2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

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Heat Beat Celtics, Advance To NBA Finals

After falling down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics were poised to move on to yet another NBA Finals and it looked like the Heat would once again come up short in their quest for a championship. But then LeBron James took over, finishing off Boston with another prolific game at home in the series clincher, which came just two days after propelling his team to a decisive Game 7 with a monumental performance in Game 6. In a 101-88 victory in Miami, LeBron led the Heat back to their second consecutive NBA Finals with 31 points and 12 rebounds.

Credit Doc Rivers and the aging Celtics for contending with this talented Miami team, but LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were too much for the hobbled Boston side in the end. After yet another sluggish start, Wade woke up in the second half and finished with 23 points, six rebounds and six assists. Meanwhile Bosh, whose playing time was limited in Game 6 after returning to action from an abdominal strain, came off the bench and chipped in 19 points and eight rebounds, made even more impressive that nine of those points came off of three huge 3-pointers the riled up the crowd and acted like daggers to a Boston defense that already had its hands full trying to slow down LeBron and contain Wade. LeBron paved the way and Wade’s performance in the second half was key, but Bosh was the X-factor that helped the Heat pull away in the fourth quarter as they outscored Boston 28-15. In fact, LeBron, Wade and Bosh scored Miami’s last 31 points in the game. However, they also got a little help from some role players along the way. Shane Battier, who had been struggling with his shot throughout the series, knocked down four 3-pointers to finish with 12 points. Mario Chalmers had nine and Udonis Haslem added seven as well, making up for Mike Miller’s goose egg.

LeBron James was terrific once again as the Heat advanced to the Finals. Can he keep it up against the Oklahoma City Thunder?

For Boston, the loss was extremely disappointing but in truth, they were outmatched in this series and the Eastern Conference Finals would most likely have been decided in five games if Bosh had been on the floor the entire time. However, the Celtics battled and got a lot out of some aging veterans, which they should be commended for. Rajon Rondo had yet another playoff triple double, leading his team in scoring with 22 points in addition to 14 assists and 10 rebounds. Paul Pierce followed up with 19 points, Brandon Bass added 16 (14 of which came in the first half), Ray Allen had 15 and Kevin Garnett added 14. Every one of Boston’s starters scored in double figures, but the Celtics got absolutely nothing out of their bench. Without Avery Bradley, the Celtics’ bench scoring in this series was up and down, but in a decisive Game 7 on the road, none of Boston’s reserves made any impact with their limited minutes. Ryan Hollins was the only bench player to score for the Celtics, and he only had two points. The Celtics jumped out to an 11-point lead in the first half, which was cut to seven just before halftime. In the second half, Miami outscore Boston 55-35 and the game was tied heading into the fourth. From there, the Heat’s big three took over: Bosh hit two key threes in the corner, LeBron had a colossal three from a few feet behind the 3-point line and Wade finished it off with a three-point play that extended Miami’s lead to 12.

Without Avery Bradley to guard Dwyane Wade and chip in some points, it’s a wonder the Celtics were able to extend the series to seven games. Then again, without Chris Bosh, it’s not surprising the resilient Celtics were able to hang around with Rondo and Garnett playing so well. Although they didn’t quite have it in them to overcome LeBron, Wade and Bosh down the stretch, Boston had a terrific season and certainly overachieved by advancing so far in the East. For the Heat, their dreams of winning a title after assembling the big three are still very much alive. LeBron James continued his streak of dominance by stepping his game up for the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, but there should be concern about how well the Heat match up with the Thunder. LeBron is playing out of his mind right now, but unless Wade seriously steps up his game and Bosh continues to produce at a high level, the Heat don’t have the depth to contend with a young and athletic Thunder team that really came into its own agains the San Antonio Spurs. Whatever the case, we’re sure to be treated to one hell of an NBA Finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat.

LeBron James led the Heat, but Chris Bosh was the X-factor off the bench that helped Miami advance to their second consecutive Finals.

Celtics Dominate Heat At Home In Game 3

With a 101-91 Game 3 win, the Boston Celtics pulled one game closer to evening the series and defending home court. Kevin Garnett led Boston with 24 points and 11 rebounds, Paul Pierce had 23 and Rondo followed up with 21 points and 10 rebounds as Boston’s new big three cut the series deficit to 2-1 with a convincing victory in TD Garden.

