MIAMI (AP) — In 2010, Boston ousted Dwyane Wade in the first round and LeBron James in the second round. A year later, Wade and James were teammates and turned the tables, sending the Celtics into the offseason.
Here comes the tiebreaker.
Celtics-Heat, one more time — with a berth in the NBA finals as the reward.
For the fifth time in seven years, it’ll be Boston or Miami winning the Eastern Conference championship. Game 1 of that title series is Monday night in Miami, with the Heat saying it almost seemed predestined that they would be seeing the Celtics again, and Boston’s perspective being that the team in green is exactly where it expected to be as well.
“Inevitable. It’s the matchup the game of basketball wants,” Wade said Sunday afternoon. “Obviously, with the Chicago Bulls being out, this is the biggest matchup the Eastern Conference can have. So we accept the challenge and we look forward to the series.”
Added Heat coach Erik Spoelstra: “Was there any doubt that it’d be us and Boston?”
Well, maybe a little.
Spoelstra watched Boston’s Game 7 East semifinal matchup against Philadelphia without a notepad, not wanting to start game planning until the winner was decided. And that didn’t come until late in the night, when Rajon Rondo — forced into the closer’s role after Paul Pierce fouled out with 4:16 left — delivered time and again down the stretch, carrying the Celtics to an 85-75 closeout victory.
“This is a good time right now,” Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said. “This is the cream of the cream. This is what it’s all about, you know, conference finals. We definitely didn’t like the way we left last year. So we’ll see what happens, man. We’ll see what happens. Let’s get it on.”
Miami beat Boston in five games in last year’s East semifinals, and the Celtics took three of four games from Miami this season. Both sides cautioned against reading too much into any of those results.
James said the game changes in the playoffs, even more so as teams get deeper into it. The Celtics know what he wants to do, he knows what the Celtics will try, familiarity born from James having already faced Boston in 18 playoff games — more than any other active player, and more than any club the reigning MVP has squared off with in the postseason.
“I wouldn’t have it no other way, personally,” James said. “It’s really the only team I’m accustomed to playing in the playoffs. No matter where I go, I find a way to play Boston. … We’ve got a lot of history.”
James and the Cleveland Cavaliers lost in seven games to Boston in 2008. In 2010, the Celtics topped the Cavs in six games, one round after easily beating the Heat in a series punctuated by Wade vowing that he wouldn’t lose another first-round series for a long time to come. Last season, Miami’s five-game win was far from easy. And this time, the perception of the Celtics is that they’re old, tired and weary.
The Heat dismiss those notions as “ridiculous,” Spoelstra said.
“No. Get out of here with that,” Wade said. “I don’t believe none of that. No feet hurtin’, no tired, no nothing. This is the Boston Celtics. They’re all 100 percent to me because when they play the Miami Heat, different ballgame and vice versa. Ain’t no story lines, no excuses. … Last year, yeah, we beat them in five, but man, it was like a nine-game series, it felt like.”
Boston did not hold practice Sunday, instead handing out scouting reports and flying to Miami. Celtics coach Doc Rivers was packed with the hopes of making a Miami trip even before Game 7 of the Philly series, just so he could take every possible moment after the game Saturday night to watch film of the Heat, and he planned more of the same on the three-hour flight from Boston.
“We’ll be ready,” Rivers said. “It’s going to be a tough turnaround, but listen, we’re not an excuse team. We’ll be ready on Monday.”
His players said they welcomed the short turnaround.
Ray Allen is hurting and Boston will be without Avery Bradley for the remainder of the season, but the Celtics indicated they would rather just jump into a Miami series and not wait around.
“I kind of like it for us,” Pierce said. “It keeps us in rhythm. It keeps us playing. We’re an older team so we get kind of stiff when we sit around for too long. We like the fact that we’re going to go right into it.”
The Celtics are averaging 88.1 points in the playoffs. James and Wade are averaging nearly 53 in the postseason by themselves, and combined to score 197 in the last three games — all Miami wins — in the second-round series against Indiana, responding to the Heat’s need for them to carry more of the scoring load with Chris Bosh still sidelined indefinitely by a strained lower abdominal muscle. The Heat said Sunday night that Bosh took part in an on-court workout after practice, but it’s still unknown when he will play again.
Clearly, a clash in styles is possible, and the Celtics are leery of what Miami can do in the open floor.
“We will lose in a track meet,” Allen said. “This team, they get up and down the floor. They want to score in transition. They pride themselves off of getting easy baskets. Defensively, we have to get back. Offensively, we can’t play with the ball, we can’t turn the ball over, we can’t not execute.”
All the ingredients are there for drama.
Boston’s Big Four against Miami’s Big Three (minus one). A possible end to this Celtics run, at least with this current core. Miami trying to return to the title series, after falling last year. James’ still-unfulfilled quest for a championship.
Both sides agree, this won’t be easy for either club.
“It’s great theater for the fans and everybody out there,” Spoelstra said. “For us, it’s great competition. That’s what you want at this time of year.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.