June 05, 2012

The Eastern Conference finals resume Tuesday night (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) with the Celtics and Heat tied at 2-2. Miami returns home for Game 5 after losing twice in Boston, where Dwyane Wade missed a potential game-winning three-pointer in Game 4, the second game in this series to go to overtime. What have we learned so far and what's in store for the rest of the series? Four SI.com NBA writers make their predictions and analyze Chris Bosh's potential return, Rajon Rondo's brilliance and the highly scrutinized officiating.

1. What's your biggest takeaway from the first four games of the series?

Ian Thomsen: That Rondo has been the most valuable player on the floor. Would anyone ever trade LeBron James straight-up for Rondo? That would never happen, and Wade is rated more highly as well as an outright talent. But Rondo's impact on his team has been without peer in this series. Miami is hoping that rookie point guard Norris Cole may neutralize him to some extent, but foul trouble for Rondo is Miami's best hope for limiting him in Game 5.

Zach Lowe: How can you pick one? Rondo has found another level, Kevin Garnett continues to play some of the best defense in the league, Wade has gone through a mini-slump over the last two games, James still dominates and the Heat clearly miss Bosh. But perhaps the biggest takeaway of all is that Miami's defense in Boston began to show serious leakage -- miscommunication, late help, botched rotations, lazy rebounding and transition defense, and players just straight-up bumping into each other. For the Heat to have any realistic chance at the title, they need to play consistently great defense. If they don't, Boston can absolutely win this series.

[Zach Lowe: Is LeBron "clutch"? The answer is complicated]

Lee Jenkins: I was surprised how many people assumed the Heat would cruise through this series. These teams are very evenly matched and even more so when Bosh isn't able to play. The Celtics are a willful group and the Heat bring out the best in them. The Celtics aren't taking the same kind of breaks they took against the 76ers in the second round. The reserves for both teams have played better at home, a common trend in the NBA, and that's a big reason no one has won yet on the road. The X-factor for the rest of the series is Wade. He has been inconsistent all season and again in the playoffs, terrible in one game and transcendent in the next. His performance has swung wildly even from half to half. As usual, the bloviators are consumed with James, but the Heat know what to expect from him. Wade is the wild card.

Chris Mannix: This Celtics team is a resilient bunch, isn't it? It threw a haymaker at the Heat in Miami, lost, and rebounded two days later by dominating them in Boston for the first of two victories there. I know, I know: Talking about a team's heart is a cliché. But the Celtics have endured season-ending injuries to Jeff Green, Jermaine O'Neal, Avery Bradley and Chris Wilcox. They have a hobbled Ray Allen starting at shooting guard. They have a 36-year-old Garnett playing more than 38 minutes per game in the pivot as his surgically repaired right knee aches. And yet they continue to find ways to win. It's amazing.

2. Bosh might return from his abdominal strain for Game 5. If he does, what kind of impact will he have and what can be expected from him after a three-week absence?

Thomsen: Bosh has not played well against Kevin Garnett when healthy, so expectations should be low. He'll provide the length that Miami has lacked in his absence, which could help cut off some of Rondo's lobs to Garnett in the post. The absence of Bosh has made things more difficult for Wade, who has been trapped by Garnett into either giving up the ball or forcing up difficult shots. If Bosh were to emerge as a threat offensively, then his biggest impact could be to create space for Wade. But it's not fair to assume that Bosh will make a big impact right away because he's recovering from a difficult injury and it's going to be hard for him to instantly raise his game to match the intensity and passion of this series.

Lowe: He can't hurt. He gives Miami the flexibility to play two big men against a Boston team with front-line depth issues -- a team winning the small-ball battle by a sizable margin, at least when Garnett is on the floor. Bosh will help on the glass, where Miami regressed in Boston. And he'll punish the Celtics, especially Garnett, in a way that big men Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony just can't when ignored on offense. Easing the burden on James and Wade is essential, and Bosh can help in that regard, too. Shane Battier, who is doing all sorts of yeoman's work in Bosh's absence and often playing out of position, could probably use some rest as well.

[Zach Lowe: With or without Bosh, Heat defense on the spot]

Jenkins: Even if Bosh is OK, it's not fair to expect much, given how long he has been out. But at least his legs will be fresh, significant in a series when all the stars are playing such heavy minutes. James and Wade need help, and even if Bosh isn't all that effective, the threat of another scorer should open things up for them a bit.

Mannix: If Bosh is healthy -- and NBA medical people tell me abdominal strains are tricky injuries from which to recover -- he should have a measurable impact. The Heat involve Bosh in roughly 40 percent of their initial offense, whether it's through pick plays or straight post-ups. Bosh is among the best big men in the league from 10-15 feet, making the pick-and-pop a dangerous weapon. If nothing else, his presence will bust up Boston's zone and give Garnett a little more to worry about.

3. Where does Rajon Rondo rank among point guards and has his postseason run changed your view of his standing?

Thomsen: Rondo is the best point guard in the NBA. Two years ago he told me that he is the best, and I agree with him. Can Derrick Rose stay healthy? Has Rose or Chris Paul or Deron Williams proved he can do as much for his team as Rondo does for his? The rules have liberated the position and enabled scorers to excel as point guards, but no one in the NBA can do so many things for his team at the high level that defines Rondo: command the pace, create for teammates, keep defenses guessing, pressure the ball defensively and rebound. A point guard should be judged by his impact on the team, and Rondo's all-around value at both ends of the floor is overwhelming and unrivaled. Point guard is the most competitive position in the NBA, and the ratings change from month to month -- sometimes Rose has looked like the No. 1, and other times it's been Paul or Williams or Tony Parker or Steve Nash -- but right now there is no one more effective than Rondo.

