Ranking the Biggest Threats to the Miami Heat's Throne
The Miami Heat are the defending world champions, but they are far from easy favorites to win a second title. They may be favorites, but they are far from easy favorites.
They are not as strong, particularly on defense, as they were last year. Some have argued that it's because they aren't as motivated, and in part that makes sense.
However, it's too easy to be dismissive of the real problems they've had. They have out-rebounded their opponents in only one of their losses this year. They have given up an average of five more rebounds in their losses.
More telling is that they have given up 86 more total field-goal attempts in games they have lost. That's an average of 12 per loss. When your opponents get that many more shots, it's hard to win games, especially when they aren't getting evened out at the stripe.
When looking at teams that are most likely to beat them in a seven-game series, consideration is taken into who has the best ability to exploit these weaknesses.
These teams are not chosen based on their ability to win a title, nor are they ranked so. They are ranked according to their chances of beating the Heat in a seven-game series. Some teams have a better chance at beating Miami than winning a title.
Obviously, any team in the West would have to beat the Heat to win the title if they played the Heat in a series. Therefore there are more Eastern Conference teams here than Western Conference teams, as the Heat are more likely to play them.
All statistics in this article are as of January 15, 2013.
Los Angeles Lakers
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Don't count out the Los Angeles Lakers just yet. Their last two games have shown that they might finally be pulling things together. Of course a two-game sample size is not a great one.
If they are starting to gain traction, though, this team has a tremendous ability to be dangerous. Their trek through the Western Conference isn't easy. To even get to the postseason is an arduous path. However, if they do make it to the playoffs, that means they are playing well. If they're playing well, look out.
That's not to diminish the obstacles in front of them; in fact, the reason they are last on the list is because of those obstacles. But if the Lakers, by some miracle, make it to the NBA Finals, their frontcourt of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard would dominate the Heat's.
It is difficult to see the Heat beating Los Angeles in a seven-game series. It's just much more difficult to see that series happening.
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The Indiana Pacers gave the Heat a much harder fight than they anticipated last year, taking them to six games in their second-round series.
While the Heat have gotten worse, it seems the Pacers are getting better, and this in spite of the fact that they have been without their best scorer, Danny Granger.
The Pacers are this year's best defensive team, whether you're looking at points per game or defensive rating. They lead the NBA in both.
They also have a certain 7'2" center by the name of Roy Hibbert who has averaged 11 rebounds per game against the Heat over the last two seasons.
Apart from that series, the Pacers have challenged the Heat in the Big Three era, winning three of eight games. Frank Vogel has done a terrific job of maximizing their talent and deserves his recent extension.
On the other hand, that's not a winning record, it's just close to even. The Pacers are also the second-worst offense in the NBA based on offensive rating, something that could make for problems if the Heat can re-ignite last year's defense.
But don't think that means that Pacers can't beat the Heat in a seven-game series. They play extremely hard and strong, and the Heat struggle with that kind of ball.
If the Pacers can turn four games into slog fests, they can steal the series.
New York Knicks
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The Knicks absolutely torched the Heat in their first two games this season. In fact, they handed the Heat two of their worst five loses in the Big Three era.
They did so by abusing the Heat from deep. In each of those games, they sank 12 more three-point shots than Miami. They made a total of 37 deep balls in those two games.
That kind of massive difference is just too much to overcome, and when the Knicks are drilling shots like that, they are a tough team to beat. According to HoopStats.com, when the Knicks shoot a better three-point percentage than their opponents, they are 16-4.
The problem with that kind of team is that you have to sustain hot for a long period of time to win a series, and you have to maintain hot for a really long period of time to win successive series, which they'll have to do to get to a series with Miami, then sustain it even longer.
The Knicks were shooting .417 from deep in November, when they were drubbing the Heat. Since then, they're still hitting an impressive .370, but that's not .417.
If the Knicks are hot, the Heat won't be able to keep up. But if the Knicks go cold, their season will come to an end.
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The Boston Celtics always challenge the Miami Heat. Combining the postseason and regular season, they have beaten Miami more times than any team in the NBA over the last three seasons, winning 10. They've also played the Heat the most of any team in the NBA, 21 times, which means they've also lost 11.
