Friday, April 29, 2011

Celtics-Heat: The Moment We've Been Waiting For

When trying to come up with a gimmick to discuss this vaunted playoff matchup, I decided to dust off my MBA that has been collecting cobwebs for almost 2 full years now and go with a “SWOT” analysis of the Miami Heat. For those of you who didn’t waste 2 years chasing a piece of paper only to end up a glorified secretary at a bankruptcy law firm, “SWOT” stands for Strenghts, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Strengths are what the team is good at; weaknesses are what the team is not good at; opportunities are areas where the team can attack its opponent (the Celtics); threats are areas where the opponent could exploit the team. Essentially, it’s a way to say that the Heat are good at this and bad at that and the Celtics are good at this and bad at that, while allowing me to find some use, any use, for my “advanced” degree besides as a dinner napkin. Oh, and don't worry, this will not be stat heavy at all, I evaluate basketball way more on what I see than by the numbers. I am sorry to say it will be a LONG post so maybe print it out and take it to the bathroom with you after lunch.

Athleticism: Just look at this video of Lebron James’ blocks and this video of Dwyane Wade. While Paul Pierce and Ray Allen do as well as anyone guarding these two (although on Wade it’s really a team effort), their “Where were you when JFK was shot” athleticism makes absolutely anything possible on both ends of the floor. When Rajon Rondo gets a 15 foot head start on the break he has to be wary of Lebron unleashing the fury from behind. When Kevin Garnett looks to fire a pass to a cutting Paul Pierce he has to think twice about Wade lurking in the passing lane. When Wade and Lebron get out on the break together the Celtics might as well start thinking about their next offensive play (unless Jermaine O’Neal is around to give them another forearm shiver). And even when one of the Celtics’ wing players have done his job sliding his feet and staying square with Wade or Lebron, if they get within 10 feet of the hoop there’s still a huge possibility for an explosion and a facial and two points on the board.

Team defense: As I mentioned before, this is a very athletic team with a penchant for the spectacular. This does not stop with just Lebron and Wade as Chris Bosh is remembering that he is athletic and 6’11’’ and can block shots and Joel Anthony provides a nice interior presence on defense. Mario Chalmers off the bench also gives the Heat a decent option defending at the point guard position. This team does not have the disciplined rotation style defense that the Celtics employ, but their freakish young legs allow them to compensate for some fundamental mistakes. They will be in the passing lanes, closing out on three point shots (which means running at the three point shooters while they are shooting, taking away an open look), converging on players driving towards the hoop, trapping non-ball handlers like Glenn Davis, Jeff Green and Allen, blocking shots on double teams and of course, taking away seemingly wide open fast breaks.

Passing: So if it feels like this whole “Strengths” section could have just had four words under it (Lebron James Dwyane Wade) it’s because that is pretty much their strength. This team has 2 of the best 5 basketball players on the planet and they both do everything well but shoot 3 pointers. Passing is another one of their amazing talents. Wade has averaged as high as 7.5 assists per game over a season and, before the current incarnation of the Heat, regularly was the main ball handler and distributor (and shooter and rebounder and defender). James came into the league his rookie year and actually lined up at point guard for half the season. Bill Simmons used to say that James was set to become the New Magic because of his great court vision and the ability to make any pass. His lack of good teammates over the years stunted his ascension to New Magic-dom, but when these 3 idiots joined up this year there was talk of him averaging a triple-double, and it wasn’t that outrageous.

Rebounding: Again, it’s the Lebron and Dwyane show. Two of the best rebounders at their position, they use their strength and athleticism to crash the boards with a vengeance. The impressive thing about the tandem, is that one of them can charge in for a defensive rebound while the other gets out on the break and they can throw a perfect outlet pass for the finish. The rest of the team isn’t particularly strong in this area, but Bosh can be solid when motivated and Anthony will collect his share of offensive boards when teams play off of him to check Wade and James.

Players not named Wade, James, Bosh: The problems that were expected before the season started have actually proven to be worse than expected. Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller were expected to be at least average players to make a strong crunch time lineup but Haslem has been out most of the season and won’t play in this series and Miller has been largely ineffective. The center position looked bad coming into the season (despite the 5 year deal they handed out to Joel Anthony, which is why we are headed to a lockout) and it has not gotten any better. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a sieve on defense and Anthony does not need to be covered on offense, allowing teams to help on Wade and James. The point guard position was looked at as a position where a guy could come in and just shoot the corner 3, but the revolving door of Mario Chalmers, Carlos Arroyo and Mike Bibby have rarely been able to handle even that much. Worse, the addition of Bibby has proven disastrous on defense as he wouldn’t be able to cover a nine year old girl giving a piggy back ride to Big Baby.

Offense: This is not a good offensive team. The incredible abilities of Wade and James and the steadiness of Bosh mask a team that has no playbook to speak of and has a clear alpha dog struggle that still has not worked itself out. If the two freaks do not get out on a fast break, the offense grinds to a halt. The offense follows the basic premise that you give the ball to James or Wade on the wing, send the other one to the opposite side, and let the ball handler do his work. Occasionally there will be a pick with Bosh or a post up for Bosh, but this is about the extent of the playbook.

