I think we can just about confirm that the Miami Heat will make it a fourth consecutive season where they will make it to the playoffs.
However, they have different plans on their mind. Plans that won't bring back recurring memories of last year's debacle, where the Heat steamrolled their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs in 15 games before falling in six games in the NBA Finals. Miami had plenty of momentum after defeating two of the league's top defenses but fell short due to some costly late-game execution.
The Heat have made their improvements and adjustments since then to hopefully avoid another collapse of that magnitude. They've added some shooters in the process, have seen their big three gain better chemistry and have taken a more aggressive approach when it comes to running the offense.
Miami now has its starting small forward and shooting guard both hitting career highs in shooting percentage because of this philosophy that was established at the beginning of the season. It's also led the way for a better-flowing offense that keeps the role players involved and the defense on their toes.
Of course, there will be plenty of competition to face in this year's playoffs. The Chicago Bulls are the league's best team record-wise and have split two games with the Heat, the Orlando Magic split their four-game series with Miami and Boston will always prove to be a challenge in the postseason. Even teams like Indiana, Philadelphia, Atlanta and New York could prove to be difficult.
We explored how the Heat can defeat these teams by finding the five keys to the success of the team in the playoffs.
Even without utilizing James Jones for the majority of the season, the Miami Heat currently rank second in the league in three-point percentage.
Shooting a collective 39 percent from deep, the Heat are achieving that goal they had when they envisioned this team last summer. The idea was to have a big three that would dominate the paint with drives, as well as the occasional mid-range jumper, and the rest of the scorers on the team would be composed of shooters who could stretch the floor from the perimeter.
The Heat hit a snag last season when Mike Miller lost both of his thumbs to injuries, and they've hit a snag once again as Miller finds himself back on the bench tending to another injury. He was shooting 49 percent from deep, but it's a misleading stat, as Miller is only taking two three-pointers per game and is still extremely hesitant on shooting.
Minutes have been sporadic for Miller. His lack of influence from a shooting standpoint has caused a decrease in his role in the rotation, which includes a mere nine-minute stint in a Heat win against the Atlanta Hawks. Before getting injured on March 10th, the last time he played in 20 minutes or more was March 1st.
Miller can shoot. We know he's still capable of it, and we can see it any time prior to a game when he's consistently hitting nearly every shot from deep. The problem is that he can't find ways to get open or create space between his defender, which is leading to Miller hesitating and passing out of shots. Miami is going to need Miller's services if they want their postseason run to be a success.
Joining Miller as players who will need to continue to step up their three-point shooting are Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and James Jones, who may or may not receive minutes depending on how well Miller is playing at the time.
Chalmers is converting two three-pointers per at a 44 percent clip, and Battier is finally coming into his own, hitting a three-pointer per on 36 percent shooting. Jones is hitting 43 percent in limited appearances.
The Heat need their shooters to play well if they want this process of winning a championship to be less difficult than it's anticipated to be. The goal of every defense when playing the Heat is to find a way to limit Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James. The shooters need to be the players that can take attention off of the big three and add some necessary points to the offensive output.
Bosh, James and Wade are doing the majority of the scoring. Eventually, they're going to need some help from their teammates. That's where guys like Chalmers, Miller and Battier will need to step up. They're going to need to consistently make their perimeter shots in order to stretch the floor, add another dimension to the Heat offense and keep the constant pressure off of the slashers and mid-range threats.
You don't need John Hollinger to make up another useless statistic in order to notice this trend when the Heat win games.
Whenever Chris Bosh scores at least 20 points, the chances of the Heat winning grow extremely high. Miami is 15-2 when Bosh hits the 20-point threshold and 4-0 when he hits 30 points. If it wasn't already painfully obvious before, then it should be now: Chris Bosh is the most important player on this team and the Heat will go as far as he takes them.
