Once Derrick Rose went down with a torn ACL, this is the matchup nearly everyone envisioned in the Eastern Conference Finals -- LeBron James and the Miami Heat against the perceived last stand of the "Big Three" in Boston.
Neither team took an easy route though. Miami got knocked to the canvas by the Indiana Pacers in the conference semifinals before responding like a champion, while Boston needed seven games to dispose of a plucky, albeit offensively- challenged Philadelphia team.
The Heat are headed back to the East finals for the second straight season after closing out the Pacers with three straight wins. Dwyane Wade scored 41 points and James added 28 as the Miami knocked off Indiana, 105-93, in the Game 6 clincher Thursday night.
The Heat, of course, beat Chicago in last year's East finals but lost to Dallas in six games in the NBA Finals, missing their first chance to win one of the "not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven" titles that James famously predicted after he took his talents to South Beach.
"We've made great progress in the last 3 1/2 weeks since this second season started and hopefully we'll have an opportunity to do that in the next three to four weeks," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
The C's, meanwhile, finally eliminated the Sixers with a 85-75 win on Saturday. When Paul Pierce fouled out with 4:16 remaining, the 76ers had an opening to repeat their Game 7 magic from 30 years ago in Boston, but Andrew Toney wasn't available and Rajon Rondo wouldn't let the Celtics falter in the deciding game.
Rondo scored 11 of his 18 points in the final quarter, including nine in a row for his team right after Pierce left the game as Boston beat Philadelphia. Rondo, who also had 10 rebounds and 10 assists, recorded his ninth career playoff triple-double.
In the final seconds, fans at TD Garden turned their attention to Boston's next opponent with chants of "Beat the Heat!"
A pair of injuries, one for each team, could loom large in the upcoming series. Heat big man Chris Bosh has been sidelined since Game 2 of the Indiana series with a strained abdominal muscle and there is still no timetable for the veteran All-Star's return. That could turn out to be a major issue for Miami since Bosh would have been called on to handle Kevin Garnett much of the time.
The Celtics, meanwhile, are now without guard Avery Bradley, the defensive stalwart who was shut down in the Sixers series with chronic shoulder problems.
"Avery Bradley is having surgery so he's out for the playoffs," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "That's that. When a player goes down, that's disappointing, and especially with what Avery has given us this year. He's become a very valuable piece to our basketball team. His ability to guard the best [opposing] guard at [point or shooting guard] has really taken so much pressure off Rondo, in particular."
"Rondo doesn't have a lot of breaks. But that's the way it is," Rivers continued. "We've been a team all year when stuff happens, you deal with it and you just move forward."
Boston had some success against the Heat in the regular season, winning three of four, including one in South Florida.
"It gives us some sort of confidence," Pierce said when asked about the C's wins over Miami. "We know we are capable of going in their building and getting the win. But they're a different team. They're in a playoff mindset team now. You know it's a lot different from regular season to playoffs. Teams get a chance to scout you."
This will be the third straight season that the Heat and Celtics will meet in the playoffs. Boston won in five games in 2010 in the first round and the Heat won in five last year in the semifinals.
"Last year is in the past," Rondo said. "This year we are a totally different team. We feel we can beat Miami. Obviously we got to this point. There's no doubt in my mind that we can, so we gotta go down there and take care of business."
POINT GUARD: Rondo is the game's best pure playmaker and figures to have a big advantage over the Heat's Mario Chalmers. A true quarterback that was the first Celtic to lead the NBA in assists since Bob Cousy turned the trick in 1960, Rondo always thinks pass first until he turned into Derek Fisher late in Game 7 against the Sixers.
Opposing coaches usually want to turn Rondo into a scorer since and that's the prudent decision since his jumper is well below average. That said, when Rondo is making the outside shot, he's virtually indefensible because of his quickness and ability to finish at the basket.
"He can control a game by getting assists or by scoring. He's definitely the leader of the team and he plays with a little chip on his shoulder because they always talk about the Big Three," Former Boston center Shaquille O'Neal said of Rondo.
Chalmers is quick and athletic enough to keep up with Rondo but remains a very streaky player thanks to his own shaky jumper. He's also prone to turning the ball over and will take a bad shot now and again.
SHOOTING GUARD: Wade looked lost after Game 3 against the Pacers and it was clear that a nagging knee injury was slowing down the former NBA Finals MVP and league scoring champion. The Marquette product was a pathetic 2-for-13 from the floor in that one, turned it over five times and told his head coach to "[expletive] off."
With their season on the brink, Wade and James turned it on like few ever have. Over the course of three brilliant contests, Wade, had 99 points, 22 boards and 11 assists. LeBron, meanwhile, scored 98 points, pulled down 34 rebounds and dished out 24 assists. Both also served as lockdown defenders.
Wade remains an athletic marvel and one of the league's best finishers at the rim. He plays recklessly and can handle the playmaking role, something his transition and penetration skills are tailor-made for.
In contrast, Ray Allen is a shell of his former self. Bone chips in his right ankle have turned him into a pedestrian player that really struggles defensively. Philadelphia had no one to take advantage of Allen's deficiencies but Wade will exploit him early and often, making Bradley's absence far bigger than most think.