The win prevented the Celtics from falling into a 3-0 hole and gives them a chance to tie the series up at two games apiece tonight in Game 4. And although it was beneficial for Garnett, Pierce and Rondo to all play well in the same game, the Celtics also got a huge boost from role players Marquis Daniels and Keyon Dooling off the bench. Brandon Bass, who continued to disappoint in Game 3, struggled with foul trouble and only managed four points on 1-of-3 shooting. However, Bass’ foul trouble gave Daniels the chance to come in off the bench and make a huge impact during a critical second quarter stretch. Daniels played great defense on Dwyane Wade and had nine points and five rebounds in 18 minutes while Dooling played phenomenal defense and added seven points. Ray Allen looked more like himself by draining a few 3-pointers to finish with 10 points, but it was Daniels and Dooling that helped the Celtics go on a 15-0 run during a stretch starting with the end of the first quarter and extending to the second quarter.

Marquis Daniels was huge for the Celtics off the bench in Game 3.

For the Heat, only LeBron James played well. During Boston’s 15-0 run, the Heat didn’t score for seven minutes and didn’t have a field goal for over eight. LeBron led Miami with 34 points and eight rebounds, but 16 of those points came in the first quarter. Dwyane Wade had a mediocre night, finishing with 18 points on 9-of-20 shooting, Mario Chalmers had 14 and Mike Miller added 11 off the bench. But Udonis Haslem had only three points and Shane Battier missed all six of his shots and put up a goose egg. LeBron can’t do it by himself, especially when the Celtics’ best players show up, and Game 3 was a prime example. The Heat cut a 24-point deficit in the fourth quarter to just eight, but they didn’t have enough in the tank to pull off the improbable comeback.

For Game 4, Dwyane Wade has to make Boston remember why losing Avery Bradley was so critical. But role players like Haslem and Battier will also have to step up and contribute more. They also must win the battle for the boards, as they were out-rebounded by the Celtics 44-32 and gave up 12 offensive rebounds in Game 3. They can’t let Garnett kill them in the paint and they can’t allow Rondo to hurt them with penetration again. Rondo is coming off two great games in a row, and if that streak continues, the Heat will need especially big nights from LeBron and Wade. More importantly, the Heat have to strike early and avoid the crowd getting involved. When Kevin Garnett was fouled hard and landed on his back, a potentially scary moment for TD Garden quickly changed into a turning point as Garnett started doing military-style push-ups to get the crowd pumped up. From there the Celtics extended the lead in front of a roaring crowd inspired by Garnett’s toughness. Miami can’t allow the crowd to get involved if they want to take Game 4. Finally,  the Heat need to make a concerted effort to get to the free throw line. After many Celtics fans complained about a few questionable calls (and no-calls) down the stretch of Game 2, the refs seemed to take not for Game 3. LeBron only had five free throws in Game 3 (missing four of them) while Wade didn’t get to the foul line once. Miami needs to be more aggressive in attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line, but they will also need to take advantage of free points better after shooting 10-of-20 from the foul line in Game 3. The Celtics have a chance to even the series on their own terms, but I’m expecting a big Game 4 out of LeBron and Wade, so if Boston doesn’t get another big performance out of everyone, the Eastern Conference Finals could be decided in five games.

They’re getting old, but don’t ever count Kevin Garnett and the Celts with resolve like this.

Heat Grab 1-0 Lead On Boston

The Boston Celtics were still hanging around after two quarters in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but LeBron James and the Miami Heat proved to be too much in the end and took a 1-0 lead on the series in a commanding 93-79 victory. LeBron led the Heat with 32 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks and proved to be too much for the hobbled Paul Pierce, who is still playing on a sprained MCL.