It shouldn't be of any surprise. Too many times does this team fail to realize how elite of a player Bosh can be when they get him involved early and often. The Heat will rely on James and Wade too heavily in instances and will completely ignore Bosh for stretches. The power forward is too valuable of a player to not at least get one touch of the ball on each and every possession.
Bosh is at his best when the ball is given to him early so he can establish a rhythm for the rest of the game. If this occurs, he'll be able to build up his confidence early, which will lead to more aggression, more drives and a jump shot that comes without hesitation. This is a player who once averaged 24 points per game. He's still capable of doing so if the team puts him in a position that allows him to score that much.
He's not like Dwyane or LeBron, who can just drive into the lane with ease and score whenever. Bosh needs to get the ball consistently throughout the game. He should be getting the ball in the first quarter and the Heat should continue to feed him down low for the rest of the game in order to establish some sort of presence in the post.
If the Heat want to make it to the NBA Finals, and ultimately win it, they need to establish a weapon that they've been inconsistently using. We know that LeBron and Dwyane are the two best players and scorers on this team, but it's still no reason as to why they should dominate the ball on every possession.
Bosh can always be relied on within the perimeter, and he won't have games where he shoots 3-of-15 if he's given the ball throughout the game and not just for the purposes of bailing out the team.
Take the Heat's win against Orlando as an example. The Heat made it a purpose to get the ball to Bosh early and he responded by scoring a number of hook shots, abusing Ryan Anderson and setting up a rhythm for the rest of the game. As expected, the Heat won by 10 points, as Bosh only needed 13 shots to score 23 points.
Every NBA champion has one player who has some sort of influence down low. That player for the Heat is Chris Bosh, and the team needs to begin maximizing his potential instead of minimizing it and feeding him when he's out of rhythm.
When a team plays the Miami Heat and they're looking to find a way to limit LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, they need to keep them outside of the paint by packing it or double-teaming the perimeter.
By keeping them outside the perimeter, passing it to a role player or taking a jump shot, the opposition has done their job that possession. The mission of every team's defense when they play the Heat is to find a way to keep Wade and James out of the paint. If they keep those two out, they restrict them to being jump shooters, where they can get uncomfortable at times.
Last year, the Heat were restricted a little too much to becoming a jump-shooting team. Because they were all new to this distributing-and-moving-without-the-ball experiment, finding ways to work together in order to break through the defense was difficult. It wasn't until the playoffs came that the Heat finally began to get it. Even then, we saw their offense struggle in certain instances, especially at the final stage against a dreaded zone.
That's why coach Erik Spoelstra announced before the season began that he was preaching this team to be more aggressive. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were too skilled, athletic and talented of players to become restricted to jump shooting. They had to find ways to get to the basket at all costs, even if that meant adjusting to a new way of playing the game.
So far, so good. LeBron James is shooting a career-high 54 percent from the field, as is Dwyane Wade at 51 percent. Chris Bosh is hitting 49 percent of his shots as he continues to find ways to get involved in the offense as the minority scorer in this trio. They're finding new ways to score as they constantly work it inside with cuts, post-ups and a strict mentality to continue pushing towards the rim.
Miami will be meeting teams that will either pack the paint or double-team out along the perimeter. Chicago and Boston are still some of the NBA's most volatile defenses, and Orlando still has the league's best center in the middle.
Miami needs to continue pushing, driving and slashing into the lane in order to keep the defense on their toes, allowing shooters to get open and get easy, consistent points that will fall throughout the game.
Every NBA team in history has had at least one flaw.
Even the champions of the league were designed with flaws throughout the roster. No team ever had a perfect roster composed of nothing but stars from top to bottom. There have been teams to try that (2003-'04 Los Angeles Lakers), but there hasn't been any squad in the history of the game to be near the top in scoring, points allowed, rebounding and every other aspect of the game.
The Miami Heat are no exception to the rule. In fact, all we've heard about for the past two years are the flaws of this team. However, the team has had one flaw that has persistently ailed them. Since they've never been able to find a pure center who was healthy, young and able to create an impact, the Heat have constantly been dealing with problems rebounding the ball.
