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No way Celtics can hang with Heat
As the seconds ticked off the clock Saturday night during the Celtics' 85-75 Game 7 win over the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden, a fan on the video board held up a sign that read "Bring on LeBron" while others in the crowd chanted "Beat the Heat."
No one can fault the fans for being excited about their team advancing to yet another Eastern Conference finals. especially not in what will likely be the final year of the Big Three era. But if they sit down and take an objective look at the gargantuan task that lies ahead, they'll come to the realization that they don't want any part of it.
After an uninspiring series win over Philly, the Celtics are in the undesirable predicament of having accomplished far more than most could have imagined while also giving no reason to think they can go any further.
The Eastern Conference semifinal was an exercise in futility for both sides, one that simply came down to someone having to win and one team stinking less in the end. Unfortunately, it was also a marathon that spit the Celtics out with nothing left in the tank for a red-hot Miami team in the next round.
Boston is spent. Its aging superstars are banged up, out of gas and beginning to outlive their usefulness on the court, and Miami — which hosts the Celtics in Game 1 at AmericanAirlines Arena on Monday — is playing its best basketball of the season.
It's a bad matchup on the heels of an exhausting battle, and as a result, the Celtics' season might as well be over, regardless of what Boston coach Doc Rivers wants to believe about his team's energy level moving forward.
"I don't think about it at all," Rivers said when asked about fatigue impacting his team against the Heat. "I just don't believe it will happen. If Miami beats us, they'll beat us by outplaying us. But I don't think we're going to run out of gas; I just don't."
Even if Rivers is right — that his team still has another gear left and will have the energy to run with the Heat, despite having games every other night for the duration of the series — there are plenty of other reasons to think Boston doesn't stand a chance.
For starters, Miami has LeBron James and Dwyane Wade playing their best basketball of the season — combining to average 65.7 points, 18.7 rebounds and 11.7 assists over the final three games of their series win over Indiana. And Paul Pierce’s sprained knee and Ray Allen's flat tire of a foot will make it hard for either veteran to keep up on defense, even if they're not sucking wind.
Furthermore, one of Boston's best perimeter defenders, Avery Bradley, is out for the playoffs after having shoulder surgery, and Mickael Pietrus, who was generally effective against LeBron during Orlando's 2009 Finals run, isn't the same defender he was three years ago.
Then on offense, Boston has been putrid, being held under 44 percent shooting five times in seven games against a young, inexperienced, overmatched Philadelphia team after shooting just 43.3 percent for the series against Atlanta.
If there's one thing working in Boston's favor, it's that Heat forward Chris Bosh is still recovering from an abdominal injury suffered in Game 1 against Indiana, and all indications are he won't return during the conference finals.
But even with Bosh out, the Celtics lack the frontcourt size and talent to truly make his absence noticeable. Even if they can exploit the All-Star-sized hole in Miami's front line, they still won't have answers for most of the other problems the Heat present.
The one equalizer they do have — and the only reason to think they could make things interesting — is Rajon Rondo, who had 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists Saturday in his ninth career playoff triple-double, joining Larry Bird as the only Celtics to record a triple-double in a Game 7.
Down the stretch, after Pierce fouled out with the Celtics up by three with 4:16 left to play, it was Rondo who took on a leadership role and paved the way. The point guard scored 11 of Boston's final 14 points, including a backbreaking three-pointer as the shot clock neared zero to give the Celtics a 10-point lead with 2:09 left.
"You know he felt a sense of urgency; he smelled it, how close we were," said Pierce, who finished with 15 points and nine rebounds. "He was able to take over the game with his scoring, and it was just phenomenal to watch."
It was a complete transformation from the Rondo who was visibly upset with himself after being held to single digits in points, rebounds and assists in Game 6 and then scoring just seven points on 3 of 9 shooting with four turnovers through three quarters of Game 7.
Rondo's unpredictability has led to him being viewed as something of an enigma, but it's a quirk the Celtics have learned to deal with. When they get the good Rondo — like they did down the stretch Saturday — it's special to watch.
"He's not that hard (to figure out)," Rivers said. "He's just emotional — just an emotional kid. We've learned with him, being around him, you've got to give him room sometimes, (and) sometimes you've got to prod him."
Now the challenge will be keeping him focused while also keeping him fresh as he continues to put Boston's aging roster on his back down the stretch, because God knows the rest of the team and their creaky bones and heavy legs will need it.
"The rest is so important for him," Rivers said. "It's tough when he plays like the entire game; tonight he played the entire second half, but he's huge for us every night. He's the guy that gets our engine going."
Rondo will have to play the best basketball of his career against Miami's second-tier point guards, and there's no reason to think he won't rise to the occasion. But even that isn't likely to be enough to keep the series competitive.
The Celtics don't have the offense to hang with the Heat, and they don't have the defensive firepower to stop them. They're growing increasingly tired by the minute, and they'll most likely be nothing but a temporary annoyance as the streaking Heat blaze a trail to their second straight Finals.
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