NBA playoffs: Celtics will feel the Heat in Game 3

NBA playoffs are heating up. The Boston Celtics return home to face the Miami Heat in Game 3 of their best-of-seven, second-round NBA playoff series. Tip off is Saturday at 8 PM Eastern time.

Alan Diaz/AP
The Miami Heat's LeBron James, left, prepares to drive against Boston Celtics guard Ray Allen during the first half of Game 2 of a second-round NBA playoff basketball series, Tuesday, May 3, in Miami.

As was destined to be the case, the polite and respectful words that preceded this second-round NBA playoff series between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics have evaporated like an ice cube on a hot July sidewalk.

A very physical and emotional Game 1 in Miami saw a number of hard fouls on both sides and ultimately the ejection of Celtics’ forward Paul Pierce – following his second technical foul – in a mid-fourth-quarter altercation with Miami’s Dwyane Wade. In response, a sea of Heat fans in white, red and black t-shirts roared with approval and Boston never threatened for the rest of the game.

In the second game, Miami’s trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combined for 80 points and exploited mediocre performances by Boston’s “Big Three”: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who could only tally 36 as a group.

And even though Boston managed to get five players in double-figures - with Rajon Rondo scoring a team-high 20 points, along with 12 assists – Miami’s starters have far outhustled Boston’s marquee players on both sides of the ball. As a result, Boston now owns a 0-2 record for this playoff round, which they have not encountered since their trio of Pierce, Garnett and Allen were introduced on Causeway Street prior to the 2007-2008 season.

Boston has simply been outplayed so far in this series – both physically and mentally. Miami has used a home-court advantage to take Boston out of its game, which places a premium on stingy defense (regularly keeping opponents under 100 points and often under 90), and a versatile yet consistently productive shooting game.

Not only that, the Heat have matured in their current configuration to where they feel they can come back from a deficit and hold a lead in the late minutes. In Game 2, with Boston knotting the game at 80 in the fourth quarter, Miami proceeded to go on a 14-0 run and never looked back. For most teams playing at a championship level, that’s a crucial factor. Miami clearly showed more poise and aggressiveness on their home floor. And it left the Celtics scratching their heads and wondering what they’ll need to do to counter.

As they approach Game 3 on Saturday night in Boston, Miami’s challenge is to keep a sense of both humility and perspective. They’ve never been in this position before against this Celtics team, and winning a game on the road at this stage of the series would be a major accomplishment. Bosh’s 23 rebounds in the first two games – 18 of them on the defensive glass – have helped mightily.

On the other hand, Boston’s big hurdle will be to keep from losing its cool (not to mention its players) for an entire 48 minutes. They’ll need to be more patient and focused, and avoid the unnecessary confrontations that got them so many fouls in Game 1. And, with the expected return of Shaquille O’Neal on Saturday, the Celtics will not only have more options inside, but their starters should see more effective screens to get better looks from behind the 3-point arc, in addition to the high post. The bottom line here is that if their starters don’t produce, “The Green” are effectively finished.

But just as crucial to Boston’s fortunes, as I see it, is how forward Glen Davis handles the homecoming. He has dramatically underperformed, both on the opponents’ glass and in the offensive low post in the first two games. He’ll need step it up by doing double-duty inside with Shaq in effectively plugging the defensive lane and by helping to set screens for drives by Rondo – who must also have another solid outing. Miami will be forced to take more outside shots, and with Boston securing the inside, will probably need another scorer to produce, as was the case with the Heat’s James Jones’ 25 points in Game 1.

Boston, looking for a silver lining, can rightly claim they haven’t lost two consecutive home games like the L.A. Lakers. Nevertheless, they have their backs against the wall and must win Saturday night in front of their hometown fans to have any chance at winning this series. Coming back to the TD Garden in this context should fill the Celtics both with hopefulness and trepidation.

But Miami’s mission, should they choose to accept it, is to neutralize the home court fervor as quickly as possible and transfer the momentum they secured in American Airlines Arena to Boston’s parquet floor. And speaking of hopefulness, the Celtics’ mascot is a leprechaun named “Lucky.” The way Miami’s been playing so far against Boston, he’ll definitely need to be in the house on Saturday night.

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