Ranking the Scariest Matchups for the Miami Heat in East Playoffs
The numbers don't align in the way you might expect.
The Heat leads the Eastern Conference with a 22-8 record.
Two of those defeats were to teams—Washington and Detroit—that the Heat aren't likely to see in the postseason, even in the first round, and can be largely attributed to arrogance and boredom. Two of the others were to the Knicks, and one to the Bucks.
So, as the Heat prepare for their 16th intraconference encounter of the season, their first against Chicago, which teams should they be taking more seriously? Can anyone keep Miami from reaching its third straight NBA Finals, where it is likely to meet Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Memphis or even one of the residents of the Staples Center?
“Injuries have the biggest story in the East,” Heat swingman Shane Battier said. “I think the team that can get the healthiest the quickest in the middle pack will emerge. I think you’ll see a team get healthy and put together a great few weeks or month, and that will really separate them."
Prior to the season, it was assumed that Boston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia would be formidable challengers, but Boston has appeared broken down, Brooklyn just bounced its coach and Philadelphia is still waiting on the debut of the beleaguered Andrew Bynum. Instead, New York and Atlanta have slid into the second and third spots in the standings.
So it's time to reassess.
Which teams are most likely to put up a fight in the spring?
(All quotes for this piece were collected as part of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post. All statistics are accurate as of Thursday night.)
5. Boston Celtics: Cranky, Creaky, but Still Taken Seriously
This selection currently makes no sense.
At press time, the Celtics aren't even in the playoffs, percentage points behind the 76ers and without the excuse of a centerpiece's extended absence.
The trio of Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce has been relatively healthy, with Rondo missing four games and the other two starting every one. Jeff Green is back from a heart ailment and has been active every night. Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jared Sullinger came aboard. The only man absent has been Avery Bradley.
Yet the Celtics continue to struggle to score, rebound and defend.
So why the respect?
Because if anyone in the Heat organization read this piece and didn't see the Celtics, they would call the list crazy.
Simply, Miami's core players have been through too much with this ornery bunch to assume they're done, and they have too much regard for Doc Rivers to believe that he can't fix this. They don't need to be reminded that Boston was 15-17 last season, only to be one win away from eliminating them in the Eastern Conference Finals, before LeBron James unleashed fire and fury.
Atlanta currently has a much better record.
Philadelphia and Brooklyn still have potential.
But so long as the Celtics are still breathing, Heat players will feel it on their necks.
4. Milwaukee Bucks: Always Present a Test
The Bucks are 47-49 the past two seasons.
They are 3-2 against the Heat, and one of those losses was in overtime.
Each time they have been tested or beaten, Heat players have spoken about how hard Scott Skiles' squad plays, as if that's the only explanation, with the results not a testament to talent.
Perhaps that is true, and perhaps the Bucks wouldn't be able to muck up a playoff series—when they have the Heat's full attention—the way they do regular season games. But the reality is that Milwaukee has found ways to stay with the Heat playing just about every which way.
In the most recent matchup, they pressured the Heat into mistakes.
"They shot 40 percent from the floor, but we turned the ball over 20-plus times and they got over 20-plus points off those turnovers," LeBron James said after the Dec. 29 defeat, that one by a 104-85 margin. "That's not going to be winning basketball."
Monta Ellis, who recently declared himself Dwyane Wade's equal in spite of shooting more than 100 percentage points lower this season, has actually struggled in the two games against the Heat, making just 10-of-34 attempts from the floor. But others have done damage, from John Henson recording 18 rebounds in the first matchup to Brandon Jennings getting loose for 25 points in the second.
Milwaukee has a surplus of good rebounders, even while playing small, and has quickness on the perimeter, with that latter element usually giving the Heat trouble.
Would the Bucks beat Miami in a seven-game series?
Still, they would annoy, irritate and aggravate.
3. Indiana Pacers: Last Spring Not Yet Forgotten
The Heat didn't find much in Indianapolis last spring.
The Pacers, somehow energized by their odd "Gold Swagger" promotion and taking advantage of Chris Bosh's injury, took a 2-1 lead against the Heat in the second-round series, succeeding somewhat in pushing the Heat around, outscoring Miami with Roy Hibbert on the court and leaving Dwyane Wade so discombobulated that he started screaming at his current coach and needed to spend a day clearing his head with his college coach.
