For most of the 2010-11 season, the Celtics were confident in their ability to beat Miami. They beat them on opening night in Boston and did it again in Miami less than three weeks later. The Celtics won again in February with just six healthy rotation players.
Everything changed in April when the Celtics were blasted on South Beach, losing 100-77, and the dynamic was completely reversed during the playoffs when the Heat won in five games.
With their first meeting this season on Tuesday, it’s the Celtics that are trying to prove that they can handle the Heat, who have won five of the last six meetings.
It won’t be easy because they’re not likely to have Paul Pierce, who is resting a bone bruise in his right heel and new addition Mickael Pietrus isn’t expected in the lineup until they return home on Friday. That leaves the underwhelming combination of Sasha Pavlovic and Marquis Daniels to handle LeBron James, fresh off a 37-point Christmas Day showing against the Mavericks that equaled the 37 Carmelo Anthony dropped on the Celtics.
The Celtics have always had great respect for accomplishment and hierarchy — that’s the reason they gave the Magic more respect than LeBron’s Cavs — and coach Doc Rivers has been reinforcing the notion that these Celtics haven’t won anything in a long time.
They did get a reprieve of sorts with word that Kevin Garnett escaped both a fine and a suspension after his one-arm shove of Bill Walker after time expired on Sunday. The Celtics didn’t lose three straight games at any point last season but with a back-to-back looming the next night in New Orleans that could suddenly become a stark possibility.
Here’s a closer look at the matchup:
What’s new with Miami: Shane Battier was the Heat’s big free agent acquisition, but a more important addition is one who never left: Udonis Haslem.
The veteran forward played in just 13 regular season games before tearing ligaments in his left foot. Haslem saw less than three minutes of action in the Celtics’ series, but returned to form later in the playoffs and grabbed 14 rebounds in 32 minutes in their opener against Dallas.
Haslem is part of a three-man frontcourt rotation with Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony that’s on the smaller side. Not coincidentally, the Celtics have adjusted their frontcourt with Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox, who should be able to provide a much more balanced matchup with Miami.
The other important addition is rookie point guard Norris Cole, who split duties with Mario Chalmers in the opener. That’s a major upgrade in terms of youth and athleticism from Mike Bibby, who had major problems with Rajon Rondo last season.
Can Avery Bradley offer defensive support? The Celtics clearly missed defensive stopper Tony Allen in last year’s playoffs and Dwyane Wade took full advantage, scoring 151 points in their five games. Bradley remains a liability on offense, but if he can give the Celtics 5-10 minutes of defense on Wade, that would help take some pressure off Ray Allen. The Celtics need something from Bradley because the alternatives are Rondo and/or Keyon Dooling.
Key matchup: Kevin Garnett vs. Chris Bosh
Garnett had a brilliant performance in Game 3, the only game the Celtics won, but was otherwise either outplayed or neutralized by Bosh throughout the series. Jermaine O’Neal is not a great matchup on Bosh and Wilcox is in the early stages of gaining Rivers’ trust. It’s up to Garnett who played 37 minutes in the opener, which is not part of the master minutes plan.
The Rondo factor: In 41 minutes against the Knicks, Rondo made 11-of-19 shots and scored 31 points. Much notice was paid to his outside shot where he sank three of five from 16-23 feet and his free throws where he made nine of 12 attempts. More importantly, he converted on 8-of-10 attempts at the rim and seven of his 13 assists were for inside shots.
Against the Knicks, the Celtics made a staggering 84 percent of their shots inside — 21-of-25 — and that was against Tyson Chandler, one of the league’s top interior defenders. Miami doesn’t have a shot-blocker like Chandler protecting the basket and it will be on Rondo to stay aggressive. He’s their best weapon against Miami.
CELTICS LIKELY STARTERS: Rondo, Allen, Daniels, Garnett, O’Neal
Rotation: Dooling, Bradley, Pavlovic, Bass, Wilcox
HEAT LIKELY STARTERS: Chalmers, Wade, James, Bosh, Anthony
Rotation: Cole, James Jones, Battier, Haslem, Juwan Howard