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Heat or Bucks?

04.12.10 at 2:44 pm ET
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The Celtics find themselves in an interesting position with two games left in the regular season. They will play either Miami or Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs and they have some control over the outcome, but not total control.

To review: The Celtics sit one game behind Atlanta for third in the Eastern Conference, but the C’s own the tiebreaker. The Heat and Bucks are tied for fifth, but the Bucks own the tiebreaker with Miami.

If things stay as they are the Celtics will open the first round with Milwaukee, but things are not likely to stay the same. That’s because Milwaukee hosts Atlanta tonight [Monday] and then travels to Boston for the regular-season finale Wednesday.

If Atlanta wins, the Hawks can just about wrap up third and almost guarantee a first-round matchup with the Bucks. If not, the whole thing becomes a jumble. The Heat play at Philly Monday and then host New Jersey Wednesday, so if the Bucks stumble Miami had a good chance to climb into fifth.

Which brings us back to the Celtics and whether they should have a preference in a first-round opponent. On the face of things, not really.

Milwaukee and Miami have identical records and have been two of the hottest teams down the stretch. Milwaukee has gone 21-7 since acquiring John Salmons at the trade deadline, while the Heat have won 16 of their last 20. Both are also strong defensive teams who rarely turn the ball over.

But that’s where the similarities stop. The Heat are incredibly reliant on the individual brilliance of Dwyane Wade who leads the team in points, assists and steals. He has also taken almost 500 more shots and free throws than any of his teammates.

The Bucks do not have nearly that kind of star power and they’re best player, Andrew Bogut, is injured and unavailable. Playing Milwaukee seems like the obvious choice, and indeed it may be (Zach Lowe at Celtics Hub makes a strong case here), but let’s examine both sides.

A LOOK AT MILWAUKEE

As Lowe outlines in his post, the Bucks are reliant on their perimeter game, which makes them one-dimensional and thus easier to guard. Without Bogut, they simply don’t have an interior presence, and to the immense credit of coach Scott Skiles they aren’t trying to manufacture one.

Skiles knows his personnel and the Bucks figure to play a lot of small lineups with Ersan Ilyasova stretching the floor and Brandon Jennings and Luke Ridnour on the floor simultaneously. That leaves the Bucks dependent on their ability to make 3-pointers and they take a lot of them (they rank fifth in attempts).

One of the more surprising aspects of Jennings’ game has been his ability to knock down the long ball where he’s shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc. The Bucks offense is heavily predicated on Jennings breaking down defenses and either looking for his shot or kicking out to the likes of Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino for jump shots

This presents two problems for the Celtics who have had trouble stopping dribble penetration and are also not adept at playing smaller lineups. Kendrick Perkins logged just 15 minutes of court time Saturday against Milwaukee and his role would likely be diminished in a series with the Bucks. Rivers increased Glen Davis’ playing time Saturday and he hinted that he could go with a lineup that features Kevin Garnett as the nominal center.

A lineup of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Tony Allen, Paul Pierce and Garnett would be intriguing against Milwaukee.

Pros: No Bogut, no interior presence. The Bucks also lack playoff experience at several key spots.

Cons: Skiles can coach and it’s reflected in how his teams plays. It won’t take him long to identity matchups and make adjustments.

X-Factor: The addition of Salmons makes them a tougher team to cover because he has the ability to create his own shot and he can score from anywhere on the court.

History: The Celtics have taken two of three from Milwaukee with the lone loss coming by two points in early March.

A LOOK AT MIAMI

The Heat have won 16 of 20, but that record is a bit inflated as 11 of those wins have come against teams that won’t make the playoffs. Like the Bucks, Miami is a defensive-minded team that rarely turns the ball over. Unlike Milwaukee, the Heat’s point guards are not initiators on offense. That task, as with so many, falls on Wade’s wide shoulders.

Wade has the highest Usage Rate in the league at almost 35 percent, which simply means that he has a hand in 35 percent of his team’s possessions. To put that in perspective, Paul Pierce uses the most Celtics possessions at 23.7 percent. If all five players on the court shared the load evenly they would all register a Usage Rate of 20 percent, so Wade in effect does the work of almost two players.

Much like the Bucks are dependent on 3-point shooting, the Heat are dependent on Wade, which leads to a philosophical question for Tom Thibodeau. Do the Celtics scheme to try and stop Wade and make everyone else beat them, or do they let him get his and play straight-up elsewhere?

If past performance is any indication, the Celtics may opt for the latter. In three games this season, Wade has averaged 33.7 points, five rebounds and 8.7 assists. He hasn’t put up those kind of numbers against any of the teams Miami has played more than twice.

Of course the Celtics have won all three games, but they would do well to make Wade work for his points. Once again, Tony Allen could play a large role in a series.

Beyond Wade, the Heat have more size with Jermaine O’Neal, Udonis Haslem and Michael Beasley, but their perimeter game is shaky beyond Quentin Richardson, who has quietly had a solid season shooting 3′s at almost 40 percent.

Pros: Miami is superstar-dependent.

Cons: The superstar is Wade.

X-Factors: There are actually two. The first is Beasley who has regressed this season but still has enormous talent and potential. The other is South Beach, which has been known to provide a distraction or two. Oddly enough, the Heat have the worst home record of any playoff team, so maybe it’s a factor that works both ways.

History: The Celtics won all three, but each game was decided by seven points or less.

VERDICT

It’s hard to argue against wanting to play a team that lost its best player, and if the Celtics had their choice they would probably take Milwaukee, but neither series is likely to be easy. Both teams play strong defense and would love to get into a slow, grind-it-out game. The difference is that the Bucks rely on a strategy (make more 3′s), while the Heat rely on a player (the resilient Wade).

When in doubt, take the superstar out of the equation.

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