A team with a hurt sub and four members who have won a championship is facing off against a team with one star who has a ring and another top player who is out with injury.
Who's favored to win? The second team — the Miami Heat.
That's right. Despite the Celtics offering a loaded lineup of skill and experience, the Heat are expected to win this series running away, even with Chris Bosh out due to injury.
Some people are even talking like the Celtics shouldn't bother traveling to Miami. Let the old men rest their legs at home, then give the heir apparent Heat a contest or two at the Garden. There's no way Boston wins this series.
This is premature, though. Giant swings of the optimism pendulum are normal leading up to a series, but resigning the Eastern Conference to the Heat is a bit far-fetched. The Celtics have looked creaky this postseason, and even not hungry at times, but this is still Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. The sound of those names brings to mind great success and a certain intensity that has wrested out victories over better teams before. The Heat may have an edge on paper, but the Celtics have several advantages that could let them steal a win (Game 1, anyone?) and even the series over the presumed favorites.
Boston's path past Miami starts with its veterans. After letting the first two Eastern Conference series go far too long against the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers, you have to think the Celtics aren't going to make that mistake again. Pierce, Garnett and Allen have been at this point and made it happen before, and they won't be underestimating anyone coming into this matchup. They've seen every situation imaginable, and they'll know the high level of play they'll need to have from the first step.
Now, it's one thing to cite veteran experience, and it's another thing to use it. The Celtics knew they had to compete from the opening whistle and continue to pressure teams, but they failed to do that several times so far this postseason (most obviously against the 76ers). What's to say that won't happen again? For this, let's point to head coach Doc Rivers. Veteran players can see their mental focus knocked around on the court, but a coach who has been there before is extremely valuable in getting his players' heads back in the game. Rivers now has a whole catalogue of examples he can draw from to show the C's how not to play.
Still, the worry around the age of the Celtics' Big 3 is valid. They don't always have the same jump, and they can't hang on for whole games, especially when battling serious injuries, like Allen. But that's where Boston has another edge. If "veteran experience" was narrowed to just Pierce, Garnett and Allen, the Celts may be in trouble, but as Philadelphia coach Doug Collins was quick to remind everyone, Boston has had a Big 4 for a while now.
Rajon Rondo has always had the talent to carry this team, and he's done it more and more since the 2008 championship season. Better yet, he has the hunger to win another one, too. Exhibit A was Saturday night at the Garden, where Rondo exploded after Pierce went out with his sixth foul. He carried the team down the stretch and unleashed a set of jump shots that put Boston ahead for good. (Does anyone want to bet on whether Rondo is a bad shooter, or if he likes to pretend he's a bad shooter so he can get in the zone and crumple teams when no one expects him to?)
The knock on Rondo is that the point guard won't go off unless he's motivated. That may be true, but it won't be an issue in Miami. This is exactly the kind of situation that will get Rondo going. He's playing a team full of guys that most people say are better than him, a team that has been given the Eastern Conference title already, and a team that eliminated his team last year when he was gutting through an elbow injury brought on by that same team. Toss in a couple mentions by Dwyane Wade or LeBron James that Rondo can't shoot or can't run an offense, and you may have some of the best performances by a point guard in NBA history on tap.
Beyond the intangibles of veteran experience and motivation, though, the Celtics also have two key matchups that will give them an upper hand over the Heat. It starts with Rondo, who will take on Mario Chalmers. Rondo should be able to eat Chalmers alive, and he won't have as much of an issue on defense as he would against a premiere point guard.
Boston also has Garnett, who is unequaled on both offense and defense by anything Miami can send onto the floor. Garnett will be able to run the defense with ease — even coming off his weak assignments to help others out — and also help dictate on offense. Philadelphia got a firsthand taste of how Garnett can still bring it with his shooting and game creation, and Miami will be the perfect playground for an encore performance.
The Heat just don't have anything to counter Rondo and Garnett. Wade and James are playing incredibly well and will cause plenty of problems for Boston defensively, but they won't be in the spaces where Rondo and Garnett thrive unless Miami's game plan gets a major tweak. The C's need to exploit their matchups at center and point guard the whole way to put the Heat on their heels and take the momentum from Wade and James.
Boston has plenty to be scared of going into the series, for sure. But it also beat Miami twice this season, with two of those games fully contested (and predicated as big Heat wins). Few remember how bad the Celtics looked earlier this season, before they showed great ability at adapting and became a contender. That process was greatly furthered every time they played the Heat and showed they could foil Wade, James and Bosh. Now, with Bosh gone, the opportunity is only greater.
Of the hurdles the Celtics have to face, Wade and James are obviously the biggest. Those two are doing things rarely seen, and without Avery Bradley, guys like Mickael Pietrus and Marquis Daniels will be expected to step up for the C's. The Heat also have home-court advantage, a win streak (three straight against the Pacers) and rested legs. But the Celtics are coming off a series where they played every other day, had to take games on an opponent's court and had to find a new well of motivation every day. Even their biggest weakness — injuries — is one that wouldn't go away with more rest (Bradley is out for good, and Allen's ankle won't get any better with just an extra day of rest).
In other words, the Celtics are in the prime place to surprise some people. The only thing that's really standing between them and the NBA Finals is their ability to channel their talent and drive into winning efforts. On paper, a peak Garnett, Rondo, Pierce and Allen should cream a peak James and Wade every day.
So, keep talking down the Celtics, America. If there's any time for these guys to pull it all together and show that they've learned from an uneven season and postseason start, it's now. This is a team that's done it before, that's shown why it should be favored to beat any favorites.