The Heat took a quick ten point lead by the end of the first quarter as LeBron outscored the entire Celtics team 13-11. But Boston came roaring back with 35 points in the second to tie the game at 46 at halftime. But LeBron and company would not be denied in the third, outscoring Boston by 11 and never allowing room for a Celtics comeback the rest of the way. Kevin Garnett led Boston with 23 points and 10 rebounds while Rajon Rondo finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Paul Pierce could only manage 12 points on 5-of-18 shooting while Ray Allen was even worse, shooting 1-of-7 to finish with six points. Brandon Bass didn’t help matters either with an underwhelming eight points on 4-of-11 shooting. However, most of the credit for the Celtics’ inefficiency on offense has to go to Miami, whose stifling defense certainly contributed to Boston’s shooting woes. The Heat racked up 11 blocks and challenged a number of shots at the rim. They only turned the Celtics over eight times, but by contesting as many shots as they did, the Heat were able to gain a huge advantage on the defensive end. They also controlled the boards, winning the rebounding battle convincingly with a count of 48 compared to Boston’s meager 33.

LeBron James was too much for a hobbled Paul Pierce and the Celtics in Game 1.

A lot of things played out in Game 1 like I predicted: a banged up Pierce couldn’t stop LeBron; the absence of Avery Bradley allowed Dwyane Wade to have a good night even though he didn’t play completely out of his mind (Wade had 22 points and seven assists), nobody on the Celtics got much going offensively other than Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo was not prolific enough to make Boston more of a threat. Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers also proved me right by continuing to produce (even if it was at a moderate level), finishing with nine and eight, respectively. Shane Battier also turned out to be a pleasant surprise, finishing with 10 points and 10 rebounds. This game turned out to be thoroughly predictable and although the Celtics battled through two quarters, the outcome of this game was never in doubt given how dominant LeBron looked throughout the night. The Celtics also hurt their chances by racking up so many technical fouls; at this stage in the playoffs, you can’t afford to give your opponent free points, especially up against a team like the Miami Heat. Five technicals not only gives them free points, but it also sends the message that you can be bothered by outside forces and makes you appear weak. Granted, those technicals weren’t the reason the Celtics lost this game, but they certainly won’t help if Boston can somehow compete better in Game 2.

The Miami Heat are a high-flying and talented team led by the league MVP and they all play great defense. The Boston Celtics are an aging contender that has plenty of experience to fall back on, but is ultimately too banged up to pose much of a threat. I still think the Celtics can steal a game or two at home because of their team unity and veteran knowledge of how to win in the playoffs, but they can’t afford for Miami to shoot 50 percent from the field again. They can’t afford for Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo to have average nights. So in the end, Game 1 was a pretty good indicator of how this one-sided series will play out: Boston is doing a great job with what they’ve got, but the Heat are just too powerful for them to handle this year.

Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce will have to play even better in Game 2 for the Celtics to have any chance in this series.

Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Miami Heat Vs. Boston Celtics

The Miami Heat had to sit through a long and dramatic Game 7 between the Celtics and Sixers to see who they would be taking on in the Eastern Conference Finals, and now they know an experienced and resilient Boston team stands between them and another NBA Finals appearance. The Heat are coming off a fine Game 6 performance against the Pacers that saw Dwyane Wade put up 41 while LeBron James remained as dominant as ever as the all-around best player on the court. Meanwhile, the Celtics are coming in banged up after a drawn out series against a weaker Philadelphia team after Boston never really looked like a truly dominant team. So the question now stands: Is there any way for Boston to beat the Heat?

To answer that question simply, no. Unfortunately for the Celtics, it never really mattered which team advanced in the Celtics-Sixers series, because neither team can live up to the task of taking on the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. There are a few key reasons why. The first reason is pretty obvious: LeBron and D-Wade are on the warpath right now. When Chris Bosh went down in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, I predicted that Indiana’s balanced scoring would be too much for two superstars to counter on their own. However, I made the mistake of underestimating just how dominant LeBron and Wade can be when they catch fire, which is exactly what they did for the last three games of the series. In fact, LeBron and Wade outscored Indiana’s starting five 197 to 184 in those three Miami victories. Any team that has two guys this explosive is tough to stop, but there’s a second key reason why these two should be even more dominant against Boston: the Celtics are banged up. Paul Pierce has been a true challenge for LeBron and he’s knocked both him and Wade out of the playoffs with dominant performances in the past. He’s one of the few competitors that can go toe-to-to with the league MVP and get the better of him, but there’s just one problem: Pierce is banged up. Against Philadelphia, Pierce played fine and helped his team out every now and then, but it was clear he wasn’t 100 percent playing on a sprained MCL. Then there’s the loss of the Celtics’ best perimeter defender, Avery Bradley. Bradley missed significant time in the Sixers series and will miss the rest of the postseason with his shoulder injury, leaving Ray Allen to guard the peaking Dwyane Wade. As hot as LeBron and Wade are right now, a banged up pierce and an aching Ray Allen aren’t going to cut it on the defensive end. We could see some truly dominant performances from LeBron and Wade against this hobbled Boston team.

