Biggest Challenges Ahead for the Miami Heat: What Will Prevent a Finals Repeat
The Miami Heat currently hold the top position in the Eastern Conference with a 26-12 record, but there are several obstacles that stand in their way of winning back-to-back championships.
There's no doubt that the Heat losing six of their last 12 games is concerning, especially with road games against the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers next week. What is more alarming is that Miami's only win against a team with a winning record since Christmas was at Golden State, who was without its leading scorer, Stephen Curry.
By no means is there a reason to hit the panic button right now, but Miami's flaws are becoming more evident each game. Here are the five biggest hurdles preventing the Heat from winning their second title in a row.
5. Bench Scoring
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The big three undoubtedly are responsible for a majority of the scoring for the Miami Heat. In their championship run last season, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combined for 68.2 percent of their points. This season, Miami has brought that down to 62.6 percent, mainly due to the help of Ray Allen, who is averaging 11.2 points off the bench.
What about the rest of the bench? Over the course of the regular season and the playoffs last season, Miami's big three received support in crucial moments.
Norris Cole caught fire and closed out games for the Heat multiple times throughout the regular season, particularly in their home opener against the Boston Celtics.
When Miami had its back against the wall without Chris Bosh versus Indiana in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Udonis Haslem knocked down four consecutive jumpers in a five-minute span in the fourth quarter of Game 4 to steal home court back from the Pacers.
In Game 5 of the NBA Finals, whenever there was a thought of the Oklahoma City Thunder making a run, Mike Miller would drain a three-pointer and bring the crowd right back in the game.
While Ray Allen has hit some big shots for Miami in crunch time this year, we have seen very few examples of others outside the big three step up. This isn't too big of a concern for right now, but it needs to be addressed.
4. LeBron Fatigue
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LeBron James is never a person to make excuses and hasn't taken a night off this season, but you wonder if all the energy he uses every game will catch up with him in May and June. James is in his 10th NBA season, and while Miami has tried to bring in more support to help him, he is still doing more than any player in the league.
James is averaging 38.4 minutes a game, about one minute more than last season, and his statistics are better than ever. While averaging 8.1 rebounds, seven assists and just 2.8 turnovers, LeBron has combined those season highs by shooting 55 percent from the floor and 40 percent from the three-point line.
How is LeBron averaging these numbers in all these different categories? As Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com pointed out before the regular season started, James is now playing practically every position in an offense with no positions.
Depending who is on the floor, one minute James is running the point and thriving with high-ball screens, and the next he is posting up a power forward on the low block. The three-time MVP attacks whatever the weakness is on the defense.
Add this with how great LeBron is in transition and in defending the best shooters on the opposite team, and the workload he endures each game is as substantial as it gets.
Let's also not forget that LeBron James was the MVP in the 2012 Olympics, and his offseason was significantly shorter than normal. We'll see how his body and production hold up the next few months.
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Obviously, injuries can decimate the chances of a championship for any team, but the Miami Heat are particularly on thin ice. For a team who already has a short bench, struggles to rebound and relies heavily on three players for most of its offense, one injury could ultimately end Miami's title chances on the spot.
When Chris Bosh went down with an abdominal injury in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year, the Heat found a way to survive the Indiana Pacers and part of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics without him.
Although, with Miami's rebounding numbers down to only 38.8 a game (last in the NBA), will Joel Anthony or Rashard Lewis step in to help Udonis Haslem if Bosh is sidelined again?
Dwyane Wade is currently dealing with a toe injury and missed practice Monday, according to a tweet by Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald. While the injury is not believed to be anything serious, Wade has had his fair share of bumps in the road.
If Wade picks up a more serious injury down the road, does Miami increase Ray Allen's minutes and put him in the starting lineup? Do Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers take on a greater scoring role? Will Shane Battier need to make a bigger impact on both ends of the floor? Who is going to run the floor with LeBron James and get the easy transition baskets?
There are a lot of questions to be answered. If LeBron James goes down, the options would be very limited, if there are any.
2. Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers
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It's not just that the Miami Heat lost both of their first meetings with the Chicago Bulls and the Indiana Pacers, it's how Miami was exposed.
Despite the Heat shooting a higher percentage in both games, Miami was out-rebounded by 39 combined in its two losses, and the benches of Chicago and Indiana outscored Miami's 58 to 22. Consequently, the Heat never had a lead in the second half against the Bulls and didn't have one past the 5:18 mark in the third quarter at Indiana.
If this doesn't present a big enough problem for the Heat, they haven't even seen either team at full strength. The 2011 MVP, Derrick Rose, still hasn't played a game this season, as he recovers from his ACL injury, but he is close to a full-contact practice, according to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun Times.
Meanwhile, Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star, has reported that Danny Granger (knee injury) is participating in non-contact drills and looking to make his season debut in early February. Granger has led the Pacers in scoring the last five seasons.
The Miami Heat know how much of a fight the Bulls and Pacers gave them in the previous two postseasons. The problem for the Heat is that they have a target on their chest, and their biggest weaknesses play into Chicago's and Indiana's biggest strengths.
1. Lack of Rebounding
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It's no secret that one of Miami's greatest flaws is rebounding. The Heat have particularly struggled this season against the bigger teams, and they need an answer quickly.
Chris Bosh is currently listed as the starting center for the Heat, but he plays more like a power forward. Miami brought in Rashard Lewis during the offseason and hoped he and Joel Anthony could help Bosh and Udonis Haslem in the post, but they are only bringing in two rebounds a game.
Now the Heat have gone outside the organization to find help. Where have they turned? Chris "Birdman" Andersen has signed a 10-day contract with Miami, and Andersen says he believes he is 75 percent basketball-ready, according to the Miami Herald.
Listed at 6'10", Andersen hasn't seen the hardwood since last season with the Denver Nuggets, where he averaged 4.6 rebounds over 15.2 minutes a game.
Also rejoining the Heat roster on a 10-day contract, according to Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, is the returning Jarvis Varnado.
While ESPN.com has reported that Miami is interested in the comeback of 2007 No. 1 NBA Draft pick Greg Oden, his return is not expected until at least next season.
The trade deadline is one month away, and if the Miami Heat don't improve on the glass soon, the Heat front office could be busy after the All-Star Game.