What a difference a couple weeks make.
Ask fans and pundits to call the outcome of the Eastern Conference Finals on May 18th, and you would’ve received plenty of “Celtics in 6 or 7” responses. Ask now, on May 29th, and the Celtics would be lucky to get a game.
Just over 10 days ago, a match-up between these two Eastern Conference behemoths had an entirely different feel about it. Boston had just blitzed the 76ers in Game 3, fooling everyone into thinking that their series would be over in 5, and an ageing, banged-up team would have time to rest.
Contrast that misguided optimism, to the sense of utter crisis surrounding the Heat after their Game 3. On May 17th Miami were practically run out of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse by a rabid Pacers team. The Heat had lost Chris Bosh for the series, while Dwyane Wade looked like a shadow of himself, and seemed a step away from getting physical with his coach.
If Wade wasn’t firing, who was going to help LeBron James with the scoring load?
Miami’s bench were more like a bunch of glorified mascots, as opposed to 5 guys on a professional basketball team (Well, maybe that hasn’t changed).
The 24-hour ESPN-driven news cycle lapped it up. The Celtics were now the favorites to get to the NBA Finals. Miami would be in a dogfight to even get past Indiana, with their offense looking so stagnant without Bosh. Even if the Heat edged the Pacers, which many still felt they would, the Celtics would have too much for them—too much balance, too much scoring, too much esprit de corps.
So what’s actually changed in roughly 10 days to alter our perception of this series?
The easy answer: LeBron James and Dwayne Wadehave reminded us that they are 2 of the top 3 players in the NBA.
Things We’ve Learned… Or Relearned.
Not that we haven’t always known this. LeBron James is the greatest player on Planet Earth, deservedly taking home MVP honours this year, while Wade has also shown flashes of his brilliance the season. The difference is, over the Heat’s last 3 games, the two superstars have played fantastic basketball on the floor together— rather than in separate cameo appearances.Their movement off the ball has been breathtaking—the passing and finishing in transition has been deadly.
From the second half of Game 4 onwards, something just clicked. It’s like James and Wade looked at each other and said: Wait, we’re the two best players on the floor. We’re not losing to the Pacers!
Whatever happened internally, James and Wade have been terrifyingly brilliant ever since. Shooting at over 50%, while combining for 70 points in Game 4, 58 in Game 5, and 69 in Game 6, the two superstars single handedly crushed the Pacers.
The last 3 games of the Pacers series underlined the notion that, if James and Wade play to their abilities, it really doesn’t matter whether Miami’s other guys score.
Sure, it helps if Shane Battier and Mike Miller knock down 3s (If they do, the Heat are unbeatable), and of course, guys like Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem have to play tight on defense. Ultimately, however, Miami can win the Eastern Conference (I’m not yet willing to say the championship), playing two-man ball on offense. The loss of Bosh hurt initially, but the Heat have adapted, and it has simply meant more touches for Wade and LeBron—never a bad thing.
The Two-Man Show Continues
In last night’s Game 1, the trend showed no sign of abating. LeBron continued his stellar post-season play, destroying the Celtics with 32 points and 13 rebounds. Incidentally, there have been seven 30-10 games in the playoffs this year, and LeBron has four of those!
Dwyane Wade also continued his resurgence since the Game 4 masterpiece against the Pacers—scoring 22 points, 10 in the 4th, while acting as the facilitator for the majority of the game. Wade was able to create shots for his teammates—essentially playing the role of point guard.
It also helped that Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers scored almost 30 points between them. That doesn’t happen frequently, but when it does, you can say goodnight to the opposition.
The Celtics, despite a good 2nd quarter, continued their general stagnation on offense, and awesome impersonation of a tired, old basketball team. Garnett and Rondo both had solid games, but Pierce struggled throughout—to be fair, guarding LeBron James isn’t good for anyone’s offensive game.
Ray Allen continued to take years off the remainder of his basketball career, hobbling around on two non-functioning ankles, and looking like a shadow of the player we once knew. Allen missed 4 free throws (4 free throws!), tying his all-time worst showing from the charity stripe, and looked flatter than flat shooting the jumper.
It goes without saying that the Celtics missed Avery Bradley immensely. Who would’ve thought at the start of the year, that we’d be taking about Bradley as the key to a matchup with the Heat, but his tenacious defense and athleticism made him just that. Bradley matched up well against Wade during the regular season, and without him, the Celtics simply have no one who can guard the league’s greatest 2-guard (sorry Kobe).
A lot has happened in the past 10 days or so. We’ve gone from talk of a mouth-watering Celtics-Spurs NBA Finals, to discussing whether Boston can even steal one game from Miami. Unless something happens in the next few days to drastically move the goal posts yet again, (like LeBron James being kidnapped by Danny Ainge and sent to the moon for 2 weeks), the Heat will be contesting a championship for the 2nd second year.