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Should the Heat be worried about the Celtics?

04.10.12 at 2:14 pm ET

As things sit currently in the jumbled Eastern Conference, the Celtics are holding the fourth seed, which would put them in the Bulls’ bracket. They have a three-game lead on Philadelphia and New York with 10 games to play and while nothing is assured for the Celtics, it’s looking like a safe bet that they will walk away with the Atlantic Division title for the fifth straight season, thus landing the fourth seed, as opposed to the seventh.

(Note: Winning the division does not guarantee homecourt advantage in the first round. The Celtics would still have to finish with a better record than the fifth seed and they enter play on Tuesday a game and a half behind Atlanta and Orlando.)

There’s a chance that Miami, which is just one game back in the loss column, could overtake Chicago for the top spot in the conference and set up a rematch of last season’s semifinal series that the Heat won rather convincingly, 4-1. The Celtics felt then — and feel now — that if not for a couple of bad breaks like Paul Pierce‘s dubious ejection in Game 1 and Rajon Rondo‘s elbow injury in Game 3, they could have made it a much tougher series. Still, four games to one speaks for itself.

And yet, there’s a feeling that the Heat should be afraid of the Celtics in the playoffs for the simple reason of matchups. Miami has no real answer for Rondo, who was brilliant in Boston’s 91-72 victory a week and a half ago when he went for 16 points, 11 rebounds, 14 assists and was a plus-28.

Additionally, Pierce is one of the few small forwards in the league who can hope to guard LeBron James for 40 minutes and match his production, if not come out ahead. Pierce went for 23-7-3 in their last meeting, while LeBron posted a 24-4-0. It was James’ first assist-free game since 2009.

The real revelation in the April 1 meeting was the play of Avery Bradley, who held Dwyane Wade to 6-for-17 shooting, including a memorable block at the rim. Bradley also scored an efficient 13 points on 10 shots and presented a problem with his cuts to the basket.

There’s still one more reason why the Celtics matchup well with Miami. Let’s let Doug Collins tell it:

“One of the keys when you play Miami is is that you’ve got to defend [Chris] Bosh and they’ve got [Kevin] Garnett to do that, and that’s a huge thing for them,” Collins said.

Like Pierce on LeBron, Garnett doesn’t always get the better of Bosh, who outplayed his Celtics counterpart in the playoffs. Garnett didn’t have a great shooting night on April 1, but he held to Bosh to just 2-for-11 from the floor. Additionally, the tandem of Garnett and Brandon Bass presents a problem for Miami center Joel Anthony, who must travel out to the perimeter to guard either one.

Then there’s the stylistic differences. Unlike the Bulls, who play right into the Celtics’ biggest weakness as the best offensive rebounding team in the league, Miami ranks just below league average in offensive rebounding percentage. The Heat have the better bench, but don’t have a game-changer in reserve like the Bulls’ mammoth front line.

And yet, the Heat will, and should be, the favorites if the two teams meet again in the postseason. Miami has the sixth best offense and fifth best defense in terms of points per possession. They also present a huge problem for the Celtics in that they are the best in the league at converting turnovers into points and that’s as big a weakness for the C’s as their anemic rebounding. Being able to match up isn’t the same thing as winning the matchups, and the Heat have youth and athleticism on their side.

All of this sets the Celtics up as perhaps the biggest threat to Miami in the East. Last May, the Heat reacted as if they had won a conference championship when they knocked off the Celtics, and while the Bulls may represent a more formidable threat, it’s not a stretch to say that the series against Boston was their toughest before the finals.

Read More: Avery Bradley, Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, Miami Heat
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