Hello All, On January 6th, the Miami Heat (17-15) will host the Boston Celtics (24-6). The Celtics are amongst the top handful of teams in the league, keyed by what most consider the top starting 5 in the Eastern Conference, if not the league. They also play well on the road, coming in with a 13-4 road record. However, they have been banged up as of late. Kevin Garnett is out, Paul Pierce is iffy and Rajon Rondo is listed as day to day…meaning their three best players are all hurtin’. Luckily for the Celtics (and unluckily for the struggling Heat), they will have plenty of rest leading up to this game in the form of four days in between games; they expect both Pierce and Rondo to be in the lineup. For the sake of this blog, I will be penciling Pierce out of the starting lineup, because reports up to this point vary on his return date. PROJECTED STARTERS Heat Celtics PG Arroyo R. Rondo SG Wade R. Allen SF Richardson T. Allen (Pierce?) PF Beasley G. Davis C Anthony (J.O.?) R. Wallace (Note: Good catch by commenter KAZAM92, noting that Eddie House and original projected starter Kendrick Perkins are likely scratched for the flu. I'm guessing they'll bring Sheed off of the bench, but I'm pretty sure the Celtics have not faced this particular kind of injury trouble this season. -Matt) The Celtics probably have the overall edge in talent here, but it will be much closer than it would if Garnett were healthy. The Celtics will put Tony Allen on Wade as often as possible; he has reclaimed his rotation spot with the injury to Marquise Daniels and is playing well. As the Heat struggled with Chris Paul, so they will struggle with Rondo. They have to hope he is limited by injury, because Eddie House is not nearly the playmaker that Rondo is; if there is any doubt of Rondo’s ability to take a game over, go re-watch the Celtics Christmas Day game against the Magic. Perkins will lock down Anthony, who gets the start for Jermaine O’Neal (who is banged up in his own right), but if he gets in foul trouble the Celtics might be in trouble. Wallace is still getting in to shape, Glenn Davis is working his way back from injury and Shelden Williams is not a consistent threat. STATISTICAL BREAKDOWN (Stats from Statsheet.com; 1/4/10) Effective Field Goal % The Heat are 18th in the league at 49.2%, while the Celtics are 3rd at 52.7%. EDGE: Celtics (Big) Turnover % The Heat are 2nd in the league at 12.8%, while the Celtics are 23rd at 15.1%. EDGE: Heat (Big) Offensive Rebound % The Heat are 24th in the league at 25%, while the Celtics are 26th at 24.5%. EDGE: Even Free Throw Rate The Heat are 11th in the league at 31.7%, while the Celtics are 8th at 32.6%. EDGE: Celtics The stat breakdown would give it to the Celtics, and that’s probably about right. As you can see, the Heat are going to have to play great defense at all positions, because the Celtics make most of their shots. They also have to keep the ball on offense and limit the number of possessions, as they always like to do. KEYS TO THE GAME For the Heat, the key is defense. They have to find a way to keep Rondo out of the lane (no small task) and get a hand in Ray Allen’s face. If the Heat play their top game, they have a very good chance, as they showed against the Hawks the other night. The Celtics, meanwhile, need to do what they do best: Muscle the other team out on the glass with Perkins, control the transition game with Rondo and Pierce, and kick it to Allen for open threes every now and then. For some reason, my gut tells me the Heat will win this one. They are struggling but seem to be catching an elite team at just the right time. They also are going to be buoyed by their dominating performance over the Hawks, who had won 11 of the previous 16 meetings between the teams. There is no way they won’t be pumped for a home game against the Celtics before they go on a West Coast trip. Heat in a verrry close one.