LeBron James and the Heat appear to have a straight shot to the second round.
At some point, the Miami Heat will lose again.
It just might not seem like it at the moment, as Miami has won 11 straight games entering Tuesday's visit from the Sacramento Kings, which seems a sure shot to make it a dozen.
The Heat's latest streak, against opponents with a respectable .494 record—including those losses to Miami—has pretty much secured the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Miami is currently on a 61-21 pace, which, even if the Pacers won their next 27 games, is the best record that Indiana could achieve. And the Heat have a chance to finish better than that, with a favorable schedule the rest of the way.
I understand what this time is all about. I understand, going through February, March and April, what the games bring, finishing out the season. So I do try to approach the game the same way, each and every game, don’t try to get too high and too low, I approach it with the focus and intensity for my teammates, but I do understand some games are different, and some times of the year are different too. Can’t sit here and say a February game is the same as an October game. It’s good to be in a situation where we play (good) ball at the right time of the season.
If they're playing this sort of ball when the postseason starts, none of the East's first-round opponents stand a chance.
Still, here's how the Heat match up with the five most likely opponents:
(All quotes for this piece were collected through the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post. All statistics were accurate of Monday afternoon.)
Miami will see Josh Smith again, after all.
After the shootaround in advance of the Heat's last visit to Atlanta—on the eve of the trading deadline—LeBron James faced a lot of questions about Josh Smith.
James politely and respectfully answered them all, though he wasn't about to back down when told that Smith welcomed the challenge of covering him.
“I accept any challenge,” James said. “I don’t think there’s one guy in this league that can guard me one-on-one. So I try to look at the second and third defense.”
That night, James scored 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting in Miami's second road victory against the Hawks this season.
It turns out they will see each other again in their current threads—March 12th in Miami.
What about the playoffs?
To drop to the eighth spot, the Hawks would need to free-fall from here, and that's less likely with Smith still around. And if they did, it's hard to see how they would give Miami much trouble.
Early in the season, it appeared that Atlanta could exploit Miami with its quick guards. Since then, Lou Williams has been lost to injury and the Heat have tightened up their perimeter defense.
In the last meeting, Chris Bosh missed his first eight shots for Miami, Al Horford made 12-of-15 for Atlanta...and the Heat still dominated the fourth quarter by a 40-17 count and won by 13.
The lesson for Atlanta?
Stay high above the eighth spot.
Rudy Gay's acquisition has made Raptors interesting, but they may still miss the postseason.
Players and bloggers don't always see eye-to-eye.
While many on the Internet were decrying the Toronto Raptors' trade for the expensive, recently inefficient Rudy Gay, players in the Miami Heat locker room were talking about how much the skilled forward would help Toronto.
It turns out that both the Raptors and Memphis Grizzlies have played well since the trade, with Toronto winning seven of 10 entering Monday, and one of those three losses coming against Miami.
That game was tight throughout until—as has been the norm during the Heat's current strong stretch—Miami pulled away late.
Gay scored 29 in the game, and the Raptors' new look got Miami's attention.
"They're an extremely athletic team," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
If they do, though, they would likely engage in an entertaining—albeit brief—series with Miami.
Even so, the odds are that Miami would merely need to go through customs once—no return trip for Game 6 required.
Norris Cole was just the latest to get in the act against the 76ers.
A dozen straight in the regular season.
Sixteen of 17 overall, including the playoffs.
When you lose that many games to one team—which has been the Philadelphia 76ers' fate against the Miami Heat—you lose all of your bravado.
“That team is big-time good,” Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins said after the latest loss. “They’re a great, great team. I don’t see any weaknesses. The only thing I could see is if you had two bigs, they could try to pound them a little bit. I don’t know of any team that has that.”
Certainly the 76ers don't, even if they get Andrew Bynum back; the prized acquisition has missed the entire season so far due to knee trouble. Following Bynum's workout last Friday, Collins said he looked like a guy who hadn't played in nine months.
So the 76ers aren't exactly pregnant with possibility.
That makes a playoff appearance and a first-round matchup with Miami highly unlikely.
But what if Bynum makes a miraculous recovery?
Well, he could present problems, considering Miami's lack of inside presence.
As many as LeBron James has presented for Philadelphia?
Ask Doug Collins. He's likely to have a fairly definitive and—for 76ers fans—depressing answer.
Miami and Boston have been battling for years.
Like villains in a horror movie, the Boston Celtics don't seem to die.
The villain loses a limb.
The Celtics lose their star point guard.
Both keep bleeding, and coming.
Four times in his career, twice with the Cleveland Cavaliers and twice with the Miami Heat, LeBron James has faced the Celtics in the postseason. Last spring, he evened the score at two series apiece by scoring 45 points in Game 6 in Boston and finishing the job in Miami.
Boston appeared to bolster its bench in the offseason, but it apparently angered some basketball Gods, which is the only explanation for losing Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger and Leandro Barbosa in a two-week span.
You'd think, under these circumstances, that the Heat would no longer need to take them seriously, but then you didn't watch the way Boston battled through two overtimes on Jan. 27 in a 100-98 victory.
Could the Celtics do that four times, now that they've added a couple more reinforcements, including shot-happy guard Jordan Crawford?
Still, facing Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett is never a pleasant experience, and it's one that the Heat would just as soon avoid.
The Bucks always make the Heat think, and work.
In their previous 24 seasons, the Miami Heat have never faced the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs.
This postseason is setting up for that first.
While it wouldn't be the sexiest series, it might be more competitive than some of those mentioned on previous slides. Miami has had issues with Milwaukee during the Big 3 era.
This season, the Bucks took Miami to overtime in Miami, then beat the Heat by 19 in Milwaukee.
"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 that Dec. 29 defeat. "That's not going to be winning basketball."
Scott Skiles, whose coaching style frustrated Miami, has since departed.
But J.J. Redick, who played well against the Heat while with Orlando—including a 9-of-13, 23-point performance this season—has joined the Bucks.
Milwaukee doesn't have the inside scorers to exploit Miami. But Larry Sanders provides a defensive rim presence—against drives from James and Dwyane Wade—Brandon Jennings has run rings around Mario Chalmers and Monta Ellis is just streaky and athletic enough to make Wade work.
Still, one assumes Miami would have too much.
Fear the Deer?
More likely, James, Wade and company would be in the clear.