Then, after averaging 81.7 points over the first three games, the Heat averaged 107 over the final three, as the Pacers had absolutely no answers for LeBron James and were shattered on the way to elimination. Nor did Indiana appear to upgrade in the offseason, replacing Darren Collison with D.J. Augustin and Dahntay Jones with Gerald Green.
Still, it appears this squad may be made of stronger mental stuff.
The team's leading scorer, Danny Granger, hasn't played, and the Pacers would have better off if Augustin (29.6 percent) hadn't either. Hibbert, after signing a new contract, was inefficient and ineffective for much of the first month. And yet still, somehow, Indiana has slogged into the Central lead. The Pacers have done so by slowing the pace and stifling opposing scorers.
Granger is recovering, and his return will take some of the burden off Hibbert, David West and the emerging Paul George. In the meantime, Lance Stephenson, who hardly endeared himself to the Heat by giving choke signs to James in the postseason, has made himself a useful part of the rotation.
Miami hasn't seen the Pacers yet this season, but upcoming matchups (the first being Jan. 8 in Indiana) could be previews of another second-round series, with the Pacers again proving capable of a scare.
2. New York: Can't Ignore Two 20-Point Losses
There were plausible reasons for the first rout.
New York was home, relatively healthy, inspired by the crowd that came to Madison Square Garden in spite of Hurricane Sandy, and playing a Heat squad that clearly didn't want to make the trip.
The second time?
At home? With Carmelo Anthony sitting?
Well, that's when the alarms went off.
And this writer, who wrote prior to that game that New York still couldn't be considered a serious threat, felt compelled to ponder a retraction.
There are still plenty of questions around the Knicks regarding the way they incorporate Amare Stoudemire, how they'll deal with Ray Felton's absence, whether Anthony will stay engaged as a facilitator and defender and a roster that has five players born prior to Jimmy Carter taking the oath of office.
And of course, they lost four of five games to the Heat in the 2012 first round.
"I always felt that when New York got it together, they would be tough," Udonis Haslem said. "I felt that in the playoffs last year."
And the Heat has felt it twice this season in a pair of blowouts, games in which it simply couldn't contend with the Knicks' ball movement and three-point shooting.
After the last one, LeBron James had enough.
“We’ve got work to do,” James said. “We can’t act like, OK, let’s just sweep this under the rug. We’ve got a lot of work to do. New York is a real team, they’ve got some real good players, and we understand that.”
They better by now.
1. Chicago: It All Depends on the Return of Rose
There are five teams with 20 or more wins in the West.
And just three in the East.
So if you were keeping track, you'd assume that you would turn this page and find Josh Smith or Al Horford, one of the unheralded Hawks.
Not a guy who hasn't played this season, and may not play at his best for quite a while.
Not a team that sits second in the Central Division.
But if the question is which team should scare Miami most, it's still Chicago, the team it would have seen in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals if not for Derrick Rose's season-ending injury.
The reality is that none of the aforementioned teams stand much of a chance against a motivated Miami, even if all breaks right. But, on the off chance that Rose makes an Adrian Peterson-like recovery from a serious knee injury, Chicago could pose real problems.
The Bulls could pose those problems even though the Heat stormed back to beat them in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, and even though their Bench Mob is a bit more like a Bench Mess. They could pose those problems because Joakim Noah gave the Heat trouble even before his recent all-around breakthroughs, because Luol Deng is the one guy in the league with the stamina to make LeBron James really work, and because Tom Thibodeau's defensive principles seem immune to personnel challenges. Last season, Chicago beat Miami without Rose one game, and with Rose shooting 1-of-13 in another.
“This team does a great job, especially on the strong side, of making sure don’t beat them there, you got to beat them on the weak side,” said Dwyane Wade, who has had his share of struggles against his hometown team. “What we can do best when we’re playing that way, is move the ball around and share it."
James' improved patience should help in this area. And you'd figure the Heat would be widely favored against Chicago in a seven-game series, even with Rose starting.
But, if Miami didn't play with the utmost poise and passion, an upset wouldn't be impossible.