We have been heading toward this all season. A rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, in which Miami won in five games, seems to be preordained. Now that we are approaching the start of the NBA playoffs this Saturday, we can ask the question again: Can anyone stop a Miami- Chicago Conference Finals?

The short answer: No. These are, at least by a slightly significant margin, the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, and quite possibly the entire league.

The long answer: Maybe, if only because of the question mark that is Derrick Rose. Since returning from injury, Rose has been a shell of himself, rusty and even hesitant on offense, unable to gain a rhythm. If I am a Bulls fan, I am concerned. Sure, their defense is still as solid as a rock with Tom Thibodeau at the helm, but Rose has to be the catalyst that takes this team over the hump to the Finals.

The No. 3 seed in the East are the Indiana Pacers. While a nice story, Indiana doesn’t have a shot in hell at beating either the Heat or the Bulls in a seven-game series. Orlando may have had a chance if Dwight Howard were playing, as he holds the potential to single-handedly destroy the interior of the Miami defense (you know, if he actually cared and played hard). Alas, we will have to rely on one last team to roadblock a Miami-Chicago matchup: the Boston Celtics.

Boston has cruised as of late down the stretch of this lockout-shortened season, going 8-4 with its starters in April, including two wins over the Heat. It’s not like we haven’t seen this Celtics team make a playoff run before, either. The only difference is the absence of Kendrick Perkins down low. But this year, that absence will not matter until Boston reaches the NBA Finals. The Heat have no post players, and the Bulls use a great team defensive scheme, but also fail to pound the ball down low.

The Celtics are clicking on all cylinders right now, gearing up for one last run at a title before both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen become free agents this summer. Garnett seems to


have found his knees again, as the Big Ticket is averaging 19 points and nine rebounds in his last 15 games, well beyond his production in the past few years. Rajon Rondo currently leads the league in assists with over 11 per game, and Pierce and Allen are just as effective as they have always been, age be damned.

Boston is all but guaranteed the fourth spot in the Eastern conference, where they will face off against the Atlanta Hawks. You can mark them in for a win in that series. Next up would be Chicago, after the Bulls handily take care of business against Philadelphia in round one. I am more than excited for this Bulls-Celtics matchup. Two of the best defensive teams in the league battling it out — one an up-and-coming force, the other fading in its last realistic title shot. Rose vs. Rondo. Garnett vs. Joakim Noah in what has to be the most entertaining matchup based on emotions alone. I’m guessing both will receive multiple technicals in this long, grind-it-out series.

So the answer is yes. We may witness an Eastern Conference Finals that does not include the Heat and Bulls. And while the chances on that happening largely depend on Rose’s health, the Celtics and their Big Four will push Chicago to the brink of elimination in round two either way.

The bad news for Boston fans? I just don’t see them surviving a long series against Chicago, then having the energy to take it to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals. So while the Celtics may make a deep run, it will end before the Finals.