Predicting Inevitable Eastern Conference Finals Bout Between Celtics and Heat

Predicting Inevitable Eastern Conference Finals Bout Between Celtics and Heat The Eastern Conference Finals are nine months away. Yet we might already have our contestants.

Call me crazy. Say it's too far off, and that too much (injuries, trades, the NBA finally instituting anti-flopping rules) can happen between now and then.

But now, in August, months before the start of the regular season, the two strongest teams have to be Boston and Miami.

Cleveland, sans LeBron James, is out of the running; Atlanta proved it's too small down low to contend deep into the playoffs and has done nothing since to shore up that deficiency; and Orlando, the third-best team in the conference, features Vince Carter and Dwight Howard (too old and too awful on offense, respectively) as its best players.

Sure, Boston's stars are old, too. But they've got a lot more of them, and none have relied on their raw athleticism throughout their careers the way Carter has — a big part of the reason he shot worse than 43 percent from the field in 2009-10.

The Celtics' roster as of Aug. 6:

PG: Rajon Rondo (Avery Bradley)
SG: Ray Allen (Nate Robinson)
SF: Paul Pierce (Marquis Daniels)
PF: Kevin Garnett (Glen Davis)
C: Shaquille O'Neal (Jermaine O'Neal, Kendrick Perkins)

That's the No. 2 point guard in the league; the best 3-point shooter ever; a game-finisher who can score from everywhere on the floor; a (theoretically) healthier Big Ticket; and a very large threesome at center that should allow each to stay fresh throughout the season.

I like their chances.

The Heat? Yeah, they splurged a boatload on their top three players and then had to scramble to fill out the roster, but it's hard to bet against LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

So, if we take that leap of faith and place Boston vs. Miami on the 2011 conference finals ballot, who can be expected to take on (hate to say it) the Lakers in the championship series?

Starting matchups

Rondo v. Mario Chalmers:
This should require little defense. Rondo is competing for the starting job as World's Best Point Guard. He has a ring. He averaged a double-double for the season last year and shot better than 50 percent from the field.

Chalmers? He played 25 minutes per game last season. Next.

Ray v. Wade: D-Wade is out of this world at times. There's no way, with James and Bosh on the floor at the same time, that he'll put up the 27 points, seven assists that he did in 2009-10, but the Marquette alum is simply better at this point in his career than Ray.

That said, if Allen were to go on one of his vintage 3-point binges, he could neutralize Wade's scoring. There's also the very distinct possibility that Wade, injury-prone throughout his career, will get hurt.

Still, this is a point for the Heat.

Pierce v. LeBron:
This is where the debate starts getting interesting. Conventional wisdom would put the King ahead of the Truth. James, after all, is the NBA's back-to-back MVP; he has averaged 27 points per game or more for six straight seasons, carrying his otherwise pretty mediocre teams well into the playoffs in four of those.

Pierce, meanwhile, is 32 and in the twilight of his career.

And yet, Paul and his club have managed to exceed the King in two of the last three straight postseasons (beating the Cavs in 2008 and 2010 en route to the Finals, and watching them get bested by the Magic in 2009).

This leaves two very different conclusions: LeBron doesn't have the DNA of a ruthless, give-me-the-ball champion (as many sports pundits have suggested of late), or he simply didn't have the teammates around him to get over the hump.

Given the disparity in those two possibilities, we'll have to leave this one as, "To be determined" (as I think much of LeBron's career is).

KG v. Bosh: Garnett is, without question, one of the greatest power forwards of all time. There's also no question that he's aging (in fact, interestingly enough, he would turn 35 years old right in the thick of this hypothetical conference finals with the Heat), his stats dropping in each of the last three seasons.

And yet, there's reason to believe KG will improve this upcoming season over last. His knee should be fully recovered (to the extent that it can, at least), which in turn, should allow him to regain some of his legendary stamina and be more active on the boards, the Celtics' weakest link in 2009-10.

Nonetheless, Bosh is in his prime. The 26-year-old posted 24 points and 11 boards last season on 52 percent shooting from the field. And he was even more impressive when matched up with Garnett, scoring 20 points and grabbing 13 rebounds against the Celtics on Nov. 27.

Again, those numbers will no doubt be partly cannibalized by Wade and James, but Bosh takes this matchup.

Perkins v. Joel Anthony:
Perk should be healthy by January, giving him a full five months to get back into playing shape for the conference finals. At that point, he will dominate 6-foot-9 Anthony, who averaged 2.7 points, three rebounds with Miami in 2009-10.

Without having to waste much more time needlessly defending the argument, Perk wins this bout.

Which, for those counting, leaves the matchup at 2-2-1.

But, of course, basketball isn't quite that easy to peg. There are turnovers, rebounding, fast-break offenses and defenses, chemistry and — perhaps most important — the bench.

On the latter issue, the Celtics are undoubtedly the favorites. Where Carlos Arroyo and Mike Miller are nice additions at the point guard and small forward positions, respectively, Miami's bench from there on out is, well, miserable.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas
(who might play this season on crutches) is the backup center, with Kenny Hasbrouk (who?) backing up Wade and a skinny, very short, 6-foot-8 Udonis Haslem spelling Bosh at power forward.

By my count, that leaves Miami severely undermatched at both point guard and center — arguably the two most important positions on the floor.

To be sure, the Heat's Big Three will make up for some of that difference. But with the rosters as they are now, I find it hard to believe they can completely close the gap.

Which leads us to the Earliest Prediction Ever: Celtics in seven.

Yardbarker

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