When analysing each opponent for the Heat, there isn’t as clear of a preference as you may think. Obviously history, record and generally common sense suggest the Boston Celtics are the better team and would pose the bigger threat to Miami’s Championship aspirations, but the 76ers are an underrated challenge, as were the Indiana Pacers.
Like the Pacers, Philadelphia have gotten to where they are on depth and team defense. Philly play 10 deep, they do not rely on any one scorer, rather choose to present offensive threats through each of the five players on the court. This is one of the most effective ways to beat the Heat. Miami pack the paint and use the quick hands and mobility of their undersized bigs and oversized wingers to make plays or close out on the shooters when need be. No team has the defensive movement the Heat possess, and only they can pull it off, mostly on the back of the athleticism of Wade and James.
When a team has 5 different scoring options on the court that means the Heat’s opportunistic defense is not only working much harder, but they don’t have the luxury of stacking up on certain players, forcing others to make shots.
It was why the Indiana series was always going to be a game or 2 delayed. It may be the reason why a Heat 76ers series would not be the cake walk you might first believe.
The continuing growth of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner pose another threat. If you can’t beat Miami with your depth and ball movement, you have to attack them at their weakest positions, point guard and center. Mario Chalmers is an underrated defender, but he had his problems with George Hill and Darren Collison. Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner have been playing much better basketball than the Pacers duo and it’s likely Chalmers will be spending a lot of his minutes guarding one of the two. When Chalmers is off the court it will mean James or Wade could spend prolonged time checking them.
Should Chris Bosh still be sidelined, Philadelphia could pose a nightmare for LeBron James. The MVP spent the entirety of the Pacers series guarding 1-5 through certain stages of each game. In games where James spent a lot of time guarding the big men and point guards, he was noticeably exhausted during the fourth quarter. Because Philly too offer undersized bigs, you can be sure James will be battling with them plenty of times should they face each other. That will be on top of what surely will feature significant time guarding Holiday and Turner, especially if either have it going.
Of course on the other side you have the Boston Celtics. You know what you are getting from them. Professional, defensive minded, disciplined, routined. Rajon Rondo completely controls the pace of the team. Garnett and Pierce are still the heartbeat. Despite his recurring injuries, Ray Allen is still devastating running off screens and he is still one of the two greatest three point shooters of all time.
The emergence of Avery Bradley, who is still injured but expected to be ready for the ECFs should the Celtics qualify, moved Boston back into the elite group of defensive teams and new Celtics such as Pietrus, Stiemsma and Keyon Dooling have given the ageing team a fresher look and allowed them to stay in the Eastern conversation, if only for another year or two.
This may be the last hurrah for his generation of Celtics as it is believed they will look to move on in the summer, away from their championship winning Big 3.
Regardless of the Heat may face, it is somewhat of a let down given the expectations we had of a rematch of last year’s ECFs. But despite the absence of Derrick Rose and the Bulls, it will be a much more competitive series than most would expect. The Celtics are obviously the sexier pick, the more established team, possessing bigger names, holding championship pedigree and promising a series full of meaningful history.
But do not sleep on the 76ers should they make it. By no means am I suggesting Philly, nor even Boston, would and should upset Miami, but I feel everyone is unfairly underrating what is left in the Eastern Conference solely because Derrick Rose went down early. The Celtics would have posed the Bulls huge problems even with Derrick Rose, with many picking the veterans to beat their younger foes. The 76ers have earned their place, knocking off a very, very good Chicago team, even without their star, of whom they spent the majority of the season without, and statistically they were better without him. They have then taken a truly great Celtics team, albeit declining, to a game 7. They both deserve to be where they are and whoever wins certainly deserves the right to fight the Heat for a Finals place.
Whilst I, as many do, expect Miami to have no major issues in their efforts to make their second consecutive Finals, as was the case in their semi final matchup, it will not be the effortless sweep many believe it to be. The ECFs will be competitive, regardless of the opponent. But I do not expect the result to be any different.