Even without Chris Bosh, the Heat are the favorites to move onto the NBA Finals and only need to hold home court advantage to do so. Bosh injured his abdomen in the last series against the Indiana Pacers. It is unclear when he will return, but he will definitely not play tonight.
Despite being the heavy underdogs, the Celtics won't be intimidated entering this series and can expose some aspects of the Heats' play to advance to the Finals:
Play Around Pain:
No doubt you've heard the term "play through pain," but the Celtics need to play around the pain as playing through it is not an option. Without Avery Bradley, Ray Allen is returned to the starting lineup. However, Allen's ankle injury prevents him from doing certain things. While certain injuries are painful but not physically limiting, Allen's injury will make it very difficult for him to defend Dwyane Wade.
Instead of asking Allen to chase Wade from side to side on every play, the Celtics need to make use of Mickael Pietrus' defensive ability, ask Rajon Rondo to carry some of the load and focus the team defense to Wade at different times throughout the game. Wade is intelligent enough to exploit Allen's struggles so throwing different defensive looks his way throughout the game could make it harder for him to take over games the way he did at the end of the Pacers' series.
Cut the neck, not the head:
Despite Dwyane Wade's demolition of the Pacers in the last series, Lebron James was still phenomenal. James is undoubtedly the head of the Heat. Unlike Wade, who is a great scorer, James will make the whole team around him better if he is hot. Without Chris Bosh however, that is not a problem for the Celtics.
The Heat need both Wade and James to have big days if they are to win games in this series. Generally they both do have big games, but if the Celtics let James loose, and shut down Wade, they should be able to overcome the Heat. Even if James has a triple double, he is still working with players like Mike Miller/Shane Battier/Udonis Haslem.
It's too big a task to try and shut down both Wade and James, but if you focus all your efforts on one of them, the Heat will struggle because their third scoring option is missing. Forcing Mario Chalmers and Lebron James to beat you with that supporting cast, isn't an insurmountable task for the Celtics.
Last night, the San Antonio Spurs beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on the back of a great performance by Manu Ginobli. The most significant aspect of that game was the difference in coaching. Gregg Popovich completely outcoached Scott Brooks with his use of Tim Duncan. Popovich is a seasoned veteran while Brooks is relatively new to the job at this time of the year.
Even though Erik Spoelstra led the Heat to the NBA Finals last year, beating the Celtics on the way, Doc Rivers' coaching nous is extensively greater than Erik Spoelstra. Spoelstra lately has simplified the Heats' offense allowing Wade and James to carry the attack with the ball in their hands from the beginning.
Doc Rivers must get the ball out of Wade and James' hands in those situations. On the other end, Rivers must put Kevin Garnett into positions to succeed against Joel Anthony and Ronnie Turiaf. Considering the form he is currently in, Garnett could put up huge numbers against that lesser opposition.
Roll with Rondo:
Rajon Rondo's record-breaking season has had its ups and downs. Even his playoff campaign has been construed with inconsistency. The one thing Rondo has continued to do is come up in clutch moments however. Without Paul Pierce at the end of Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Rondo came up huge with his outside shooting.
Rondo has a marked advantage at the point guard position. Mario Chalmers is an underrated, and under-appreciated, player but he doesn't have the defensive ability to stick with Rondo. At some point, Rondo will see Lebron James come his way. At that point the Celtics can't go away from their playmaker, they have to force the MVP to work hard on the defensive end and force the issue.
James is a great defender, but his reputation alone shouldn't allow him to rest. It is better to challenge his on ball defense rather than allow him to use his intelligence to impact the game off the ball. James has an obvious size advantage over Rondo, but Rondo's speed would at least force James to commit himself to one player opposed to causing hesitation around the court.