I think the answer’s the same in both cases: control the paint.
Here’s a quick review of the four games between these two teams in 2010-11:
Game 1: Boston 88 Miami 80. Points in paint: Boston 38, Miami 24.
Game 2: Boston 112 Miami 107. Points in paint: Boston: 38, Miami 30.
Game 3: Boston 85 Miami 82. Points in paint: Boston 36, Miami 36.
Game 4: Miami 100 Boston 77. Points in paint: Miami 44, Boston 26.
There appears to be a correlation between points in the paint and final score.
Makes sense, right?
Consider the difference between a Miami team getting to the rim in transition and breaking down defenses off the dribble in the halfcourt versus a team reliant on Dwayne Wade and Lebron James and Chris Bosh taking the majority of their shots from the perimeter.
Now, think of the good Celtics you’ve watched all year. The team with Rajon Rondo dissecting defenses on the break and creating in the halfcourt, with Kevin Garnett working regularly in the low post, and Paul Pierce attacking rather than just shooting. That’s an entirely different animal than the bad Boston team that went through offensive funks the last twenty games of the season. That team’s standard issue possession looked something like this: meander up the floor, make the first pass with 12-14 seconds left on the shot clock, pass the ball around the perimeter and then force up a late-clock jumper.
A safe bet: the team that controls the paint will win this series.
How Boston Can Control The Paint — On Defense
Most of this series will be played in the half court so Boston will be reliant on the same defensive approach they’ve employed the last few years. They’ll try to force Miami to shoot from the outside (Wade: 37% from the midrange and 30.6% from three-point-range; James: 45% midrange, 33% from three). To do so, they’ll sometimes run their “strong side zone” (not the Celtics’ preferred term, I don’t think), sending a second defender as Wade and James try and break down their men off the dribble and get into the paint (on that note, I wonder if we’ll see a flood of 2-3 and 3-2 pick and rolls out of Miami).
But I’d think as much as possible Boston will try and contain Wade and Bosh with single coverage so as not to open up holes in the rest of their defense. This is particularly important when covering James, which is why Pierce’s defensive work is so important to the outcome of this series and why Jeff Green better be ready for his closeup.
Stopping the initial attack is also crucial because if James and Wade get into the paint, Boston is forced to rotate help defenders over to prevent layups, which shifts bigs like Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal out of position for defensive rebounds. This is the problem Boston had against New York. It’s also the reason Anderson Varejao had big games against Boston when James was still in Cleveland.
The upside here is that the Heat are not a great offensive rebounding team. They’re only 19th in the league in ORR. That noted, no matter what the rate, Miami is going to get to the rim. When that happens, and Boston forces a miss, Garnett is going to need help clearing the glass. He can’t be the only one who pulls down double-digit rebounds all series. KG is going to be expending a ton of energy on help defense and locking down Chris Bosh. Which means gang rebounding becomes important to holding Miami to a single shot and turning Rondo loose in the open court.
On that note, watch Rondo on the boards. He upped his defensive rebound rate from a regular season figure of 9.7 to 12.1 in the first round against New York. If he keeps that up, he can put enormous pressure on Miami’s transition defense. As soon as he has the rebound, somebody has to pick him up in transition. If it’s not his assigned cover, somebody on Boston has a mismatch waiting, even if the fast break is pulled back in the offensive zone and the C’s run a halfcourt set.
The Celtics also need to keep Miami out of transition. Part of that is just executing on offense so the Heat have to run off of makes. But a larger part of it is holding onto the ball. Boston’s TOR for the four games versus NY: 15.4, 10.0, 18.1, 14.1. That’s pretty mediocre overall, but the forecast is bright: Miami was only 26th in the league in forcing turnovers (pace-adjusted) in 2010-11. The Knicks were 9th.
How Boston Can Control The Paint – On Offense
Miami was fifth in the league in defensive efficiency in the regular season. So, it’s crucial Boston exploits the advantages it does have and avoids the stagnant offense we discussed above. Boston can’t bail out this Miami defense with bad decisions.
The Celtics really need to play inside-out more than they did against New York. Doc Rivers can’t allow Garnett to float out by the arc looking for spot-up jumpers. He needs to work in the post regularly. Extensively even. I’d expect the Celtics to try and establish KG early in each game. If he can get Bosh into early foul trouble, or force a double-team, the Celtics will open up offensive avenues like off-ball cutters taking passes from KG for layups.
Of course, any effective return by Shaquille O’Neal changes the interior offensive dynamic for the better. As we saw him earlier in the year, he’s a brutal cover for any of the Miami bigs. Here, too, is where we wish for the unlikely offensive rebounding we’ve seen in the past from Glen Davis and Nenad Krstic. Admittedly, we’ve not seen much of it.
Pierce also needs to break through the Miami perimeter D. That’s far easier said than done considering his cover on the other end of the court, but Boston will need to find ways to get him looks. For example, if the Celtics can bait Miami into switching on the pick and roll, Pierce could shoot over, post up, or go around his mismatch.
And then there’s Rondo. So much of this series will rest on his shoulders. Pierce, Allen and Garnett have tough assignments so it’s up to Rondo to dominate whoever Spoelstra puts on him (Mario Chalmers, probably).
Off defensive rebounds, Rondo needs to push the tempo and drive the ball right to the rim (of course it wouldn’t hurt if his teammates ran with him). In the halfcourt, not only does he need to make enough elbow-jumpers to keep Miami honest, but he needs to exploit whoever’s on him and get into the paint. If you see Rondo wandering the arc, waiting and watching more than creating and finishing, Boston is probably in trouble.
So, I leave you with that. Control the paint, control the world. There are other keys to be sure, but none so important.