CENTER: Neither team has a legitimate center so each shifted their All-Star power forward to the pivot. If healthy, Bosh has the offensive skills and quickness to make things difficult for the aging Garnett but there is no guarantee that he will even play in the set. Bosh hasn't been able to do any rehab thus far except for riding a stationary bike.
"The timetable is still open and whenever he's ready, hopefully we continue to take care of business and heï¿½ï¿½ï¿½s back in uniform for us," James told the Miami Herald.
Throughout the playoffs the Heat have played much better defensively when Joel Anthony is on the floor but Spoelstra likes him coming off the bench with energy player Ronny Turiaf as the starter.
While not the player he once was, Garnett has been spectacular in these playoffs. His mere presence on the floor really helps the Celtics space things and his bully act still works against most, although Turiaf is the kind of player that will bang and turn K.G. into a jump shooter, which is exactly what you want. Although Garnett can hit the 19-footer better than any 7-footer East of Dirk Nowitzki, it's pick your poison and you don't want him down on the blocks.
SMALL FORWARD: James is really incomparable at this stage. He's the regular season MVP and if anything has upped his game in the postseason. An unbelievable athlete with freakish strength, size and skill that can play and defend four different positions and still be the best player on the floor at any one of them. When the jumper is falling, James is unstoppable at the offensive end and can take any wing player, point or power forward and lock them down as a defender. The only hope for the opposition is to harass James into some bad shooting nights and pray his teammates come up small. Like most teams, Boston will try to turn James into a jump shooter.
"LeBron James is unbelievable," NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said. "People give him a hard time. He has to play so hard. He makes everyone around him better. He has to carry so much weight on this team."
Rivers coined the term "professional scorer" to describe Paul Pierce, the veteran who remains one of the game's best closers and has always been an underrated defender. Tremendous body control and an ability to bury free throws makes him a nightmare in the half-court, especially in late game situations. Look for Pierce to try to get James in foul trouble early.
POWER FORWARD: The undersized Shane Battier, a dogged defender has been starting here for the Heat but Miami native Udonis Haslem, the Heat's glue-guy may be the better option in this series against Brandon Bass.
Haslem will be back from his one-game suspension for a flagrant foul on Tyler Hansbrough and is a key to Miami's spacing and defense. A solid rebounder with an excellent mid-range jumper. Haslem, doesn't have the athleticism or pure strength to stand out but he's important to Spoelstra's schemes at both ends.
Bass is an even better mid-range shooter who offers some Boston some toughness and strength up front. Bass has also turned into one of the best free throw shooters in the postseason.
"That is a matchup that I want to take advantage of," Bass said of playing the against the smaller Battier. "I want to help my team in anyway that I can. Shane Battier, is a solid player and defender; I'm up for the challenge."
BENCH: Each side is paper thin and has proven you don't have to be all that deep to make a serious run in the postseason. The Heat bench has been maligned throughout the season but Spoelstra has three solid role players he has counted on, three-point specialist Mike Miller, Battier and Anthony.
Miller is a lot like Allen for the Celtics, no matter how bad he looks or how poorly he is performing, you have to account for him because the Florida product can heat up from long range at a moment's notice. Battier is a defensive specialist who makes things easier on James by taking on the opposition's best wing player for major minutes, and Anthony is a natural shot blocker and energy player.
"When this Miami Heat team is clicking, it's when their bench comes in and produces offensively for them," TNT analyst Reggie Miller said.
Boston got even thinner when Bradley went down and Allen was forced back into the starting lineup. In the deciding Game 7 against Philadelphia, Rivers only played one bench player more than 10 minutes, swingman Mickael Pietrus, a player who has seen far better days.
Two-way guard Keyon Dooling, a journeyman who gives solid effort, and young big men Greg Stiemsma and Ryan Hollins also get minutes and all think defense first.
COACHING: Spoelstra has never been regarded as an NBA heavyweight but really showed something after falling behind Indiana 2-1. He made adjustments and was able to get both James and Wade isolations with spacing against a team with solid perimeter defenders. That should been even easier for him in this series.
"It is championship or bust here," Miller said. "Ever since the decision, that's all they've been talking about and obviously it's going to fall on the shoulders of Erik Spoelstra."
Rivers, on the other hand is an NBA heavyweight, and one of the best five coaches in the game. As even-keeled as they come, Rivers has been a perfect fit for a veteran-laden team and he's never going to be overwhelmed no matter the stakes. Rivers is also probably the classiest coach, perhaps in all of professional sports.
PREDICTION: When James and Wade play like the did in the final three games of the Indiana series, it's checkmate. You might as well head for the basement, keep your head down, wait for the tornado to pass and assess the damage afterwards.
That said, it's almost impossible, even for those players, to keep piling up production like that on a consistent basis. Bosh's absence will turn what would have been a four- or five-game set into a deeper one but in the end, the Celtics just don't have enough defense on the perimeter to persevere.
"It is what it is," Pierce said of the challenge Miami poses. "We're up for the challenge. We know how tough it is to win in this league, especially in the playoffs. We know how hard it is to win a championship. So we expect this to be tough."
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: HEAT in 6.