LeBron James knows what he wants and is determined to have it. After the Boston Celtics defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games in last year’s NBA Eastern Division quarterfinals, it was inevitable that he’d search for a way to meet them again on playoff hardwood.
On Sunday afternoon, James will get that rematch. The Miami Heat’s defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of this year's playoffs, and even though it’s an early-round series, the Celtics-Heat matchup promise to be one of the most exciting of the year.
Don't be lulled into complacency from all the hype during last year's television spectacle “LeBron James: The Decision,” and the overindulgent, pyrotechnic introduction of James and his fellow “Big Three” teammates Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami last July.
Coming into this series, James remains a focused, disciplined and remarkably talented competitor in addition to a master marketer – and has employed all those qualities in rising to the pinnacle of his profession. His 26.7 points per game and 2,111 total points were both second overall in the NBA, and his athleticism and strength are virtually unparalleled in the game.
The James-Wade-Bosh triumvirate has raised Miami from 12 games over .500 (47-35) in the 2009-10 regular season to a record of 58-24 this year. In this way, the team has met expectations – if not exactly becoming “… arguably the best trio to ever play the game of basketball,” as Dwyane Wade said during the Miami introduction ceremony. And with no titles yet to speak of, they have to accomplish much to achieve the multiple titles they were musing about on stage in front of the Miami faithful last summer.
What about the Celtics?
As for Boston, following their relatively weak opening playoff round sweep of the New York Knicks, there were some who suggested they might not get past the second round this year. After all, they finished the season by winning only five of their last 10 games while enduring a mediocre March and April; eked out a couple of last-second playoff wins against the injury-hobbled Knicks, and have been beset with multiple injuries of their own – most notably to their centers Shaquille O’Neal (ankle) and Jermaine O’Neal (knee, wrist).
But the nucleus of Boston’s own “Big Three” – forwards Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and guard Ray Allen, has remained intact and has kept this team producing at a level that helped them exceed their win total for 2009-10 by six games. And guard Rajon Rondo, averaging 19 points and 12 assists in the first playoff round, has been crucial to the Celtics’ ball distribution and scoring. He now holds the record (tied with LeBron James) for six playoff “triple-doubles” (points, rebounds and assists all in double-figures in a single game).
Boston didn’t lose to Miami at home during the regular season (winning three of four games); but their season record away from the Garden is only five games over .500. And Miami destroyed them at their American Airlines Arena in April, 100-77. Home court advantage has played at least some part. But the compressed schedule and hyper-energized atmosphere of the playoffs throws the previous 82 regular season games out the window. Shaquille O’Neal was unable to practice Saturday and the Celtics said he would not play Sunday. Too bad, a return of Shaq would take some pressure off backups Nenad Krstic and the chronically injured Jermaine O’Neal.
In the post, Miami’s game isn’t as well-developed as Boston’s; they’re chiefly an outside shooting team relying on their starters for most of their point production. On the inside, the Heat’s 14-year veteran center Erick Dampier missed time in the opening series against the 76ers with a knee injury, and will be inactive for Sunday’s game. The same applies to former Florida Gators star forward Udonis Haslem, who’s injured foot has him as questionable. So doing yeoman’s work this round will be James’ fellow Cavaliers alum, center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who at just over five points per game and four and a half rebounds, will have to step up his production dramatically in the low post. As for the Celtics, they have a stronger bench led by power forward and post-up specialist Glen Davis. Strong shooting aside, these games will be won in the paint, and that advantage would seem to be Boston’s. And look for Rondo’s assist production to at least approach that of the New York series.
For now, both teams are taking the high road in expressing their appreciation and respect for their opponent. But before the series is over, watch for the fur to fly – both on and off the court. Because it’s possible, if not probable, that a championship banner could hang in the balance.