Celtics vs. Heat: Who Will Rule the East?

May 28, 2010 - Boston, MASSACHUSETTS, UNITED STATES - epa02178066 Boston Celtics players Tony Allen (L) and Paul Pierce (R) look at the Eastern Conference Championship trophy after game six of the Eastern Conference finals at the TD Bank Garden in Boston, Massachusetts, USA 28 May 2010. The Celtics defeated the Magic 96-84 to beat the Magic 4 games to 2 and advance to play either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.

Orlando Magic fans, don’t get up in arms just yet. But with the most anticipated season opener since…well, probably since the Celtics opened up the 2007-08 season by demolishing the Washington Wizards, all the talk in the Eastern Conference has centered on whether the Miami Heat can dethrone the Boston Celtics and make it to the NBA Finals.

And it might be a coincidence, but guess which two teams open up the NBA season? That’s right, Miami and Boston. By now you have heard ad nauseam about Miami’s new star trio of Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, as well as the Celtics revamped front line, including the Big Shamrock himself, Shaquille O’Neal. And each team has laid claim to the coveted title of “team to beat” in the East.

It’s time to get excited, because the season opener is finally here.We’ve been waiting all summer, but the truth is that it is only one game. The true question is which side has the edge over the course of the whole season?

Well, that what we are here to answer. Here are five reasons why the Celtics should be considered the front-runner for the East’s spot in the NBA Finals. If you want to read the point of view from the Heat’s perspective, go here.

1) Depth: Take a journey back to 2007 with me, if you will. The Celtics had just acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and Boston became an “it” destination for a host of free agents—sort of like Miami this past offseason, only without the lure of South Beach or Will Smith.

With little money to spend, the Celtics brought in the likes of Eddie House and James Posey, and eventually veterans P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell, to help bolster the Big Three in the push for a title.

If you thought that team was deep, this version of the Celtics should be even better. In fact, the C’s actually have so many players that could step in and make an impact that it might actually be a bad thing. The Celtics boast a true second unit with Nate Robinson at point guard, Delonte West at off guard, Marquis Daniels and Glen Davis at forward, and, likely, Jermaine O’Neal at the center spot.

All of those players have a wealth of starting experience, including Davis, who has been a bench player throughout his career but stepped up admirably in Kevin Garnett’s absence in a number of situations, most notably the 2009 playoffs. In truth, most of these players would probably be starters on a number of teams in the league, but they will be backing up the Celtics’ starting five.

None of these players are without negatives, but they all bring something to the table. Robinson can score in bunches and brings energy to the second unit. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the growth in maturity that he has had since stepping up in the Eastern Conference Finals and the NBA Finals last season after spending time in Doc Rivers’ doghouse. He now seems to be the leader of a veteran second team.

West brings some similar skills to Robinson—he can handle the ball and play the point, and he is a solid outside shooter–but also has the ability to be a lock defender on the outside. Once he returns from his 10-game suspension (if he is healthy by then) he will be a great asset for this team. A healthy Marquis Daniels gives the Celtics an inside presence on the wing and a solid defender and rebounder. Daniels has also worked on his outside shot extensively this summer, and it seems to be vastly improved.

Glen Davis might be a viable Sixth Man of the year candidate. He missed the start of last season with a thumb injury, but came on strong toward the end. He looks to be in great shape this year and has shown a great scoring touch in the preseason. I expect him to make the leap this year and become a force, particularly if he keeps hitting his jumper consistently. And it doesn’t hurt that he will be playing for a big contract since his deal is expiring after the season.

Jermaine O’Neal will be a familiar sight for Heat fans. He had his best year shooting wise last season, and while his shot hasn’t reappeared after his disastrous playoff performance he can offer a little offense inside. But where he will make his mark is on the defensive end, where he has already proven this preseason that he can be an adequate replacement for Kendrick Perkins in terms of defense and rebounding.

Oh, and speaking of Perk, he should be back in February. How’s that for depth?

2) Role Playing: Even with that depth, these players know how to do their job. There might be a point where egos come into play when Perkins comes back into the fold, but at this point these players understand their roles.

Rondo might be the best player on his team at this point, but he understands that he doesn’t need to take over all the time for his team to win. Kevin Garnett is a superstar who would rather excel on the defensive end. Paul Pierce has developed his all-around game since the addition of Garnett and Ray Allen, and Allen has sacrificed his shot attempts for the benefit of his team.

In fact, Ray Allen should serve as the blue print for Miami’s trio. He is a player that gets better with the more shots he takes, yet he has tuned his game to take advantage of the looks he gets in the Celtics offense. You really can’t appreciate just how good Allen is unless you watch him play. If you ever saw him on the Bucks or Sonics, he was a bonafide superstar. He had a sneaky inside game and was (and still is) one of the best shooters in NBA history. But he allowed his game to mesh with Pierce, Garnett and Rondo.

