2012 NBA Playoffs: Power Ranking the Miami Heat's Most Feared Opponents
Well then, the playoffs are just about set to kick off, and the Miami Heat can now take stock of the field of teams that potentially stand in their way of their prophesied run to a long overdue championship. Once again, they enter the postseason as the favorite to win it all, but this is not to say there are not varying levels of competition that the Heat would approach with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Among the teams that could potentially cross paths with the Heat (whether via upset, or as expected), there are those that are mere lambs for the slaughter (read: Orlando and Philadelphia), while others are upstarts and potentially difficult underdogs (Indiana or Memphis) due to favorable matchups.
Then there are those teams that could give the Heat a real run for their money, and under ideal circumstances, even derail the Miami championship train for another year.
Whomever the Heat encounter, they only have designs on running through all comers, but there are some teams they'd rather avoid if they can... Here they are, in order of the potential for an upset of the Miami.
5. L.A. Lakers
This matchup would be a year overdue in many people's books, as the Lakers were expected to take the road to last year's attempted three-peat right through South Beach. Of course, the Mavericks had something to say about that...
This year, the Lakers and Heat have another chance—albeit less likely than a year ago—to run into one another in the Finals, and most of the key factors defined back then still apply.
First, the Lakers have their usual size advantage down low, where the Lakers boast a set of All-Star twin towers in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Metta World Peace, while not the most physically imposing player out there, is yet another guy you don't want to bump into too often on either end of the floor—even if your name is LeBron.
Meanwhile, an aging Kobe Bryant is still Kobe Bryant, and few things could be less appealing than the thought of being on the wrong end of one of those patented big games he's so fond of throwing out there.
Working against the Lakers since last year is their loss of Lamar Odom—both parties going on to show what a perfect fit they had been for one another—Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown, who were all instrumental to their fortunes. And let's not forget Phil Jackson...
While this would be an intriguing series and would finally give people the fabled LeBron vs. Kobe showdown they've wanted since forever, the Lakers have undeniably lost a step since last year, which takes some of the lustre out of this matchup.
4. San Antonio Spurs
Surely, should Miami's last obstacle be the San Antonio, they'd go in as favorites even despite giving up home-court advantage. None of these guys can put a leash on LeBron, and they're either too old or too inexperienced to take down the snarling beast we all expect the Heat to be by then.
Really, what could go wrong?
There is the matter of Tim Duncan, who's proving lately to have something left in the tank, and he's far too savvy in the post for the Heat's inferior interior unit not to have its problems. They should also have fun dealing with DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter here and there.
Meanwhile, that vaunted perimeter D will be tested by Manu Ginobili and, when he's not busy squirreling his way through the paint, Tony Parker.
With the kind of season Parker's having, he would eat Miami's point guard corps for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Defensively, you'd almost certainly have to put LeBron on the little bugger for extended stretches, and the rest of the frontcourt had better be up on its help D, otherwise you're going to have one discombobulated defensive scheme.
And as far as the bench situation, anyone who tells you they think Erik Spoelstra can out-coach Gregg Popovich—in the Finals, without home court, no less—is a liar. A damn dirty liar. Coach Spo would rather be locked in an unlit basement with Michael Myers than in a seven-game battle of wits with Coach Pop.
Heat in 6, or else...
3. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls would be higher on this list of only their chemistry wasn't so seemingly tenuous at the moment. That said, let's assume they re-integrate Derrick Rose and will be back at full strength come late May.
On the one hand, this is a team that has proven time and time again that it has the mettle to knock off Miami, and recently stuck a feather in their cap by beating them without Derrick Rose.
On the other hand, the Heat have taken the Bulls down in decisive fashion by exposing a flaw that still lingers: the team's lack of a second elite scorer behind Rose.
The other big question people were left with after last year's conference finals was whether guys like Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah could be expected to step up when things get tense, or once again go cold at the worst time.
Assuming they've learned from the last time, should these two clubs were to once again lock horns (pun intended), it's getting harder and harder to predict the outcome.
The Bulls may not have a second Derrick Rose, but the team behind him has grown as a self-reliant unit. They have more and more ways to hurt Miami, especially the two-headed center that is Noah and Omer Asik. Assuming they show up, Deng and Boozer make a fine offensive frontcourt, and overall this team plays a brand of grinding basketball which on many nights is enough to take them home despite bad execution.
They'd also have the benefit of home court, although that didn't help them the last time around.
Interestingly—assuming the top four seeds advance—despite the threat that Chicago poses to Miami, the Heat would likely prefer to face them over the alternative in the conference finals...
2. Boston Celtics
Up until recently, you'd have thought the Heat would want to avoid Boston on sheer dysnostalgia (a made-up but self-explanatory word) and yet it turns out that they have other things to worry about.
After getting over their notorious hump in last year's East semis, LeBron and Wade spoke about the Celtics—or as LBJ incessantly put it, "that team"—as if they were in their rear-view mirror to stay. Like some vanquished nemesis, this old Celtics team was supposed to collapse under its own decrepitude and fade away; they were not expected to pose a continued threat to LeWade's ambitious designs.
Well, not only are the Celtics (again) mounting what looks like another age-defying encore this year, they also turned the tables on Miami by handing them three straight L's to finish the year. For the season series, Rajon Rondo has averaged a shade under 18 points, 14 assists and seven boards—although strangely, he did not net a single steal against Miami all year.
Kevin Garnett's defense is still ticking past its expiration date, as is the spring in Ray Allen's long-range game. Paul Pierce will both score on and get under the skin of whomever the Heat put on him, and the Celts' bench full of scrappy no-names will seriously challenge Erik Spoelstra's player management skills.
All in all, this series has the greatest potential of all to see a certain somebody lay another prime-time LeEgg. The mental toll that Boston takes on James—which he openly admitted to once he thought he was safe—could be the only remaining thing capable of getting in his head badly enough to throw him off his single-mindedly ruthless drive to glorification.
Blocking the door to the finals will be this team's most challenging obstacle—the Luke Skywalker to their Darth Vader—and there's no telling how Miami's stars will react to being thrown back into a tooth-and-nail battle they thought for certain was over.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
This, it seems, is the NBA Finals matchup most people expect to see, and it certainly would be the most picturesque for fans, media and officials. Ostensibly, it would be a clash between the MVP and the contentious runner-up (whomever those happen to be) on the 20th anniversary of Jordan vs. Drexler.
While many would expect Miami to win out on the strength of experience and sheer LeBron-ishness, we all know the issues that can arise.
The Heat may have the league's best Big Two in LeWade, but Durant/Westbrook isn't far behind. Down the pyramid, the Heat have Chris Bosh to Okie's James Harden... okay, call it even—although Harden takes an elbow far better than CB.
From there, it gets ugly for Miami.
Across the board, the Thunder have guys who match up quite well with anyone the Heat throw at them, and if Miami's role players don't rediscover their "A" games, this one could be decided from the fourth man down...
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, especially, must remember the fits Kendrick Perkins used to give them as a secondary defender, and they'll also have Serge Ibaka batting at every dunk, layup and floater like a house cat on 10 bowls of coffee.
Chris Bosh in particular could find life quite difficult on the offensive end, which basically kicks one of the crutches out on Miami's go-to lineup.
Coaching-wise, Scott Brooks is newer to coaching in the Finals than Spoelstra is, but he did win a ring as a player; he won't exactly be dazzled as most by his inaugural experience on the sidelines.
All in all, the Thunder not only can hang with Miami on either end of the floor, they have far fewer exploitable weaknesses than Team Riley.