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May 31, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Close Margin

by Kevin Pelton

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at Miami 115, Boston 111 (OT - Miami leads 2-0)
Pace: 83.7
Offensive Ratings: Miami 121.4, Boston 123.3

So far this postseason, the stereotypes about styles of play in the two conferences have proven accurate. The Western Conference is indeed playing a faster, more offensive brand of basketball than the Eastern Conference. On average, each West game has featured 2.6 more possessions for each team and an Offensive Rating 3.4 points per 100 possessions better. Multiply the two figures and the difference is 8.0 points per game between the two conferences.

On Wednesday, we found out what it would look like if Western Conference Finals offense was played at Eastern Conference Finals speed. The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics still favored lengthy half-court possessions in Game 2, but this time both teams scored efficiently after only the Heat did so in Game 1. The result was a taut, thrilling overtime battle with wild swings.

The first 20 minutes belonged to the Celtics, thanks to key defensive adjustments by Doc Rivers and his coaching staff. Boston put Kevin Garnett on Miami's center and Brandon Bass on Shane Battier, freeing Garnett to offer more help in the paint than he could chasing Battier around the perimeter. The Celtics also stepped up their defensive pressure on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, bringing double-team help. The Heat struggled to react to the change, leaving Wade in particular quiet--he scored just two points before halftime--without Miami's role players taking advantage.

Mario Chalmers kept the Heat in the game, knocking down a trio of three-pointers in the second quarter and scoring 12 points in the period in addition to serving as a playmaker at times. Miami needed the scoring because the Boston backcourt started out so much better than Game 1. Days after Doc Rivers mused about possibly resting him for a game, Ray Allen looked relatively healthy and rediscovered his touch from the perimeter. Meanwhile, an attacking-minded Rajon Rondo was able to break down the Heat defense time and again, creating plenty of buckets (he scored 22 points before halftime) and setting up teammates. As well as the Celtics played, their 15-point lead evaporated to just seven at the break, putting Miami in position to strike.

Back in the locker room, Erik Spoelstra and his coaching staff had a chance to make their own adjustments. The most notable concerned Rondo. The Heat briefly put James on Rondo early in the second half and started switching pick-and-rolls to try to keep Rondo contained on the perimeter. The strategy worked to perfection during the third quarter, when a passive Rondo attempted three shots and had just one assist. At the other end, Miami got more action from cutters off the ball, and improved ball movement negated the double teams as the Heat rang up 35 points to take a six-point lead to the final period.

The momentum was undone by the need to rest James. During the minute and 35 seconds James spent on the bench, Boston scored all seven points to go from down four to a three-point lead that appeared totally counter to the momentum of the second half. From the point James returned, the game settled into a half-court affair--extended crunch time. In that setting, the Celtics couldn't get enough stops, in part because of a subtle culprit--offensive rebounds. Starting with James' board on his own miss during the closing seconds of regulation, Miami rebounded three of its five available misses, extending possessions and keeping the ball away from Boston.

Losing Paul Pierce to fouls forced Rivers into an unpleasant choice on a fifth player. He went with Keyon Dooling, which may have made the Celtics too small to compete on the defensive glass, especially in the scramble situations their help created. Then again, the Heat's 9-0 run came after Dooling fouled out and was replaced by Bass. Either way, Boston missed Pierce more at the defensive end and on the glass than on offense, where Rondo continued to run the show. Rondo's only miss in the last 9:56 of play was the reverse with 1:35 remaining in overtime where replays showed he should have drawn a foul. The missed call was especially costly because it turned into a Miami runout at the other end. In a game where the Celtics were struggling to get stops--they held the Heat scoreless just two trips during overtime, one of them when James missed a pair of free throws--one empty possession was enough to change the tenor of the game. Add in Garnett's turnover the following time down and Boston was forced to play from behind.

The extra session won't go on Garnett's Hall of Fame highlight tape. He also fouled Wade, giving up a three-point play, and forced a three-pointer within a span of 30 seconds. When the Celtics gave up an offensive rebound on Miami's next possession, the game was effectively over despite Rondo answering with consecutive three-pointers.

Wednesday's game is another reminder of the razor-thin margins between winning and losing in the playoffs. Boston played extraordinarily well on the road and found a Rondo-based game plan that can work throughout this series. Yet because the Celtics lost a coinflip, the odds of advancing are stacked against them. Despite the cliche that a series doesn't begin until the road team wins, a higher seed that wins the first two games at home nearly always advances.

While this was hardly the Heat's best performance, Miami's late-game offensive attack was impressive. Aside from the final play of regulation, when managing the clock was crucial but James could still have been more aggressive attacking off the dribble rather than looking for a pull-up jumper, we saw precious few isolations. Instead, the Heat got everyone involved, running regular two-man actions for James and Wade that created problems for the Boston defense. When the Celtics helped, Wade and James made the right play and Battier and Udonis Haslem made crucial buckets. This, like much of the Indiana series, was what we envisioned when these two superstars teamed up.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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