Offensive rebounding: As tt has been a problem from day 1 for the Celtics, the Heat will be able to collect a lot of offensive rebounds against one of the worst rebounding teams in the league. With the rotating defense of the Celtics, they tend to lose players and not box them out. Wade and James are definitely two players you don’t want to lose when a loose ball is prancing about. In addition, Anthony will be a guy that the team does not cover and as we saw in the final meeting between these two teams if the Celtics do not rotate back to him when the shot goes up, he could easily get 4-5 offensive rebounds a game that lead to easy points.

Attacking the hoop: If Shaq comes back, and that is a Shaq-sized if, this point will be moot. However, in his absence the Celtics have serious size problems. When Jermaine and KG are both in the game, the team has a strong interior presence and with the strong on the ball defense against James and Wade, they should be able to keep them out of the paint. Unfortunately, when either one of Jermaine and KG takes a seat (let alone both), the inside becomes wide open. It’s crazy to think that size would be an issue against a team with no size like the Heat, but Wade and James are so good at getting to the basket that it is really necessary to have a guy that will make them think twice about barreling in there (oh god do I miss you Perk).

Protecting the hoop: Again, a team with no size like the Heat should not be able to protect the hoop, and when Ilgauskas and Bibby are both in the game they probably won’t be able to. However, when Anthony comes in and James or Wade switches to “guarding” Rondo (playing 10 feet away from him and roaming the paint) it gets really hard to get good looks at the hoop. Add in the facts that Pierce will be exhausted chasing Lebron around, Big Baby gets 70% of his shots at the rim blocked, and Rondo has a (well deserved) fear of Lebron and the lay up line that this team had against the Knicks will be a distant memory.

Playoff Rondo: I mentioned that Rondo has a fear of Lebron and there will be times when the Heat are able to play one of the freaks as a free safety against him. But there will also be stretches of the game where Mike “Alby” Bibby sidles up to our little water bug and all hell breaks loose for the Heat. I don’t think I can stress this enough: “Alby” Bibby is a terrible defender. What scares me the most about this matchup is that Erik Spoelstra will realize this sometime in the middle of the first quarter of Game 1 and will put Wade or James on Rondo for the rest of the series. Of course the problem then becomes either Pierce posting him up every time down or Allen running him through a dizzying array of screens. Also, I’m not so sure the free safety defense will work against Playoff Rondo who looks for and makes his 15 foot jump shots with regularity. As it has been all season, as Rondo goes so goes the Celtics.

Help defense: Nobody, save for maybe the Tom Thibodeau coached Bulls, plays better help defense than the Celtics. Pierce and Allen do an admirable job guarding James and Wade, but there will undoubtedly be times when the Heat tandem blows past the Celtics duo. Luckily, KG, Jermaine, Big Baby and Jeff Green all are able to recognize this and rotate into the middle to either force a pass or a tough shot or, especially in the cases of Big Baby and Jermaine, draw a charge and get the two into early foul trouble. Also in the Celtics favor, if the rotating big men force a pass to another Heat player, the man who got beat off the dribble will be able to fall into the defensive rotation and cover one of the Heat players standing on the perimeter. This is huge because while the Heat do have some good perimeter shooters in Bibby, Miller, Chalmers, Ilgauskas and James Jones, every one of them needs to be wide open to shoot a successful jumper. As long as the Celtics continue to close out on the shooters, the Heat penetration will not create as much havoc as usual.

Depth: After the Knicks series when the Celtics built up double digit leads in every first quarter only to see 3 of the 4 of them evaporate when the bench came in, it may seem confusing to list the Celtics depth as a threat to the Heat. However, depth can mean so much more than going 9 deep. The Celtics have depth on defense that I have already touched on. Everyone on the team buys into the style the Celtics play and there are very few weak spots. The Celtics have depth on offense because they can score in a variety of ways, have a solid playbook and have a coach who knows how to call plays coming out of a time out. And, when compared to the Heat, the Celtics do have a deep bench. Glenn Davis, Jeff Green and Delonte West are solid NBA players. As much grief as I have given to Davis and Green, they can still be strong contributors in this series and just cannot be as bad as they were against the Knicks. If they all play with a little more aggression and their typical solid defense, the Heat could be in big trouble when one or two of their Big 3 go out and its bench vs. bench.

Pressure: Typically I do not put much stock in mysterious forces like pressure (or the stock market or gravity or PMS), but James and Bosh have yet to show they can consistently handle high pressure situations. As the higher seed with home court advantage (and a shitty one at that) and the preseason expectations, all the pressure is on the Heat in this series. If those idiots down there expect to win 7 or 8 or 9 titles together, they are going to have to get started this year. The Celtics proved that you could bring 3 superstars together and win immediately so now all eyes are on this team to see if they can live up to the massive expectations they set for themselves. I think this will ultimately be their undoing through missed foul shots late in a close game that will allow the Celtics to steal a game they should have lost. I’m going with the depth and Rondo of the Celtics over 2 of the 5 best players in the league on the Heat.

Celtics in 6.

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