The Miami Heat survived a grueling series against the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics last season before disposing of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals. Deeper, healthier and more confident than last year, they should have an easier path to a championship this spring.
When LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami in the summer of 2010, the Heat instantly became the most talented team in the league. The greatest obstacles standing between them and and a title were internal.
Each of the "Big Three" had been the go-to scorer on their respective teams. James and Wade were accustomed to having the ball in their hands, especially in crucial situations.
All three needed to adapt to new roles in Miami, and as of the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks they had not yet figured them out. The Mavs were the more cohesive unit and executed better down the stretch. James and Wade took turns with the ball, rather than working together.
The other thing evident in the Mavs-Heat Finals was that LeBron's confidence wavered in big moments. He appeared afraid to shoot the ball in the fourth quarter of Miami's losses.
Wade solved both issues with one unselfish gesture during the 2011-12 season. He told James that he (James) is the greatest player in the world and that he (Wade) would take a backseat to him.
From that point on, LeBron did not hesitate to take over games in crunch time. He and his teammates became more comfortable in Erik Spoelstra's offensive system. Once they overcame the weight of their own expectations and the psychological hurdle of winning a championship, their confidence soared.
The familiarity between James, Wade and Bosh has continued to grow in this, their third season together. The "Big Three" and their teammates are completely in sync and have rattled off 18 consecutive wins.
The Heat's toughest playoff series in 2012 were against the Pacers, whom they beat in six games in the second round, and the Celtics, who took them to the brink of elimination before losing Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Bosh was sidelined for the last five games against Indiana and the first four games of the Celtics series with a strained abdominal muscle. His minutes were limited as he worked himself back into shape during the final three games against the Celtics.
Wade was hobbled by a left knee injury throughout the playoffs. He lacked lift on his jump shot, as well as his usual explosiveness. Fluid was drained from his knee during the Pacers series and it required surgery after the season.
This time around, Miami's "Big Three" is healthy and armed with additional firepower. The Heat signed future Hall of Famer Ray Allen and veteran Rashard Lewis over the summer. They also added size with midseason pickup Chris "Birdman" Andersen.
With Allen, Lewis and Andersen in the mix, Miami has the depth to play different types of basketball. They can spread opponent out at the end of games with a lineup of Wade, James, Allen, Bosh and Shane Batttier, or go big with Andersen or Udonis Haslem instead of Battier. In Mike Miller and James Jones, they have two excellent three-point shooters ready to step in if needed.
While Miami improved, its competition diminished. The Celtics have played surprisingly well since Rajon Rondo tore his ACL, but they cannot beat the Heat four times in a series without him. Rondo was the one player Miami had difficulty matching up with.
It is unlikely that any team in the East will be as formidable as the Celtics were last season. The New York Knicks and Pacers have the next best records in the conference and neither is a great team.
The Knicks have dropped off since starting the season 18-5 and received a major blow to their title hopes when Amar'e Stoudemire went down with another knee injury. Miami would shred New York's pick-and-roll defense, which is ranked 28th in the league, according to Synergy Sports.
Indiana should give the Heat the most trouble in the East because of their size and excellent defense. However, Miami disposed of them in the playoffs last season with a gimpy Wade and without Bosh.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers are the three teams with a shot at facing the Heat in the Finals. Miami owns Oklahoma City after taking them down in five games in the Finals last season and sweeping the season series this year. OKC is not as dangerous without James Harden.
The Clippers and Spurs would be formidable foes, but both are heavily dependent on their point guards, Chris Paul and Tony Parker. LeBron could stifle their each team's offense by shutting down Paul or Parker late in the fourth quarter.
The first championship was the hard one for this Heat team. There is no serious obstacle in their path to a second.