MIAMI - NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James and veteran Dwyane Wade are firing on all cylinders as the Miami Heat seek a return to the NBA Finals when they face Boston for the Eastern Conference title.
The Heat closed out the unfancied Indiana Pacers with three straight victories to advance, Wade scoring 41 points in the clinching contest on Thursday.
Last season, the Heat beat the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference final, but fell to Western champs Dallas in six games in the NBA Finals.
Now they're eyeing another shot at the ultimate crown that seemed within their grasp when James joined forces with Wade in Miami two years ago.
The best-of-seven series begins Monday in Miami, giving the Celtics little time to relax after battling through seven tough games to emerge with a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday.
Point guard Rajon Rondo notched his ninth career post-season "triple-double" in game seven, and will be key to the Celtics' hopes against the Heat.
The winner of the series will face either San Antonio or Oklahoma for the NBA title.
Both Boston and Miami are dealing with key injuries. Heat big man Chris Bosh has a strained abdominial muscle and remains uncertain for the series.
"We have to continue to reinvent ourselves as a basketball team and that would be necessary with Chris here or not, but it's even more paramount now that we continue to improve," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We continued our last three games. And, yes, we have reinvented ourselves to a degree."
With Bosh out, Spoelstra said, James and Wade "have to give us more".
"They know they have to play at a higher level," he said.
The Celtics are without guard Avery Bradley, a strong defensive presence who is having shoulder surgery.
"His ability to guard the best (opposing) guard has really taken so much pressure off Rondo, in particular," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Rondo doesn't have a lot of breaks. But that's the way it is.
"We've been a team all year when stuff happens, you deal with it and you just move forward."
The Heat and Celtics met in each of the past two post-seasons, Boston ousting Miami in the first round two years ago and Miami triumphing in the second round a year ago.
"This year we are a totally different team," Rondo said. "We feel we can beat Miami. There's no doubt in my mind that we can, so we've got to go down there and take care of business."
Boston won three of four games against Miami in the lockout-shortened regular season, although those victories might not count for much in the playoff atmosphere.
"It gives us some sort of confidence," Celtics playmaker Paul Pierce said. "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."
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