So, the Heat have a very slight advantage in the head-to-head, but the Celtics came the closest to felling them last year, and that was without emerging star Avery Bradley, who is an outstanding defensive player.
A big thing about having played so many times is familiarity. The teams know each other, and that means either team could win any game at any time.
Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have won a ring together before, and they know how to get it done. They know how to get to the Heat players and into their heads.
They struggled to get going, but they are finding their rhythm now, and if any team has shown over the last four years that "it's not how you start, it's how you finish," it's the Boston Celtics.
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Among teams that have played the Heat at least six times in the Big Three era, the Bulls are the only team in the NBA that has a winning record against them, winning seven of 13 contests over that span.
What's more impressive is that the Bulls have won two of the last three games without their lone superstar, Derrick Rose, even playing.
The last time they played one another in the postseason, the Heat took the Bulls in five, but two of the games could have changed outcomes had the last shot of regulation gone differently.
The Bulls always compete with the Heat because they have such a strong frontcourt. When Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah are playing well, the Heat struggle against them. Right now, they are playing as well as they ever have together.
When Derrick Rose returns, this team should be very formidable, especially against the Heat. They are strongest where the Heat struggle most.
The Bulls not only could beat the Heat—it wouldn't be a great shock if they did.
Oklahoma City Thunder
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The Oklahoma City Thunder are arguably the best team in the NBA. It's not a knock on them that they are this far down the list. The problem is that, just as many of the teams on this list are ideally suited to beat the Heat, the Heat are ideally suited to beat the Thunder.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, LeBron James is just a exponentially better defensive presence than Kevin Durant. Durant may be a better scorer, but Durant's defense is wanting. The Thunder have to use more resources to slow down James.
As a result, the two end up scoring pretty evenly, but that's a problem for the Thunder because James is also a passer and averages 4.4 more assists per game than Durant in their head-to-heads.
Oklahoma City ranks only 16th in the NBA in offensive rebound percentage, according to Basketball-Reference, suggesting they won't be able to take advantage of the Heat's weakness.
The Thunder are a jump-shooting team. The Heat like to drive to the rim. That works in Miami's favor. They have the highest effective field-goal percentage in the NBA.
Both teams like to press the paint and get to the line, but the Heat are better at drawing charges. The Thunder are two stars deep, but the Heat are three stars deep.
At this point, the Thunder might be the better team, but contrary to popular belief, the better team doesn't always win the series. Sometimes it's just the matchup.
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Some would probably be surprised to see the Memphis Grizzlies this high up in the rankings. But they're the hidden Heat-mauler that no one talks about. In part, it's because they're overlooked as a potential title contender, but it's also because they just aren't as star-studded.
Since the Big Three have played together, however, the Grizzlies are tied for the best winning percentage against them, winning three and only losing one.
It is not smoke and mirrors. The Grizzlies have a lot of things that trouble the Heat. They have one of the elite big man tandems in the NBA in Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and they lead the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage.
They also have a player in Rudy Gay who is good enough to make LeBron James work, but who isn't the focal point of the offense as in Oklahoma City.
The trick for the Grizzlies would be getting to the NBA Finals, and they would have a problem beating the Clippers or Thunder to get there. If they did, they would have a great shot at taking down the Heat in a seven-game series.
Los Angeles Clippers
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There is one team in the NBA that can match the Heat in star power, has the ability to exploit Miami where they are weak and is looking to have the home-court edge—and that's the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Clippers have actually beat the Heat three of four tries in the Big Three era, and there's good reason for that.
Blake Griffin is every bit as strong and athletic as LeBron James, though not as fast. Between Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers have a big-man tandem that can easily take advantage of the Miami Heat.
They have all the size they need to crush the Heat where they are the weakest. At the same time, they have the athleticism and speed to run with Miami. Not only that, they are younger.
The Clippers offense is nearly as good as the Heat. They are ranked fifth in offensive rating and the Heat are fourth. However, their defense is currently on another level. The Clippers are fifth and the Heat are 16th.
Right now, the Clippers look like the better team. They have the advantage in the head-to-head matchup. They have the edge in previous contests. They would likely have the home-court advantage.
Here the question isn't whether the Clippers could beat the Heat, but whether the Heat would be a threat to beat the Clippers.