Bring on the Heat . . . but when?

Bring on the Heat . . . but when?
April 5, 2013, 2:15 pm
Share This Post

So much has happened since the start of this NBA season that it’s easy to forget where it all began. So, just to refresh your memory, let’s hop in Doc Rivers’ hot tub and go back to October 29, a Tuesday night in Miami.

Game 1: Celtics vs. Heat.

It was billed as a rematch of the Eastern Conference Finals (because that’s what it was), but for Miami, the season opener represented much more than that. It was about rings. It was about celebrating a title. It was about LeBron’s first game as a champion, and the next chapter in his legendary career. That the Celtics were on the other side certainly upped the ante, but the rivalry was only one of many things on their plate.

On the other hand, for Boston, the rivalry and rematch meant so much more. From Game 7 of the Conference Finals, right on through the summer, Ray Allen’s defection, the European Tour and pre-season, the Heat were the only thing on Boston’s mind. This season wasn’t All About 18, it was about revenge and redemption. Opening night was the first step.

Anyway, the Heat took the opener by 13 points, and in the five months since, so much has changed for the Celtics. They lost Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger. They found Jeff Green. They picked up three guys from China and another one from Pluto. For the most part, it’s been a struggle. Considering the expectations, it’s been a season filled with more lows than highs. But through it all, the one constant (OK, besides Darko) has been the dream of/obsession with that Miami playoff rematch. And now, with the postseason only weeks away, that rematch is getting closer.

Maybe.

Either way, while Heat continue to operate in the clouds, focused on championships, legacy and a potential dynasty, here in Boston, it’s still just a matter of Miami. Even as we spend the next two weeks discussing playoff seeding, it’s only as it relates to the defending champs.

When’s the best time to play them? Early or late? First round? Second round? The Conference Finals? When will they be at their worst? When will the Celtics be at their best? At which point are those last two answers most likely to intersect?

When you look at the big picture, there’s one obvious answer, but just for fun, let’s dig a little deeper into all the potential options.

Option 1: The No. 5 seed

With seven games left, the Celtics trail the Bulls and Hawks by two and a half games for the fifth seed. If they were to somehow leapfrog both teams, that would set up a first round battle with Brooklyn, and a potential second round date with Miami. This option is a possibility, but with the Celtics in conservation mode, it’s definitely not a priority.

Option 2: The No. 6 or 7 seed

Boston will probably fall into one of these two spots, which would put them in line for a first round series against New York or Indiana, a second round series against Indiana or New York, and finally, if they survive, a dream match-up in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Option 3: The No. 8 seed

This isn’t a popular option. In fact, when you bring up the idea of playing the Heat in the first round, folks in Boston react like you just flashed them a photo of their parents having sex. “Gahhh! Why would you ever want to play Miami?!”

Not only is it an unpopular option, but it’s also unlikely.

With seven games left, Boston’s magic number to avoid a first round match-up with Miami is six. In other words, any combination of six Boston victories and Milwaukee losses will guarantee the Celtics no worse than the seventh seed. And when you look at the schedule, and see that:

(a) The C’s have remaining games against Cleveland (tonight), Washington, Orlando and Toronto.

(b) The Bucks have remaining games at New York (tonight), at Miami, at Atlanta, vs. Denver and at Oklahoma City.

You don’t have to squint for that magic number to come into focus.

But while it’s both unpopular and unlikely there’s no doubt that the eighth seed gives Boston the best chance to beat the Heat, and that it’s the match up that the Celtics and their fans should be rooting for.

Here are three reasons why:

1. Miami’s in sleep mode.

The streak ended on March 27. They clinched the top seed in the East on March 29. And at that point, Erik Spoelstra pulled the plug like Kramer on the Merv Griffin set. With three weeks left, the Heat went from 100 MPH to zero, and they won’t have a reason to rev it back up until the start of playoffs. That’s when they’ll be the most susceptible.

Of course, you can argue the same thing for the Celtics. That it will take some time for them to find a playoff rhythm, so it’s better to play Miami later, after building momentum in the earlier round(s). But you know what?

While the Celtics are building momentum, the Heat will be doing the exact same thing. And all things equal, I like the rusty Celtics chances against the rusty Heat (three weeks removed from their last truly meaningful game; nearly a year removed from any real adversity) more than I do the in-sync Celtics against the locked in Heat.

But what about injuries?

Won’t waiting to play the Heat increase the odds that Wade, Bosh or even LeBron gets hurt, and opens the door for an upset?

Sure, but it also definitely increases the odds of Kevin Garnett’s bone spurs flaring up, or Avery Bradley continuing to wear down, or one of Paul Pierce 17 or so nagging injuries to develop into something more.

When the playoffs start, the Celtics will be healthiest they’re going to be.

2. New York and Indiana are pretty damn good.

We talk like it’s just a foregone conclusion that the Celtics will survive as long as they avoid Miami, but Boston will have anything but an easy path to the rematch. The Knicks are playing some of their best basketball of the season, led by the East’s best scorer and most explosive sixth man. They’re the new Atlantic Division champs, and have one of best home court advantages in the NBA. Meanwhile, the Pacers have the best defense in the league, and a seven-footer (Roy Hibbert), who’s become possessed over the last month and leads a front court that’s tailored to beat Boston into submission.

Sure, the Celtics are 2-0 against Indiana this year, but the first game included Rondo so it’s stricken from the record, and most recently, the Celtics absolutely stole one in Indiana. The Pacers were up nine points with 4:30 minutes before Boston finished on an 11-0 run and won it on a last second Jeff Green layup. It was a great win, but the first 44 minutes of that game are far more indicative of the Boston/Indiana match-up than the last four.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Celtics survive the Indiana/New York gauntlet. But can you imagine what they’ll look like on the other side, after — at the very least — 12 INSANE, emotionally charged games?

They’ll limp down to South Beach, where the Heat will be waiting, having abused the Bucks the way MJ’s Bulls did Glen Rice’s Heat or Steve Smith’s Hawks, having skipped through Brooklyn in six games at most.

That’s a tough task for the Celtics, and with Option 2, that’s the best case scenario

3. Playing the Heat in the first round is better than not playing them at all.

The worst case scenario is that the Celtics lose to the Pacers or Knicks (or Brooklyn or Chicago) and Boston/Miami never happens.

And if it doesn’t, then what was this season even for?

That was the whole point. From Ray jumping ship to KG losing his number to Opening Night to double overtime at the Garden to Jeff Green dropping 43 to LeBron’s game-winner to he and Wade talking trash about the Celtics to Jason Terry talking trash at the Heat to LeBron dunking on Terry to Danny Ainge calling out LeBron to Pat Riley calling out Ainge. This rivalry captivated us for an entire year, but there was always the expectation that it was leading to something more.

Regardless of anything else that was going on with the Celtics or the rest of the league, we just assumed that these two were headed for a rematch.

And now, it’s right there. Why wait?

Who cares when we see it, as long as we see it.

Sure, it might lead to a first round exit, but in that case it will be the most satisfying first round exit in Celtics history. Even if they don’t ultimately finish what they started back on October 29, that’s a much easier pill to swallow than just never getting the chance.