The Miami Heat's 5 Most Important Games in March
The Miami Heat completed a back-to-back-to-back with each game on the road and managed to play five games during an eight-day stretch in February.
Yet those weren't even the most difficult stretches the Heat will go through. They'll encounter the extremely difficult stages of the season in March where they will take on some of the NBA's best teams, sometimes back-to-back.
In the month of March, the Heat will take on 16 teams with only five of those squads currently being under .500. This stretch of the season will be the best way to gauge how well the Heat stack up against playing elite teams on a consistent basis, which they will obviously see come postseason time.
The Heat will have five back-to-backs and one week where they will play four games in seven days. This is the toughest month of the year for Miami, and they'll need plenty of athleticism, stamina and determination if they want to come out of it with their current standing of first place in the Eastern Conference.
We'll take a look at the five most significant games they'll take part in this upcoming month.
March 4 at Los Angeles Lakers
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The final game of a three-game West Coast road trip for the Miami Heat ends appropriately at the Staples Center where they will take on the Los Angeles Lakers.
As expected, the game will be nationally televised. Also to be excepted will be a fair share of trash-talking between two teams who always play each other down to the wire. These two teams feature three of the league's fiercest competitors in Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and that usually means we're in for an entertaining spectacle between players who want to do nothing other than win.
Whether the Lakers were facing Wade and the Heat, LBJ and the Cavs or both in their current location, a matchup with the two flashiest teams in basketball has never failed to disappoint. You may remember the heavily-hyped matchups from years ago that featured Shaquille O'Neal and the Heat taking on the Lakers that always delivered in terms of controversy.
Let's not forget about Bryant converting one of his greatest buzzer-beating game-winners in a win over the Heat two years ago, or even last year when Wade stripped Bryant which set up James for a dunk in the final seconds of a hotly contested game. Good thing we only have to wait a week after the All-Star game for this to take place.
The Heat and Lakers already had a matchup this season at the American Airlines Arena, a game that ended in favor of Miami by a score of 98-87. This was one of the more toned down games as the Heat rocketed out to a 15-point halftime advantage before going up by 21 into the fourth quarter. Kobe Bryant hit a number of jumpers in the fourth to close the deficit, but it was far too late.
James had 31 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three blocks, and Chris Bosh had 15 points and eight rebounds to make up for the absence of Wade. Shane Battier took Wade's spot in the starting lineup and limited Kobe Bryant to 8-of-21 shooting.
There's always a significance to these games because it's an excellent way to gauge just who exactly the best player in the NBA is. Arguably the top three players take center stage on one court and go after each other for 48 minutes.
What's not to love about that? We may never get that dream NBA Finals matchup, but this is just as close as the American Airlines Arena will have a playoff-like atmosphere.
March 13 at Orlando
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A tale of two games. It's incredible how two teams that haven't changed their roster in the slightest can play two completely different games in the span of three weeks.
This is exactly what happened between the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat in the month of February. When the two teams met up the first time at the Amway Center on Feb. 8, the Magic held the Heat to 89 points in arguably Miami's worst game of the season. The Magic scored 102 points in the win thanks in part to 17 three-pointers, five alone from Ryan Anderson who led all scorers with 27 points.
The three-point shooting supported the Magic for most of the way, but Dwight Howard soon made his presence felt. Howard gave us a clear reason as to why he's the best center in the league after dominating numerous Heat centers on his way to 25 points, 24 rebounds, four assists and two blocks.
Dwyane Wade had 33 points, but LeBron James and Chris Bosh only combined for 29 on 10-for-28 shooting.
However, the Heat would look towards a home game on Feb. 19, not even two weeks after the initial meeting. Somehow, it became a completely different story as the Magic were suddenly cold from the perimeter and Howard couldn't get into any sort of rhythm. After yielding 102 points in the first meeting, the Heat allowed the Magic to score 78 points on 37 percent shooting. The Magic had a better three-point percentage.
Wade had 27 and James had 25 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in the easy win, but it was the Heat's defense on Howard that allowed them to win with ease. The All-Star only had 12 points and 15 rebounds while missing on eight of his ten free throw attempts. The Magic as a whole went 13-for-25 from the foul line.
The significance of these matchups between the Heat and Magic is to observe how well Miami can play a team with a dominant center. There's no better way to gauge that then facing off against the league's top center in Howard, a behemoth who's currently averaging 20 points and a league leading 15 boards per game.
The Heat have had varied results when guarding Howard. They'll either get the best or worst out of him with Miami seeing both sides of Dwight in the span of two weeks. It's tough for the Heat to defend Howard when they have a 6'9" center starting out on him, but aggressive help defense, physicality and denying entry passes usually mean the Heat can limit Dwight and therefore keep the game at their tempo.
March 14 at Chicago
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Could this be the game without excuses? Because I've already heard a great deal of excuses in response to the Miami Heat's 97-93 triumph over the Chicago Bulls at the end of January.
"That never would have happened with Luol Deng," was my personal favorite as if he was actually going to limit LeBron James from going off for 35 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. It's not like his replacement in Ronnie Brewer wasn't just as quality a defender. Alas, it's expected when you come so close yet so far from winning.
