Celtics' Veteran Leadership Will Push Them Past Heat in First Round of Playoffs

Examine the numbers closely, and you’ll find two striking similarities between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat.

1. Lockdown defense: Miami allows the second-fewest points in the league (94.2), with Boston just three spots behind (95.6).


2. Inconsistent offense: Despite their defensive prowess, both clubs fall below the .500 line in the NBA for points scored — the Celts are 19th at 99.2, while Miami is 25th, with 96.5.Look at the regular season matchups, and those similarities manifest themselves in the scores.


Nov. 29: Boston 92, Miami 85
Jan. 6: Boston 112, Miami 106 (OT)
Feb. 3: Boston 107, Miami 102


No game was won by more than seven points, the average differential was six and one ended in overtime.


That said, the C’s swept the series. They’re about three points better in the numbers and at least that many better on the floor.


Question is, can Boston maintain that edge in the postseason, a different beast altogether (aptly demonstrated by the Celtics’ first-round matchups against the Hawks and Bulls in each of the last two years)? As Rajon Rondo said after learning the C’s would face Miami in the first round, “It’s a different atmosphere playoff time — different feeling, different vibe, everything.”


Boston Celtics (50-32, 24-17 at home)


Strengths
Field-goal percentage: The Celts make up for their lack of high-powered scoring with efficiency. They ranked fourth in the NBA from the floor in the regular season, shooting 48 percent. All five starters, in fact, were better than 47 percent, with Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and Rondo all above the .500 mark. And they needed it, with poor offensive rebounding and far too many turnovers.


Grit: Just about every other club calls the C’s the “bully” of the league. Perk and KG manhandle opposing bigs down low as Rondo pesters the guards at the perimeter. They force 15.6 turnovers a game (second-most in the NBA), wracked up more technical fouls than any other team and committed personal fouls like it was their job (and Rasheed Wallace might indeed tell you that is his job). And while some of those stats would normally be a worry, that fire and physicality are a blessing come the postseason. A young team like the Heat could balk under the pressure.


Rajon Rondo: Yes, Rondo gets his own paragraph. Guy averaged a triple-double in the first round of the playoffs last year and hasn’t slowed down since, logging 14 points, 10 assists and better than four boards per game in 2009-10. And perhaps his most valuable asset? His defense. Rondo leads the league in steals (2.3), and will be paired against Dwyane Wade in Round 1. Boston’s point guard is no doubt its X Factor.

Weaknesses
Rasheed Wallace: Need I say more?

Rebounding: With the aforementioned Sheed serving as no help whatsoever, the Celtics have managed to hit just about rock bottom in the league, with 38.6 rebounds per contest. Perhaps most disconcerting, Boston gives up nearly 11 offensive boards each game, putting it far behind its opponents in the category of second-chance points. And second-chance points can make all the difference in the postseason.


Age: In descending order, Michael Finley is 37; Wallace is 35; Ray Allen is 34; KG is 33; and Paul Pierce is 32. Boston is now the San Antonio Spurs of the East, only without as many championship rings. And there’s no doubt that with Miami’s youth, the C’s will occasionally have difficulties keeping up in the open floor.


Miami Heat (47-35, 23-18 away)


Strengths
D-Wade: Guy is The Truth of Miami. He ranks fifth in the league in scoring (26.6), is a tireless and crafty defender (sitting fourth in steals), can score inside and out and went to the charity stripe a ridiculous 9.1 times per game this season. Perhaps most important, Wade knows how to win in the playoffs — he already owns a ring.


Ball control: Unlike Boston, Miami committed just 13.2 turnovers per game in the regular season, good for fourth in the NBA. That half-court mindset helps explain the Heat’s low points total, but few opportunities for them also means fewer opportunities for their opponents.


Defensive energy: In contrast, Miami is tenacious and risk-loving on the defensive end, with Mario Chalmers, Michael Beasley and Wade all jumping into the passing lanes. The last two times the C’s faced Miami, they turned it over 24 and 17 times, respectively


Weaknesses

One-dimensional offense: Beasley will occasionally get hot, but this team lives and dies by Wade, who takes almost 20 shots a game. In fact, Beasley and Jermaine O’Neal are the only other Heat to join their leader atop the double-digit list. Stop Wade, and you’ve stopped Miami.


Age: Miami falls on the opposite side of the age coin from the Celtics. Wade and O’Neal aside, the Heat are a playoff-young club. Beasley is 21; Chalmers is 23; Joel Anthony is 27. How they’ll perform come crunch-time is anybody’s guess. My guess? Not quite as well as a gritty, veteran Boston club will.


Ball movement: Because D-Wade does most of the ball-handling and shooting, Miami as a whole does very little passing. In fact, it ranks 28th in the league in assists, at 18.9 a game. What does that mean practically? Boston’s aging roster gets a break just about every possession on defense. Miami’s pass-averse offense, in other words, neutralizes one of the Celtics’ major weaknesses.


Prediction


There is no doubt that Boston has struggled in recent years in the first round. There’s also no doubt that they come into Game 1 on Saturday limping badly, having lost seven of their last 10. All that aside, there’s a reason the Celtics took three of three off Miami in the regular season: They’re simply better.


The Heat’s buck stops at Wade. Boston’s stops at Rondo, Pierce, Allen and KG. They pass better, shoot better, force more turnovers and boast a more veteran, more physical cast that will be playing in front of a home crowd for four of seven games.


Only, there won’t be seven games. There will be six. At which point the C’s will advance to Round 2.