said, "right now, our guys are hungry. It just shows where we've come since November, when we were 9-8. It shows the commitment we've had. We know it's a big game for us. Boston beat us twice and they're a team we're trying to catch. You have to go through them to do what you want to do."
The Celtics are a bit easier to go through these days. Rivers looks at his bench and sees the Sioux Falls Skyforce. For the Miami game, the Celtics will be without Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal, Semih Erden, Delonte West, Marquis Daniels and, possibly, Nate Robinson.
Rivers' hoped-for second unit of Daniels, West, Robinson, Glen Davis and pick-an-O'Neal has yet to have one game together and probably never will. Avery Bradley, fresh from the Development League's Maine Red Claws, qualifies as Rivers' eighth man if Robinson is hors de combat. Von Wafer, who didn't play a minute in the NBA last season, would be No. 7 in that scenario, behind Davis.
You could say neither of the first two Boston-Miami games was a fair fight because of the Heat's personnel situation. You could also say Sunday's game will be similarly tainted because of Boston's personnel issues.
No one cried for Miami early on and no one is shedding any tears for the Celtics nowadays. There's one more regular-season game between these two leviathans and then, well, each side would probably admit to wanting and hoping to see each other again when it really matters.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
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