Eastern Conference Finals Capsule Preview
A look at the Eastern Conference finals, which begin Monday (with regular-season and playoff records):
No. 2 MIAMI HEAT (46-20, 8-3) vs. No. 4 BOSTON CELTICS (39-27, 8-5)
Season series: Celtics, 3-1. Miami beat Boston 115-107 in the teams' second game of the season, when the Celtics were without the injured Paul Pierce. The Celtics then won all three meetings in April, though Pierce was the only significant player on either team to play in Boston's 78-66 victory on April 24. Rajon Rondo averaged 18.7 points, 13.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds for the Celtics, who shot 60.6 percent in their 115-107 victory in Miami on April 10.
Story line: Trying to get back to the NBA finals for the second straight season, the Heat will have to go through the Celtics again, possibly signaling the end of this aging Boston group if they do. The Celtics shook off some injuries to get past Philadelphia in seven games in the second round, but now have to recover quickly to face LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who were sensational in the last three games of their series against Indiana. Miami beat Boston in five games last year in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Key Matchup I: James vs. Pierce. The two All-Star forwards have had some memorable postseason duels, and Pierce played well against the Heat this season, averaging 25 points in the two full games he played in. But he's been battling knee pain and will have to overcome that against the league's MVP, who rolls into this matchup averaging 32.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists in the final three games of the Heat's six-game victory over the Pacers.
Key Matchup II: Wade vs. Ray Allen. Allen's injury is an even bigger concern than Pierce's for the Celtics, because his ankle pain is affecting him offensively and defensively. One of the NBA's best shooters is even struggling at the free throw line and the Celtics will need him to play like he did in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against Philadelphia, when he hit two 3-pointers after missing his first five attempts. Wade has clearly overcome his injury problem, a sore knee that limited him to five points on 2-of-13 shooting in Game 3 against Indiana. He followed that with 30, 28 and 41 points, making 40 of 65 shots.
X-Factor: Mickael Pietrus. With Pierce and Allen hurting, and Avery Bradley out, the Celtics will need someone to come off the bench and take some turns defending James and Wade. The swingman can stay out there longer if his perimeter shot is falling.
Prediction: Heat in 5.