Will LeBron or Wade be able to do the same thing?

3) Doc: He has to appear on this list, if only for the simple reason that Pat Riley apparently covets him as a future coach of the Heat.

But Doc Rivers is on the Celtics’ sideline, and he will remain there at least through this season. And that is a good thing for this team, because the Celtics need an experienced coach to handle the bundle of personalities on this roster. More than any other coach in the league, Doc Rivers can handle a team. He might not be th bes X’s and O’s guy, but in my mind that isn’t the be-all end-all for an NBA coach. There is a reason that so many former players are coaching in the league; players like to see that their coach knows what they are going through and has experienced it before.

Doc has coached him team through the grind of the postseason three times already. I’m sure Heat fans would feel more comfortable with him on the sidelines than Erik Spoelstra. That isn’t even a knock on Spoelstra, who I actually think is a pretty decent basketball coach. But there is more to that role than just knowing how to manage your team during games.

4) A Healthy KG: The prevailing thought behind knee injuries is that it takes a extra year after the return for a player to get fully healthy. Well, this will be Kevin Garnett’s second year since the knee injury that knocked him out for the 2009 playoffs, and he seems to be back to the player he was when he first came to Boston.

Granted, this will be Garnett’s 16th season in the league, and the 34-year old power forward is not the same player he was in Minnesota. But that isn’t necessary on this team. All the Celtics need is for Garnett to protect the post and lead the defense, stick the open jumper and be the emotional catalyst for his side.

Sure, KG’s numbers from last season don’t jump out at you: 14 points and a shade over seven boards a game. But before you jump to any conclusions, you have to factor in that he played a career-low 29.9 minutes a game in the regular season as he came back from that injury. And if you dig a little deeper, a few things might surprise you. For instance, did you know that despite his PER dropping again, KG actually had the highest mark of any Celtic in that category last season? And how about if we adjust his numbers to 36 minutes a game, when they would rise to 17 points and almost nine boards? Not too shabby.

With a capable backup in Glen Davis and plenty of threats around him his numbers probably won’t go up this season, but they should be pretty consistent with what we saw last year.

Is there a hope that KG can contribute more? The game against the Knicks during the preseason obviously stands out, as KG finished 9-11 for 20 points in just 20 minutes of work. He is not going to be that efficient all season, but it offered glimpses of what we might expect at times. Last year, 70 percent of Garnett’s field goal attempts came from jump shots, but he seems to be making a concerted effort to play in the post a little more.

That has clearly been a knock on his game even whil he was in Minnesota, but Garnett is the type of player who will always take what the defense gives him. In fact, the most egregious mark against Garnett has to be his rebounding numbers, which have dipped considerably. Still, the Celtics boast one of the better rebounding guards in the game in Rajon Rondo (fourth in rebound rate last year for NBA PGs) and now have big bodies in Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal to help on the glass, making his job considerably easier.

All these things are positives, but the biggest plus is that Garnett should be able to assert himself more and have a larger impact this year since he will be fully healthy.

5) Rajon Rondo: You can talk about Miami’s lack of talent up front, but I don’t think the Celtics have an overwhelming advantage there. And I’m not about to argue that Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are better players than Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh at this point in their careers, but I don’t think the gap is insurmountably large. But the one area where either team has an undeniable advantage is at point guard, and that is because of Rajon Rondo.

Whoever is out there for the Heat at point guard, Rondo will be the better player. Sure, LeBron James might bring the ball up and even take his shot at guarding Boston’s floor general, but if that is the case Rondo’s presence will be dictating a mismatch elsewhere on the court. Miami has no one to match up with Rondo and his quickness, and the lack of a difference maker at the position for the Heat means that Rondo’s defensive talents can be utilized in other areas on the court.

I’d say Rondo would make the leap, but I think he did last year. He had 40 double-doubles (the Celtics were 28-12 in those games), led the league in steals and was fourth in assists with almost 10 a game. He quickly established himself as a top five point guard, and was virtually unstoppable in the paint shooting an amazing 64 percent at the rim. The ability to score at will when driving the lane is key for the Celtics offense, as Rondo can take over the game when he needs to, either with his ability to get easy buckets for himself or use that threat to create easy shots for others.

Rondo still has his Achilles’ Heels—his jumper, and free throws—that won’t go away this season. But he is a a smart enough player and has the experience to know when he has to take a shot in the scheme of the Celtics’ offense. And there are very few players that can impact the game in as many ways as Rondo, particularly when you think about the damage he can do without making a large contribution in the points department.

Rondo is going to keep making strides in his fifth season, and that is a scary thought for the rest of the league. And it better terrify the Heat, because he is the one player it doesn’t have any answer for at this point.

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Tags: Boston Celtics Chris Bosh Doc Rivers Dwyane Wade Erik Spoelstra Kevin Garnett Lebron James Miami Heat Rajon Rondo

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