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.
"Inevitable. It's the matchup the game of basketball wants," Heat star Dwyane Wade said. "Obviously, with the Chicago Bulls being out, this is the biggest matchup the Eastern Conference can have. So we accept the challenge and we look forward to the series."
"It's great theater for the fans and everybody out there," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra added. "For us, it's great competition. That's what you want at this time of year."
Neither team took an easy route here. 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. 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," 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."
Game 2 of the set is scheduled for Wednesday in Miami.