For the first time this season, the Miami Heat will face the Boston Celtics with a better record. But in the third meeting between the two best teams in the East, the Heat will need a significant amount of progress across all fronts in order to come away with their first victory over the Celtics. The first two meetings between the two were comfortable Celtic victories, even as LeBron James made things slightly interesting down the stretch. The Heat would make a run, then the Celtics would execute for a few sustained possessions and put the game out of reach again. Those losses could easily be described as the worst and most damaging losses for the Heat.
Which is why this game matters so much more to Wade, James, and company than it does to the defending Eastern Conference champs. The Celtics are short-handed, with Delonte West, Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal, and Marquis Daniels all questionable-to-out for the game. Furthermore, the C’s have already made their point this season. They’ve proven they can be or are the best team in the East, arguably in the entire league, and have victories over every elite team, plus the two wins over the Heat. For Boston, winning this game is a cherry on top. It’s just frosting. At this point Boston’s biggest concern is making sure they don’t suffer any more injuries.
So why does this feel like the Heat are still facing an uphill struggle? Besides the obvious elements like the existence of Rajon Rondo and the Heat’s pitiful lack of depth, the biggest gap in the first two games between the two star-studded behemoths wasn’t on the X’s and O’s side. It was mental, and emotional. The Celtics were zoned in, playing with intensity. Even if they acted as if they were smacking down a younger brother who dared act like he was on their level, the Celtics understood the message they wanted to send. The Heat have a lot of talent, and they wanted to show they were that much better because they are a complete team. They wanted to win that game. It’s been pretty easy to spot the difference in the Celtics this season when they try and when they don’t; the Celtics wanted those first two games.
On the other hand, the Heat sleepwalked through that game. They seemed to have no intensity, no fire, no cohesion, and most of all, no sense of urgency. This was a team in its first year together, trying to prove itself, trying to find its identity, against the Eastern Conference champs who had ousted both Wade and James in last season’s playoffs, and who are the most smack-talking-est smack talkers who ever talked smack this decade. And yet the Heat seemed listless, lifeless, and without any real sense of purpose. If that’s missing again when the two take the floor for their third of four match-ups, the Celtics will take the season series in a cake walk, and many will go from penciling in the Celtics over the Heat to tracing that over in black ink.
Sure, the Heat will need Mario Chalmers to at least not embarrass himself, for Joel Anthony and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to play with some measure of physicality, and for Chris Bosh to try not to create the world’s largest eye-roll from fans worldwide. But in reality, the best way to beat the Celtics is for LeBron James to play as he has for the last month, and to combine that with some emotional leadership. James has been transcendent, even by his standards, over the beginning of this calendar year. Going 1-on-5 against the Celtics doesn’t work, but James can hurt them even with their precise doubles and help defense, if he’s engaged. But that’s always the question with James. Will have commit to the intensity needed to topple even an injured Celtics team, or will he defer and settle for mid-range jumpers again? He and Dwyane Wade make up the most devastating two-man combo in the league. Will they get out in transition or simply let the Celtics wear them down with how they constantly seem to be back on the break, eventually forcing you to settle into a halfcourt game, which favors their style?
This is a big game for the Heat. There’s just no getting around it. There’s nothing to be won; a victory only means that people will even more loudly proclaim “Doesn’t mean a thing ’till spring!” But there is a lot to be lost. The season series against the Celtics, the confidence that they’ve finally turned a corner on their early season lackadaisical approach to big games, and an opportunity to showcase that no, for real, this team has found itself and while 72-10 is out the door, they can still bust heads.
Every run to greatness has its moments founded in the regular season. A big step awaits the Heat. We know the Celtics will be ready. But will Miami?