Previewing Heat-Celtics, When LeBronnukah Finally Comes Full Circle

GREENWICH CT - JULY 08: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) LeBron James attends the LeBron James Pre Decision Meet and Greet on July 8 2010 in Greenwich Connecticut. Proceeds from tonight's 2.5 million dollar event will be donated to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Estabrook Group)

A year after LeBron James' playoff loss to the Boston Celtics put the wheels in motion for a move to the Miami Heat, it all comes full circle against the Boston in 2011. Will it be different this time around?

It's been twelve months since LeBron James lost to the Boston Celtics in Game 6 the Eastern Conference Semifinals. It's been about ten months since he joined the Miami Heat. About six months since he and the Heat lost twice to the Celtics in the season's first two weeks. In two days, it all comes full circle.

Seriously, if you can't get excited about Miami and Boston, are you sure you like sports?

There hasn't been a playoff semifinals with as much at stake in a quarter century. And with all due respect to the Lakers and Celtics, there's no better rivalry in the league right now than Miami and Boston.

Remember when Paul Pierce tweeted this back in the fall? Remember when Rajon Rondo glided down the lane for that vicious dunk in Chris Bosh's face? Remember when the Heat blew the Celtics out of the water three weeks ago? All of that was always building to this.

All year long, whatever happened with the Celtics and Heat, we just kept saying, wait 'til they meet up in the playoffs. With that in mind, before the fun get started this weekend, here are six thoughts on the series that we've been waiting for pretty much all year long.

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1. There are two players that could swing this series in either direction. If LeBron surprises everyone and unleashes his inner Godzilla--think 48 special--the Celtics don't have a chance. We could say this every time LeBron steps on the court, but it bears repeating.

At this point, what's most amazing about LeBron James isn't really his talent, but that the sporadic games where he uses all of it have been so indelible that it's impossible to think about any playoff series without asking, "What if LeBron James just decides to dominate everyone?"

If he turns it on the way he did in, say, Game 3 of the Celtics series last year, Boston doesn't have a prayer. He had 38 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists that night, and nobody was even in the same universe. Cleveland won by 30.

Of course, that was the last time Cleveland won, and for every game where LeBron hits that last gear, there have been plenty more where he leaves you wanting just a little bit more. Now, especially with Dwyane Wade around, it's harder to picture him going into Godzilla mode, taking over the game for 20 minutes at-a-time, and becoming the player we've always feared. (That's the price of willingly teaming up with your closest rival). 

On the other hand, Rajon Rondo's proven he can do that for Boston, and he did it for the entire Cleveland series last year. And the Heat may have more firepower than Cleveland did, but they also don't have anyone that can guard Rondo if he decides to attack.

Which... Like LeBron, it's hard to tell when Rondo's going to show up and decide to slice through a team's defense all night and twist his way to the rim for a night of layups and easy assists. When he does, Boston becomes virtually unstoppable. When he doesn't, Boston becomes... old.

In any case, for all the hype and backstory and superstars in play over the next two weeks, the Heat and Celtics comes down to Rondo and LeBron. If Rondo turns it on, he kills the Heat. If LeBron turns it on, Boston's dead. So, whichever player turns it on will win the series.

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2. Does Miami Have A Home Court Advantage? That image comes from the immortal Doc Funk and it reminds me of one of the more poignant sequences from a game on TNT this season. Midway through the Magic and Heat game, Kevin Harlan couldn't help but mention the crowd:

"You know, we don't talk about crowds very often. And the game certainly hasn't been very close. The home team's playing well, or has been playing very well up until the last four or five minutes. But we were in Chicago last week, and there truly was a buzz the entire game. And we said at halftime, one of the things that Miami has to battle, is maybe not a lot of elecriticity at home. It's more laid back, and you don't have the buzz here, like they have in Boston, or certainly in New York."

I remember hearing that and thinking, it means nothing now, but in the playoffs...

3. ...Speaking Of Home Court Advantage. This series will almost certainly go six or seven games, but if Boston wins on Sunday, remember that all season long we've that when the Heat are winning, they play even better. When they start to struggle, they play even worse. Especially with a series with this much media exposure, can you imagine the pressure on Miami if they drop Game 1?

Boston's a team so irrationally confident in themselves that they could drop both games in Miami and still go back to Boston expecting to tie the series in Games 3 and 4. And maybe it's because of how much risk Miami's superstars took in forging this team, or maybe just because this is how LeBron and Bosh are built, but the Heat sure seem a lot more vulnerable to self-doubt. All of which makes Game 1 in Miami HUGE for LeBron and the Heat, and again... It sure would help to have a kickass crowd if things get tight.

Can they at least fly in Rick Ross from Edmonton?

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4. The Officiating. I hope the officiating doesn't f**k this up.

5. D-Wade, KG, The Truth, Jesus, And, Uh... Chris Bosh Doesn't Have A Nickname. For Bosh to put himself in the category with the rest of the superstars there, he needs this series. For all the (completely deserved) jokes we've told at his expense this year, whenever he plays well, Miami looks like a legit title contender. When he disappears for long stretches at a time and then goes altogether invisible during the fourth quarter, it leaves Wade and LeBron and Mike Miller/Bibby, and Miami looks more like a video game experiment gone horribly awry.