The Heat knew what they were getting themselves into when they created this new-look team. They knew they were going to have no center, but they believed that the influence of having Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the starting lineup together would be sufficient enough to cancel it out. While it does the majority of the time, a growing trend in the Heat's losses is losing the rebounding battle by a significant margin.
They're giving up 12 offensive boards per game as a team, enough to put them in the bottom half of the league.
This problem became exposed during Chris Bosh's absence in the first three games after the All-Star break. Without Bosh, the Heat started LeBron James at power forward on one occasion when he was forced to guard Marcus Camby, and Udonis Haslem at power forward in the final game against Pau Gasol.
They held their own against Portland, but then gave up 23 offensive rebounds to Utah and got out-rebounded by nine against the Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron James was the leading rebounder in both games. Udonis Haslem, Dexter Pittman and Joel Anthony struggled against the taller frontcourts of the Jazz and Lakers.
The Heat are going to need to start rebounding the ball better if they're looking to take on the likes of Chicago and Orlando in the postseason. The Bulls sport Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik, while the Magic sport the best center in the league, who also happens to be leading the NBA in rebounds at 15 per.
Unless the Heat make any moves prior, there's going to be a lot expected out of Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony. Bosh has been struggling as of late when it comes to rebounding the ball and is averaging only five boards per since the All-Star break. The Heat are 4-4—a rough stretch for this team—since the conclusion of All-Star weekend. Coincidence? You decide.
We already spoke of that idea of coach Erik Spoelstra preaching aggressive play on offense and getting as near to the basket as possible when a shot is attempted.
Not every shot can be a picture-perfect drive, however. It's difficult to stop these three guys from scoring at will and doing what they usually do on the basketball court, but their are defenses that make the necessary adjustments to limit the Heat. Packing the paint and running a zone defense were prime deterrents last year.
This year, it's no longer the case. Wade and James now have an excellent go-to game in the post that they have began to heavily rely on when a zone defense is being thrown at them or when defenses are placing a lot of pressure up top along the perimeter. Rather than attempting to force the issue of driving and risking a turnover or offensive foul, James and Wade will post up on their opponent.
The majority of the time, it works to perfection. Dwyane Wade has become one of the most deadly guards in the league when it comes to posting up his defender. He has excellent footwork, a great awareness of where the basket is when his back is to it and quickness to spin off a defender. Wade's always had this in his repertoire, but we're seeing more of it than ever this year.
LeBron James working with Hakeem Olajwuon over the summer was the best thing to happen to the Heat since they signed James and Bosh. When James' lack of a post game was exploited during the team's loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals, LeBron went to work with the renowned post specialist in order to better his game.
The result? An unbelievable improvement in James' post game. It's no shock that James learned the art of posting up. It's a shock that he learned how to play so well in the post so fast. James played without a go-to post game for eight years, spent a summer learning the ins and outs and has come back with one of the best post games in the league for a small forward.
He's not on Carmelo Anthony or Luis Scola's level yet, but it's still a tremendous improvement from someone who had no idea of how to play with their back to the basket not even a year before.
James posting up has two dimensions to it. He could either take his man one-on-one, using his strength to back him down deep under the rim, or he could wait for the double-team and then use his keen court vision to find the open man for the shot. It's a double-edged sword with James, as is mostly every move in his offensive repertoire.
If the Heat are down in the playoffs, they can't revert back to hero ball. They need to stick to their nearly certain points in the post and continue exploiting their size and strength advantage over the defenders that attempt to play them. Scoring in the post has been as certain as points as one of their fastbreaks, and the Heat can't abandon that.
Miami needs to continue feeding the ball down low. We know how well they play on their drives, but they still need to add some versatility to the offense. You can't allow opposing defenses to always expect a drive by LeBron or Dwyane or a mid-range jumper by Chris. Establish the presence in the post, which will lead to matchup problems and a disjointed defense for the opposition.