[Ian Thomsen: Rondo in control for Celtics]

Lowe: We have to see the improved jumper and the low turnover rate over the long haul, but Rondo has been incredible. Games 2-4 probably represent the greatest three-game stretch of his career, and even when he's clearly (and understandably) fatigued, he's still chasing rebounds in opportunistic ways, battling Wade on defense and urging the older Celtics to run the floor with him. I'd still place him behind Paul, Rose, Russell Westbrook and Williams, and perhaps even Parker, but he's closed the gap on all of them. If the jumper becomes consistent so that defenses must respect it, the conversation changes. Either way, what a player.

Jenkins: Rondo's shot, or lack thereof, was the only thing keeping him out of the top tier. His passing, rebounding, defending, ball-handling and game management skills were already elite. But there is only so much a point guard can do with no shot. Teams were able to contain him by playing off him. In this series, Rondo has shown he can be a threat from outside, which catapults him into the upper class. There have been a lot of point guards who have learned to shoot as their careers went on, including Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd. Rondo could be next.

Mannix: I ranked Rondo fourth on my MVP ballot -- ahead of Paul and Parker -- so I thought he was the best playmaker in the game this season anyway. This postseason is just further proof that when Rondo is focused (which isn't always the case) and making shots (which is rarely the case), there are few players better than him, much less point guards. Think about it: Miami isn't respecting his jump shot, but he just steps on the gas and blows by the defense anyway.

4. There's been a lot of discussion about the referees. How would you assess the officiating in this series?

Thomsen: When I see some of the officiating mistakes, it reminds me how difficult it is to referee in the NBA at this time of year. The referees are under scrutiny from their bosses to rid the game of excessive violence while freeing the players to fulfill themselves. It's hard enough to accomplish in the regular season, and much harder in a playoff rivalry like this one where the players are flooring it all-out.

Lowe: The Celtics had three massive calls go against them in that excruciating Game 2 loss, but fans went overboard in declaring that the fix was in. The refs let go an obvious Garnett shove on a Miami pick-and-roll with about 1:50 to go in regulation, and Rondo's tie-up of James in overtime was a clear foul. Still, the 50/50 calls tilted a bit against the Celtics in that game and came at the worst possible times, and the sudden propensity of James and Wade to foul more often in Boston is puzzling, even if fatigue might explain some of it. In general, the referees have over-officiated the battle for post position among wing players, with Paul Pierce and James both getting whistled for stuff (Pierce more often) that should really be "play on" material.

Jenkins: I guess the officiating favored the Heat in Miami and the Celtics in Boston, which is not all that surprising. I don't buy conspiracies against either of these teams. I find they both get pretty generous treatment during the season. The no-call on Rondo's drive in overtime of Game 2 was bad. The call on James in overtime of Game 4 was also bad. It's a physical series, with a lot of wrestling inside, and even on replay it looks like a lot of the contact could be called either way. I would prefer to see more no-calls in those instances. I thought the Garnett/James play late in regulation (at the three-minute mark here) of Game 4 could have been a no-call. And the James foul in overtime definitely could have been a no-call. It's obviously unfortunate when James and Pierce, two of the league's most bankable stars, are playing tentative in the fourth quarter and are on the bench for some of the most important moments of the season.

Mannix: It has been miserable, really. I'm not a conspiracy theorist; I don't think the officials are under a directive to issue favorable whistles to one team or another. But from the technical fouls in Game 1 to the free-throw disparity in Game 2 to the horrendous whistles that eliminated Pierce and James from Game 4, these refs have had a rough series. The best referee is an invisible one and far too often we have felt the presence of the people no one is paying to see.

5. How do you see this series playing out?

Thomsen: I don't know how to answer that one anymore. I was like virtually everyone else who thought that Bradley's season-ending injury would finish off the Celtics. But it's hard to keep picking the Heat when they've been outplayed over the last three games. At this point I'm going to say Boston wins Game 5 and then Game 6 at home to complete an incredible upset.

Lowe: I picked Miami in five games, so I'm already out. I'll go now with Miami in seven. The Heat have home-court advantage and the two best players in the series, though Rondo is neck-and-neck with James so far and ahead of Wade. Boston has a real chance because Rondo has discovered a new gear and Pierce and Allen look springier now than when the series began. But if the Heat play defense with the precision and ferocity they showed in the second half of Game 4 (and all of Game 1), it will be hard for Boston to score enough to win.

Jenkins: I picked the Celtics before the playoffs and I will stick with them because I think they have a more complete team. The Heat should get a boost from Bosh's return in Game 5, but I think the Celtics counter in Game 6 and get one last great push from their old core in Game 7.

Mannix: Miami still has the edge, with home-court advantage in this new best-of-three and Bosh looking likely to suit up before it's over. I saw Miami get its clock cleaned in Game 3 against Indiana and then go down big in the first half of Game 4 before getting its act together and pulverizing the Pacers. The Heat are capable of flipping a switch. I think home court rules: Miami wins Game 5, Boston wins Game 6 and the Heat squeak out the series in Game 7.

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