And after all the jokes, this is Bosh's series to answer the haters once and for all.

KG, Pierce, Ray Allen, and Wade have gotten to the point where it's not really a question as to whether they'll show up. Wade's struggled against the Celtics all year long, but it's the playoffs and it's Dwyane Wade. You just know you're getting at least one or two killer games from him the next two weeks, and all the rest, he'll be solid at worst. As for the Celtics, if Rondo shows up, they only need two of those big three to play well every game, and between Pierce, KG, and Ray, they're usually up to the task.

So that leaves Bosh, who could go for 24 and 10 one night, and then wind up with 9 and 8 the next, and 15 and 6 the following game. All year long I've been waiting for LeBron and Wade to start openly taking shots at Chris Bosh in the media, and I think we're finally close.

Let the finger pointing begin!

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Then again, if he holds his own against KG all series, it single-handedly validates his inclusion in the Big Three, and maybe even makes up for that ridiculous Maxim photo shoot. Either way, this series goes a long toward defining the Chris Bosh era in Miami.

6. And Now, Back To LeBron. One of my favorite pieces on LeBron James came after his decision last summer, when Slam Magazine's Ryan Jones compared him to Facebook and Apple:

This morning I read a story about Facebook. The story cites a recent survey by something called the American Customer Satisfaction Index; among the survey’s findings are that Facebook’s public approval numbers are comparable to those of cable companies and airlines, ranking Facebook among the least publicly approved companies among humans who respond to calls or emails from companies that conduct surveys.

The story makes passing reference to the fact that Facebook just reached 500 million users.

Also this morning, I read a story about Apple. The story opens with references to the fact that Apple has a new phone with an antenna that doesn’t work, or something, and also the coverage for this phone isn’t very good, and plus they’re arrogant. It seems people don’t like Apple very much right now.

The actual point of the story is to highlight Apple’s third-quarter earnings: Over the past three months, the company made $3.25 billion.

As the anecdotes suggest, just because people claim to hate something ubiquitous doesn't necessarily threaten its ubiquity. Jones was talking about LeBron's reputation among fans in the wake of LeBronnukah, but it could just as easily have been about LeBron the player.

We've had high expectations for LeBron for his entire career, and more than anything, that's meant people like me complaining about him so often that we forget how revolutionary and dominant he is to begin with. This all started a year ago, when he disappeared against Boston, and it became clear he was leaving Cleveland. When he said after that disastrous Game 5 performance that he "spoiled" us with his play. But you know what? He was kinda right.

Totally obnoxious and oblivious to how that look to everyone else? Of course. That comment was a precursor to everything else that came later that summer. But it was also a little true.

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At least, true in the sense that when he dropped a triple double in loss a few days later, all anyone could talk about was how disappointing he'd been the past week. Being better than anyone in the NBA simply wasn't good enough for us. 

This season's been different, though. While LeBron's tried to build his own little empire down in Miami, the rest of the league is sort of pointing and laughing. The Decision and the weeks leading up to it (LeBronnukah!) changed the way he fits among the NBA.

For example... A year ago, I remember hearing this clip from the Jamie Foxx show (don't ask me how we got here), when Foxx was talking about what Kobe had to say about the NBA (Kobe talk starts at 4:00, gets incredibly ridiculous from there). They talked about why Jamie should root for the Lakers, then the Celtics, and then LeBron James. As Jamie Foxx remembers it:

Then the question was asked... 'What about Bron Bron?' LeBron James. And Kobe was very respectful, and he said, 'Bad motherf***er. He's a bad motherf***ker.' ... But his body language was a little different when LeBron was brought up. He definitely respects LeBron.

...But that was before 'Bron went to Miami and made a fool of himself on ESPN. A year later, it was Shaq doing the talking, before LeBron's nationally televised return to Cleveland:

"I’m anxious to see if he’s going to do the powder thing…. I’m anxious to see him do the powder s—. [Me and my teammates] have bets he won’t do it."

And remember, those were Boston Celtics teammates betting LeBron would be too scared, giggling at the spectacle just like everyone else. And maybe it's just the difference between Shaq and Kobe, but it seems like a lot of people feel that way about LeBron now.

In the eyes of a lot players and fans, he's no longer the "bad motherf***er" that Kobe mentioned. He's more like an ongoing sideshow. During the best first round of the playoffs we've seen in more than, people barely noticed LeBron and the Heat. 

But you know what? LeBron's still the Apple and Facebook of the NBA. And that night in Cleveland, he went out and threw the powder, had 38 points and 8 assists, and beat the Cavs by 30.

So don't let the past year of LeBron James' career distract you from who, exactly, we're dealing with. He's every bit as dominant as he's ever been, and something tells me the league's about to get a reminder. The Heat have no home court, no answer for Rajon Rondo, no bench, an overmatched power forward, and questionable chemistry in crunch time, so by all means, Boston could kill 'em. But LeBron is still LeBron, and we're overdue for a reminder. The Pick: Heat in 6.

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