Can a banged up Paul Pierce and Ray Allen stop LeBron James and Dwyane Wade? Probably not.

Finally, there are a few intangibles that give the Celtics little chance, such as Miami’s home court advantage, the way Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller have been knocking down shots lately and how poorly the Celtics played in their last series against a quality defensive team. Overall, all signs point to the Miami Heat advancing in convincing fashion. Neither team gets much production out of their bench, but this favors the Heat, who have a significantly stronger starting five. The Celtics have an advantage in the paint with Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass, but the Heat’s offensively inept post players focus all their energy on the defensive end. If the Heat can limit Boston’s talented posts, this series won’t even be close. Rajon Rondo also has an advantage over Mario Chalmers, but given how inconsistent he was against the Sixers, that advantage won’t be enough to overpower LeBron and Wade.

Boston stands a better chance against the Heat than the Sixers would have but no matter who Miami faced in the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron and company should be moving on. Although the Celts have an advantage in their talented post players, a limping Paul Pierce and a Celtics team with no Avery Bradley has little chance of slowing down LeBron James and Dwyane Wade for seven game series. LeBron and Wade might have an off game and the Celtics may be able to pull out a game or two at home because of their experience and team unity, but the Heat are clearly the superior team and should advance pretty handily. At this point, the only team that stands in the way of the Miami Heat advancing to the NBA Finals is the Miami Heat. But given the way LeBron and Wade have been playing lately, I don’t see the hobbled Celtics posing much of a threat.

Prediction: Miami over Boston in 6 games

Rajon Rondo has the advantage at the point guard position, but will it make a significant difference?

Rajon Rondo Sinks Sixers, Leads Celtics To Eastern Conference Finals

With just over four minutes to play and nursing a three point lead, the Celtics’ leading scorer for the regular season fouled out and left his team’s hopes of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals looking pretty slim. Luckily for Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo had just what Boston needed to finish off the resilient Sixers at home and pull out an 85-75 victory in a decisive Game 7 to win the right to play the Miami Heat in the next round.

Rajon Rondo scored nine straight points for the Celtics with a barrage of highlights to turn their three point advantage into a 10 point lead and after Elton Brand cut the lead back down to eight, Rondo hit a pair of clutch free throws to give Boston an 80-70 lead. Rondo hit a long two followed by his first 3-pointer in five games to send TD Garden into a frenzy and scored 11 points in the fourth quarter to finish with a triple double of 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. The Sixers stayed resilient until the end and kept the pressure on Doc Rivers’ squad throughout the night, but Rondo’s fourth quarter burst ended their playoff hopes and pulled his team within a few games of playing for yet another NBA title.

Rajon Rondo took over down the stretch and led the Celtics past Philly with a triple double.

Kevin Garnett had 18 points and 13 rebounds, Brandon Bass added 16 points and Pierce had 15 points, nine rebounds and three blocks before fouling out. Ray Allen, who missed his first five 3-point attempts, finally warmed up in the fourth quarter and nailed two shots from beyond the arc to shift momentum back in Boston’s favor. The Sixers were led by Andre Iguodala’s 18 points, and Elton Brand and Jrue Holiday each had 15. Unfortunately for Philly, the scoring stopped there. Lou Williams finished with just seven, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner only had six apiece and Spencer Hawes could only manage four. The Sixers hit shots when they needed to to keep themselves within reach, but they never could never take the lead down the stretch as they shot only 35 percent from the floor and Boston answered the call every time with a big bucket to extend the lead. Boston lived up to their reputation of being the veteran squad by responding every time the Sixers came knocking on the door, but the most credit has to go to Rondo for his late game heroics that earned the Celtics a matchup with the Miami Heat.

