When Miami signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh to play alongside Dwyane Wade in July, it became tough to argue that the Heat weren’t the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference next June.
Then, the Boston Celtics decided to join the free-agent frenzy, in a much less extravagant fashion. Boston signed two big, aging O’Neals — Jermaine and Shaquille — to aid a front line that lost its starting center, Kendrick Perkins, until most likely the next calendar year.
While the Heat likely will climb toward the top of the Eastern Conference during the regular season, the Celtics could have what it takes to dethrone King James, Duke Wade and Prince Bosh come playoff time.
What the Heat have in talent, the Celtics make up for in size and experience. That’s not to say the Celtics aren’t incredibly talented, either. Paul Pierce is still one of the game’s top scorers, Ray Allen is the best clutch 3-point shooter on earth, Rajon Rondo has turned into an elite point guard and Kevin Garnett can still face up and drain his patented 20-foot jumper.
But in order for the Celtics to overcome James and Co. in a playoff series — one that could end with a Game 7 in Miami — they’ll have to use their overwhelming size and strength down low.
Shaquille O’Neal said in his introductory press conference on Tuesday that he is going to “protect” Garnett this season, allowing KG to roam around the floor on offense while Shaq, Jermaine O’Neal and Glen Davis bang around with other teams’ big men.
This is a luxury that no other team in the NBA has. With or without Perkins, the Celtics have at least three humungous and powerful centers that all have decent touch around the rim. Add bruiser Luke Harangody to the mix, and the Celtics could end up giving out more black eyes to opposing players than any team in NBA history.
With the depth that coach Doc Rivers will have at his disposal, the Celtics won’t have to worry too much about their big men getting into foul trouble. Orlando’s Dwight Howard likely will still have his way with any center he faces, but against Boston, at least there will be enough big bodies to consistently knock him around (freely) for all 48 minutes.
Shaq and the rest of the big men don’t just free up Garnett and the other shooters on offense. They also allow Rondo — who led the NBA in steals last year — to pick the pocket of any opponent he chooses, knowing he has a wide brick wall behind him.
The Celtics showed that they have what it takes to win it all by taking the Lakers to the final minutes of Game 7 last season. This year, Boston looks like an even better team.
And even though the NBA hasn’t seen a tandem like James, Wade and Bosh in the history of the game, there’s no guarantee that Miami’s version of the “Big Three” will be able to outlast Boston’s nonstop gigantic force in the paint.