Is the Miami Heat's Eastern Conference Supremacy a Foregone Conclusion?

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Is the Miami Heat's Eastern Conference Supremacy a Foregone Conclusion?
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As reigning champions with room to grow, the Miami Heat deserve to be considered the hands-down favorites to win the 2013 NBA title. But even that status doesn't preclude discussion of their vulnerabilities, nor does it eliminate the possibility that some Eastern Conference opponent could prevent the Heat from even reaching the NBA Finals in the seasons to come.

As we begin to take stock of what the 2012-2013 NBA season is likely to hold, those kinds of possibilities have a place in prediction and discussion—even if they have decidedly less of a place in the most likely of basketball realities.

For the sake of thoroughness, one can certainly put forth a few teams as possible candidates to upset the Heat within the Eastern Conference next season. Yet even the upset prospects of those teams are incredibly slim, and particularly so after Miami supplemented their pre-existing core with the signing of Ray Allen. These are tough times for the bottom 14 in the East, and though many of those franchises have made notable moves this offseason, only two are fortunate enough to have any shot whatsoever of beating the Heat in the 2013 postseason.

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Indiana Pacers

Indiana can beat Miami if (and only if): David West has a more productive year, Danny Granger continues to play committed defense against LeBron James, Frank Vogel draws up some more creative ways to get Roy Hibbert involved in the offense, Indiana creates more open three-point looks, Paul George expands his game, D.J. Augustin meshes perfectly with the Pacers' other rotation players and Gerald Green provides more offense in a playoff setting than Leandro Barbosa was able to. 

All of that makes Indy a likely second seed fitted with a hell of an asterisk. The Pacers are sound enough on both ends to create some distance between themselves and the bulk of the Eastern Conference Field, but that standing doesn't erase the gulf (geography be damned) between Indianapolis and Miami.

No matter how close these two teams may have seemed during their 2012 playoff series, the absence of Chris Bosh made all the difference. Not only did Bosh's removal from the lineup strain Miami in some initially concerning ways, but it also forced Spoelstra's hand in terms of playing what may well be the Heat's preferred lineup going forward. Classify LeBron James to be whatever position you please, but against the Indiana Pacers, he filled in for Bosh, boosted his efficiency and gave his team an invaluable rotational flexibility.

Were the two teams to replay their series without Bosh (or the since signed Allen), the Heat would likely win handily—if only because they're now so much more comfortable playing with James as a nominal big than they were the first time around. That doesn't bode well for the Pacers, talented though they may be; Bosh's production and impact are considerable, but it was the Heat's now erased on-court discomfort that made a competitive series out of an affair that could have gone otherwise.

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Boston Celtics

Boston can beat Miami if (and only if): Kevin Garnett continues to play at an all-NBA level, injury spares both Garnett and Paul Pierce, Boston's offense stays out of the gutter, Jason Terry is able to sufficiently replace Ray Allen, Avery Bradley comes back strong and isn't an offensive liability, Courtney Lee is able to find consistent minutes, Boston's tremendous team defense somehow manages to curtail the production of LeBron James, Jared Sullinger/Chris Wilcox/Fab Melo/Jason Collins manage to get Garnett and Brandon Bass some rest and Rajon Rondo is able to dominate without being plagued by turnovers.

It's tempting to say that the Celtics match up better with the Heat than the Pacers do given the nature of each team's playoff series against Miami, but that kind of assessment is entirely too presumptive for my liking. Boston's offense during the 2012 playoffs was unbelievably—and unpredictably—efficient; a team that ranked 27th in the NBA in points per possession during the regular season suddenly became a dynamo, an improvement that can't fairly be attributed to the mysticism associated with championship experience.

The Celtics are a very good team, and it's even fair to expect some improvement in their performance in the playoffs relative to the regular season; such is often the case with veteran teams saving themselves for the long haul, and so long as Garnett, Pierce and Rondo were in uniform, Boston would be able to make a pretty decent postseason run. 

Yet the improvements on offense were far too suspect to be seen as long-term answers to this team's scoring struggles. It was great that offense came easy for the C's for the first time since 2009, but that alone isn't enough to buy the idea that Boston will somehow be able to rely on their scoring going forward; there's simply far too much evidence to the contrary, and far too many reasons to doubt in this team's ability to keep pace in terms of shot-making.

Plus, this outfit's heavy reliance on Garnett, Pierce and Rondo positions them for misery if serious injury were to strike, and also demands that Doc Rivers manage his vets' minutes to ensure that all hands are on deck come the postseason.

That alone could and should make Boston's path to the Eastern Conference Finals trickier than it would be otherwise; the Celtics are a good enough team to give the Heat a bit of trouble, but the considerations of their roster could prevent them from getting the kind of preferable seed that would limit their early-round challenges prior to facing Miami.

All of that only goes to pile on against a roster that's already outmatched, and that was bested in 2012 despite playing some of the best basketball that could possibly have been expected of them. If Garnett wasn't tapping into the pinnacle of his current performance, Boston wouldn't have put up much of a fight. If Dwyane Wade hadn't been battling injury and uncharacteristic inefficiency, Miami could have won in a walk.

But those variables and more just happened to swing the Celtics' way, and yet their series still ended in defeat. Why would we possibly expect a repeat run, in which far fewer of those variables can be expected to swing in Boston's favor, to conclude with a different result?

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