Road to NBA Eastern Conference Title Still Goes Through Boston, Not Miami

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Road to NBA Eastern Conference Title Still Goes Through Boston, Not Miami So I’m watching SportsCenter on Monday morning when a roundtable discussion of NBA analysts turns to this subject.

“Who’s the biggest threat to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference?”

I nearly spit my A.M. Ale all over the coffee table. Did the producers at ESPN forget? The Boston Celtics are the defending conference champions. In fact, they walked all over the Heat in five games en route to that title in 2009-10.

Sure, Miami is a different team. It has added two of the best players in the league, retained Dwyane Wade and picked up a host of solid bench players to fill in the remaining holes.

But still. This is a club that hasn’t won a single regular-season game together. It is just 3-3 in an admittedly insignificant preseason. And of its “Big Three,” only one has an NBA title. Until the Heat have dethroned the Celtics (or at least defeated them in a couple of meaningful regular-season tilts), the conversation has to be flipped.

“Who’s the biggest threat to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference?”

The answer is easy: the Miami Heat.   

But let me state clearly that Boston doesn’t only lead the discussion. The Celtics also (at this time) are the favorite.

Here’s why.

1. Anchor position No. 1: Center
The Heat’s starting center is Joel Anthony. He’s 6-foot-9, 245 pounds. Come Tuesday, Oct. 26, he’ll be going up against a platoon of 7-foot-1, 325-pound Shaquille O’Neal and 6-foot-11, 255-pound Jermaine O’Neal. You tell me who’s going to score more points, pull down more rebounds and block more shots.

Even more worrisome for Miami is that its secondary post players are equally outsized and outclassed. Zydrunas Ilgauskas on Shaq/Jermaine, Udonis Haslem (235 pounds soaking wet) on Glen “Big Baby” Davis (290 pounds). The Celtics’ biggest weakness a season ago — rebounding — will become the Heat’s biggest weakness in 2010-11. That shortcoming will shine most glaringly against a revamped Boston low post.

2. Anchor position No. 2: Point guard
Carlos Arroyo is underrated. He’s quick with good vision and a solid jump shot to spread the defense. Mario Chalmers, who likely will start over Arroyo, is not underrated. He?s a quick, anticipatory defender and 40 percent field-goal shooter who takes too many 3s. Not only that, he can’t rebound and turns the ball over too often (1.7 turnovers to just 3.4 assists in 2009-10).

Stack either against Rajon Rondo, and again, the Celtics have an edge. Dude is already one of the top 20 players in the league and could be one of the 10 best by year?s end. Last year alone, he averaged a double-double of 14 points, 10 dimes to go with 2.3 steals, 4.4 boards and 51 percent shooting from the floor.

In other words, the Celtics have an advantage over the Heat in the two most important positions on the floor.

3. Bench
After dropping $43.2 million for this upcoming season on Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, Pat Riley and the Miami brass did an admirable job of finding veteran guys to fill out the rest of the roster. Former Garden favorite Eddie House was brought in to back up Wade, Mike Miller can spell LeBron, Haslem is behind Bosh, and Ilgauskas/Jamaal Magloire will man the reserve spots at center.

And yet, the C’s one-upped them in the offseason. While Miami sent a bunch of players packing in order to land James and Bosh, many of the guys Danny Ainge and the Celtics wanted in green were already on the club. The Larry Bird exception allowed Boston to retain Nate Robinson, Marquis Daniels, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen — and they all agreed to come back at reasonable rates.

That left money available to add Shaq and Jermaine. Delonte West came on the cheap because of his past troubles, and rookies Luke Harangody, Semih Erden and Avery Bradley joined for a combined $2.3 million.

In the end, it left the Green with the strongest bench they’ve ever had under the auspices of the Big Three era. That bodes well for the Celtics, and the deeper you dig into those reserve spots, the better the picture looks.

4. Health
For the past two seasons, this category would no doubt work against Boston’s favor. But not when stacked against Miami.

Let me explain before you jump on the “But the Celtics are too old!” bandwagon. Boston, with extensive depth on its bench (the No. 3 guys at each spot, except for small forward, are solid NBA players), no longer relies on one, two or even three players as it did before. When Kevin Garnett went down in 2009 with a serious injury, the Celtics’ season went with him. They fought their way to the semifinals but ultimately succumbed to Orlando’s size.

Not the case anymore.

With the exception of Rondo (who has become Boston’s MVP), a season-ending injury, or even a semi-serious one, would not result in a forfeited season. The No. 2’s at shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center would be starters on many teams in the league. They could make do minus any one of the Big Three.

The Heat? They’re hanging by a thread. A serious injury to Wade, James or Bosh would spell disaster. Not because the other two guys left wouldn’t be good enough to pick up the pieces, but because there is simply no depth. Miller’s a starter on most teams. None of the other reserves are.

Riley’s a gambler. He took a gamble with this outfit, and one major misfortune could turn the tables.
The scariest part for Miami? That major misfortune is not unthinkable. Wade, who has missed all but three minutes of the preseason opener with a bum hamstring, has been an injury risk throughout his career.

  • Missed five games in 2009-10 with a calf strain
  • Missed 31 games in 2007-08 with shoulder and knee injuries
  • Missed 31 games in 2006-07 after shoulder surgery
  • Missed 22 games in 2003-04 with a variety of ailments

As a matter of fact, Dwyane Wade has never played an entire 82-game season, and he averages just 62 matches per.

If he misses extensive time in 2010-11, the Heat will lose an extensive number of games.

So please, NBA analysts out there, a little respect for the Celtics, who look fit, focused and ready to defend their conference title. Because, lest we forget, until the Heat take it from them, it is still Boston?s to lose.

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