As I said in my last Celtics-Sixers post, Philadelphia and its fans should be proud of what they accomplished this season. They did benefit from playing a banged up Celtics squad (after beating a Chicago Bulls team without Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah), but they still took care of business and pushed an experienced Boston team to the brink before coming up short. They had a shot, but playing against this veteran team on the road didn’t bode well for them, especially considering the overall youth of the Sixers. Philadelphia should benefit from this experience and if they can get their hands on a few scorers, they could be competitive again next year. For the Celtics, this series lasted a lot longer than I anticipated, but they showed resilience and moxie by outlasting a young team with poise down the stretch despite being banged up and playing without Avery Bradley, their best perimeter defender. However it doesn’t really matter who advanced because the winner of this series gets the unfortunate challenge of taking on the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston stands a better chance than Philadelphia, but when all is said and done it’ll be the Heat that advance to the NBA Finals.

Andre Iguodala and the Sixers came up short but they shouldn’t hang their heads.

Sixers Force Game 7

The Sixers needed a boost in Game 6 to stave off elimination and force a Game 7 back in Boston this Sunday. It turns out they got one from Philadelphia’s old hometown hero. Allen Iverson made an emotional return to the court before the game that had the whole arena cheering. After such a heartwarming moment for AI, the Sixers and the fans, Philly would have been hard-pressed to lose this game. Jrue Holiday got his offense going early and the balanced scoring of the 76ers gave them a huge 82-75 win to send the series back to the TD Garden for a decisive winner-take-all Game 7.

Holiday led the Sixers with 20 points and six assists. Elton Brand followed up Holiday’s big night with 13 points and 10 rebounds, Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner had 12 apiece and Lou Williams had 11 off the bench. As has been the case for the majority of this series, it was a low scoring, slow, defensive game, which definitely favors Philadelphia. The Celtics shot just 33 percent from the floor and could only manage 75 points with Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen only putting up nine each. Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 24 points and 10 rebounds and Kevin Garnett finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds, but they got little help from their teammates in another poor offensive outing for Boston. After Brandon Bass’ big night in Game 5, he could only manage eight points on an appalling 2-of-12 shooting night. But who the Celtics really missed was Avery Bradley, who sat out for a second consecutive game with the dislocated shoulder. Bradley is Boston’s best on-the-ball defender, and without him on the floor, Holiday was able to elevate his offensive game and really hurt the Celtics with penetration and solid 7-of-15 shooting. Bradley needs surgery on his shoulder and is done for the rest of the postseason, which means someone will need to find a way to slow down Holiday for the decisive Game 7.

Jrue Holiday took advantage of Avery Bradley’s absence and helped the Sixers force Game 7.

Now the series shifts back to Boston and the pressure is on the banged up Celtics to close out the Sixers at home. However, the Sixers are at a disadvantage because they will be playing on the road in a Game 7 with high stakes against a veteran Boston team that knows how to win playoff games with everything on the line. I’m not convinced Philly will be able to handle the magnitude of a game this important whereas the Celtics live for these kind of games, injuries or not. Paul Pierce will come to play, Kevin Garnett has been a big factor in almost every game of this series so far and Rajon Rondo will step up his game at home. It will take a monumental defensive effort from the Sixers to keep this thing close and they’ll also have to put the ball in the basket even better than they did in Game 6.

Win or lose, Sixers fans should be proud of their team for overachieving during the postseason. They did benefit from playing a Bulls team without Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and they’re also facing a hobbled Boston side right now, but this Philly team has put fans in the bleachers for the first time all year and Doug Collins has done a fantastic job despite not having any prolific scorers. Hopefully Sixers fans will support their team just as much as they have during this postseason next year. For Boston, this game will show everyone just how banged up they really are. At this point, I don’t think either team will compete with the Heat or the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, but if the Celtics can somehow play like they were just a few weeks ago when Pierce was healthy, that perception might change.

The Celtics are banged up and limping into Game 7. Will they finish the Sixers off at home?