The Miami Heat have been dominant the last four years. They have been to the Finals three years in a row, and have won the last two championships. But on their way to three Finals appearances and two titles, the Heat have had to deal with a lot of adversity. With teams like the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, the Heat have been in some hellacious battles en route to their ultimate date with destiny.
This year will be no different, as the Heat will be the second seed in the East when they start their playoff journey on Sunday, April 20. So there is a good chance that if the Heat win a title, they will spend half the time doing it without home court advantage. But with the playoff seeds now officially set, will this year be the most difficult for the team to achieve greatness?
The Heat will undoubtedly have some tough series in this year’s playoffs, but their biggest competition is themselves, specifically their health. For starters, Dwyane Wade is arguably in his worst condition since the Big 3 have come together, as he has missed dozens of games because of injury and the need for rest for the playoffs. Wade’s lack of playing time has thrown off some of the chemistry of the team, and with his health very much a question mark, this year’s road to a title will definitely be that much more treacherous.
Moving away from their internal battles and transitioning to the actual battles on the floor, the Heat are looking at some very interesting potential battles.
Let’s start with their first-round opponent: the Charlotte Bobcats.
While the Heat have defeated the Bobcats in their four meetings this season, this series will present the Heat with some matchup problems, specifically in the form of Al Jefferson. For the season, Jefferson is averaging 22 points and 11 boards. And against the Heat, he’s been a menace. The same game that LeBron dropped 61, Jefferson had a quiet (and that quiet part is laced with sarcasm) 38 points and 19 rebounds.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upwgi8QoFLY]
Now the Heat did sign Greg Oden for the sole purpose of postseason play, but he’s been limited in his playing time this year. So the onus to contain Jefferson will fall largely upon Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, and Chris “Birdman” Andersen. Unfortunately for the Bobcats, Jefferson will probably not be able to carry the North Carolina franchise past the Heat, so a short series would not be shocking. But the first round will definitely be a headache for the Heat big men.
In the second round, the Heat will face either the Toronto Raptors or the Brooklyn Nets. A lot of people are predicting the Nets to pull out the series win, despite their being a sixth seed while the Raptors are third. But people should not sleep on the Raptors either.
Both the Nets and the Raptors present their own unique issues for the Heat. Starting with the Raptors, they have one of the best young cores in the league, led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. With a Dwyane Wade who might not be 100 percent healthy by the start of the second round, the DeRozan matchup will be especially key. Also, the Raptors have one of the best defenses in the league, as they allow the seventh fewest points. So youth combined with tough defense will cause a very intriguing second-round clash.
If the Nets advance, the narrative becomes even more interesting. Not only did the Nets sweep the Heat during the regular season, but they now have two of LeBron’s biggest nemeses playing for them in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. One can make the argument that the primary reason LeBron left Cleveland is to join a team that could combat the Pierce/Garnett-led Celtics. So the confidence of knowing that they beat the Heat four times during the regular season, combined with the veteran leadership of two champions, and a head coach in Jason Kidd who was part of the one team to beat the Heat during the Big 3 era back in the 2011 Finals, does present some very compelling television.
If the Heat manage to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, the third and final foe will probably be either the Indiana Pacers or the Chicago Bulls. These two teams have been the biggest competition to Miami during the Big 3 era, as both squads have met the Heat in previous conference title series. Both teams will look to avenge some of their previous playoff losses over the last three seasons.
Let’s say the Pacers make it to the conference Finals. Indiana and Miami split the season series, so we can pretty much throw that out. The biggest question will be whether or not the Pacers will have fixed their issues that plagued them towards the end of the regular season. If they manage to make it to the ECF, one can assume that they are doing something right.
Also, the Pacers usually get up for the Heat, and a chance to exert some revenge for last season’s loss in the conference Finals, combined with the fact that they will have home court advantage in the series, would be great ammunition for the Pacers.
Last year, the whole “Paul George is a superstar” conversation started when he was going head-to-head with LeBron during their seven-game duel. If George returns to his early season form, that will create problems for the Heat. Also, if Roy Hibbert, who has been playing abysmally as of late, turns back into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which he was in last season’s ECF, then he could put them over the top. Lance Stephenson is better than he was last year, David West is still solid, and the Pacers’ bench is deeper. But this matchup is largely reliant upon the idea that the Pacers turn back into who we thought they were at the beginning of the season.
Now, let’s say the Bulls make it to the ECF. While the Heat have defeated the Bulls in the last three editions of the playoffs, those matchups have been anything but easy. And this year will be no different.
Yes, the Bulls do not have Derrick Rose, so they struggle to score on a consistent basis. But led by MVP candidate Joakim Noah, and coached by Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls will put up a good fight. And again, if Wade is not fully healthy, the Bulls can definitely stifle the Heat offensively and play on pure passion and adrenaline, which is something they do very well.
Assuming that the Heat manage to navigate their way through the East, there will be a worthy opponent waiting for them in the Finals from the West.
Anyone could come out of the West and there really wouldn’t be that much surprise. Last year, the Spurs lost a chance at their fifth title in franchise history in devastating fashion, so they will obviously be hungry to avenge that heartbreaking loss.
The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Heat battled two years ago for the title, and the Big 3 got the best of OKC’s trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. Two years later, a lot has changed. Likely MVP Kevin Durant is a better player. Russell Westbrook is still elite. And yeah, there’s no James Harden, but he was largely absent from the 2012 NBA Finals anyway. The Thunder, like the Spurs, would pose a major threat to the Heat. But any team that makes it to the Finals from the Western Conference will be a big problem for the Heat.
In the previous three playoff runs, the biggest problems for the Heat have been caused by the Pacers, the Bulls, and the Celtics. The Celtics gave the Heat their biggest struggles back in 2012 when they played in the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Heat needed a Herculean effort from LeBron just to get to Game 7.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-VzBeOrdAg]
While the Celtics are no longer in the picture, Pierce and Garnett still are, just in a different city. So with Pierce and Garnett now calling Brooklyn home, and the Pacers and the Bulls still relatively the same, minus the absence of Derrick Rose of course, the Heat’s 2014 run will probably be just as difficult, if not more, than their previous three runs, especially if Flash is not healthy.