And my did the Bulls come close to stealing a win in that game. The Heat held a modest lead throughout the contest but saw it evaporate after a few miscues from LeBron. He started it off with an absurd turnover after grabbing two offensive rebounds that could have iced the game nearly a minute-and-a-half remaining in an eight-point game. James then missed two more jumpers and two more free throws.
However, the Heat caught an extremely lucky break when reigning MVP Derrick Rose missed two free throws that would have the put the Bulls ahead with less than a minute remaining. He had made all 29 of his fourth quarter free throw attempts prior to then. Rose managed to score 34 points on 11-of-28 shooting, but was once again stifled in the fourth quarter on account of the Heat utilizing LeBron to defend him.
The Heat used the same tactic in the fourth quarters throughout last year's Eastern Conference Finals. Miami knew that Mario Chalmers or any other point guard on this team didn't have the strength and quickness to keep up with Rose, so they sent their 6'8" 250-pound forward to defend him instead. It worked then, and it proved to work again as Derrick failed to get any points on James.
This will be the most important game of the season by far for the Heat. The Bulls will most likely be 100 percent healthy, unless Rose's nagging back spasms continue to ail him. If he is ready, however, and Deng is back in the starting lineup, then this game will possibly be a representation of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.
It will also be interesting to see if the Bulls can figure out a solution dealing with Rose's struggles when it comes to scoring on LeBron James. The small forward's size and quickness matches up extremely well with Rose and it forces the point guard into taking jump shots, an art that he is still quite inconsistent in.
This will be the Heat's first trip back to the United Center since stealing a Game 5 victory in the ECF to gain a berth to the NBA Finals.
March 25 at Oklahoma City
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It won't be until March 25 when we finally see arguably the top team from each conference face off.
Throw in the fact that this is arguably the most likely matchup we'll see in the NBA Finals a few months from nowm and you got quite a game to look forward to.
The NBA's top teams, record-wise at least, in the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder will face off for the first time in a huge meeting near the end of March in the raucous environment known as the Chesapeake Energy Arena. 'Energy' is the key word here as the Thunder thrive off of their devoted, loyal and fierce fans.
Apologies to James Harden, but the Thunder crowd could very well be the sixth man of this team. It doesn't matter if the Thunder are up or down 20 points, that crowd's decibel levels is on par with the fans from the Golden State Warriors miracle playoff run in 2007. The only difference is that the crowd in OKC is like that each and every night no matter the opponent.
They will be ready and waiting for the Heat to come to town. They're still disappointed over last year's disappointing home loss to Miami where former Heat point guard Eddie House hit a huge three-pointer in the final seconds to put his team on top for good. However, the Thunder would come right back with a road victory of their own a month later at the American Airlines Arena.
These teams match up well with each other at just about every position, and that's why we're going to be in store for the best game of the season.
With matchups like Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook going toe-to-toe, MVP candidates in Kevin Durant and LeBron James facing off and the modern day Dikembe Mutombo in the form of Serge Ibaka taking on Chris Bosh, the Heat and Thunder will show why they are the most likely teams to face off in the Finals.
Benches will play a huge part as the Thunder's squad of Harden, Daequan Cook and Nick Collison will take on Mike Miller, Norris Cole and Udonis Haslem. With the starting lineups playing each other to a standstill, it could just come down to the role players on who comes away with the win.
March 29 at Dallas
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When we saw the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks play each other for the first time since the NBA Finals, we questioned on whether we awarded the trophy to the wrong team.
The Mavericks were the team raising the championship banner to the rafters, but they weren't the team that was up by 35 points in the third quarter. We knew that the Mavericks losing Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson would bear some significance. We didn't know it would translate to the Heat being up by nearly 40 points on the road.
The Heat were clearly angry that they were watching the Mavericks lauding their championship team. It clearly showed as Miami came out of the gate with an unbelievable amount of energy that translated to a 15-point lead after the first quarter and a 21-point lead at the half. It didn't even stop there as the Heat took a 35-point lead going into the fourth.
Dallas outscored Miami 29-8 in the fourth quarter and still couldn't get the final score within single digits.
LeBron James had 37 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in the victory while Dwyane Wade dropped 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Udonis Haslem had nine points and 14 rebounds in his first healthy game since last November. Heat defense limited Dallas to 38 percent shooting from the field and 32 percent shooting from deep.
Dallas had some obvious trouble penetrating as they were forced to take 28 three-pointers. The Heat only taking seven shots from beyond the arc was a clear indication that the Mavericks were going to be sorely missing having Chandler holding down the fort down low.
However, that was the first game of the season and a team as old as the Mavericks needs some time to get into a rhythm. Lately we've been seeing that rhythm as Dirk Nowitzki is beginning to find his jump shot while the team gets used to playing without the two defensive stoppers that aided them in their championship victory over the Heat.
It'll be interesting to see if the Mavericks still have it in them to compete for a title. We've seen the best and worst out of them this year, but their current 21-13 record has us thinking that they're going to be ready to make a run to start the second half and possibly gain some momentum going into the postseason.