Yes, the Boston Celtics remember what happened last year. If they wanted to they could close their eyes and picture Rajon Rondo on the ground with his elbow hanging limply by his side, as if attached by nothing but a piece of Scotch tape. They haven’t forgotten the fantastic exhibition LeBron James and Dwyane Wade constructed as they put away so many of those games down the stretch, with the Celtics breathing heavily and struggling to keep up. They remember the feeling, getting bounced out of the Eastern Conference Finals in five games, hearing everyone say that the baton had been passed, that the Celtics were finally dead.
But, they assure themselves, now isn’t then.
“Last year’s in the past. This year, we are a totally different team,” said Rondo. “We feel we can beat Miami. Obviously we got to this point. There is no doubt in my mind that we can, so we have to go down there and take care of business.”
Few analysts give the Celtics a chance, not after they took so much energy to dispatch the 76ers, not after the way James and Wade dominated to close out the Indiana Pacers, not after Avery Bradley went down, leaving the banged-up and 36-year old Ray Allen to defend Wade likely for 30-plus minutes per contest, not even with Chris Bosh’s status for the series in severe doubt and Kevin Garnett playing his best basketball in years. But the Celtics still enter this series with two decided advantages — their last names are Rondo and Garnett.
Rondo has always been hell for Miami to defend because they have no natural answer for him. Mario Chalmers isn’t quick enough, Wade isn’t used to chasing around point guards, and James might be best-suited for the task but can’t afford to spend much time away from Paul Pierce. I included some of Rondo’s stats against Miami in my short-ish series preview for the Springfield Republican newspaper:
In the three games Rondo played against the Heat during the regular season, he averaged 18.7 points, 13.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds. The Celtics outscored Miami by 12.1 points per 100 possessions with Rondo on the court, and won two of the three outings in which he participated.
Boston has not lost to the Heat since before New Year’s, winning the last three meetings by a combined 39 points. A lot has changed since the teams’ final meeting, though.
Avery Bradley underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, leaving the Celtics with the nightmare matchup of Ray Allen and his balky ankle defending Wade. Chris Bosh suffered a lower-abdominal strain during Miami’s second-round series against the Indiana Pacers and is questionable to return against the Celtics, depleting Miami’s frontcourt and essentially leaving the Heat with just two players capable of creating offense.
Garnett needs to keep doing what he’s been doing and Rondo needs to be even better. Pierce needs to limit LeBron’s easy looks and the Celtics need to find some way — whether it’s playing Mickael Pietrus more minutes (and sending a search party for his jump shot) or making Ray Allen an appointment with Mr. Miyagi — to corral Wade, at least more than the Pacers could harness him in the final three games of their series. The Celtics need to rebound and they need to control the ball. They need to push the pace when they’re on offense but slow it when they’re not. They could use some unexpected offense from someone on the bench (maybe Pietrus?) and they could use a big series from Brandon Bass, who could be the recipient of several wide open midrange jumpers because of Miami’s defensive schemes.
The Celtics have always been a confident bunch. They often thrive with their backs against the ropes and a crowd full of detractors telling them why they can’t win. Nobody else thought they’d be in the Eastern Conference Finals, at least not until Derrick Rose tore his ACL, but you get the feeling the Celtics always expected to arrive here, in Miami, with a shot at redemption against the one team in the Big Three era that dispatched them from the playoffs in fewer than seven games.
“This is exactly where we thought we’d be,” Doc Rivers told the Celtics after they finally ousted Philadelphia, “and we’re going to Miami.”
Added Kevin Garnett, “This is a good time right now. This is the cream of the cream. This is what it’s all about – conference finals. We definitely didn’t like the way we left last year, so we’ll see what happens.
“Let’s get it on.”