What LeBron James Must Do to Propel Miami Heat to NBA Finals

John Friel@@JohnFtheheatgodAnalyst IMarch 21, 2013

What LeBron James Must Do to Propel Miami Heat to NBA Finals

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    Enough about this silly little, historically unprecedented win streak the Miami Heat are on. It's that time to begin analyzing the playoffs.

    Specifically, the Miami Heat and how LeBron James is going to lead them in the playoffs. The Heat are currently riding a 24-game winning streak, but little attention is being paid to the fact that we're only 17 regular-season games away from the playoffs.

    There is such little reception regarding the Heat in the playoffs for two reasons. One reason being this winning streak that has captivated and enthralled the basketball community. The second is because the Heat are 11-and-a-half games ahead of second place in the Eastern Conference.

    Even though the Heat are a combined 2-4 against the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks, they have beaten both teams, including a blowout win over Indiana, over the course of the winning streak. With the Pacers playing .500 ball as of late and the Knicks falling to pieces, there simply isn't any need for creative speculation into the Heat's possible Eastern Conference matchups.

    The Boston Celtics, however, are a team that can push the Heat. They're the slower, more beat-up team, yet they have continued to find ways to pester Miami. Whether it's Avery Bradley's defense, Jeff Green's sudden vaults to stardom, or Kevin Garnett's defensive intensity, Miami always finds itself in a dogfight with Boston.

    Have you taken a look at the Eastern Conference lately? Boston is only two games ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks for seventh place. There is a strong likelihood the Celtics could fall to eighth, paving the way for a first-round matchup with the Heat and a third consecutive postseason series with their bitter rivals.

    The Heat have obviously been using a team effort to secure the NBA's second greatest win streak. For now, however, we take a look into LeBron James and how he can help push the Heat into a third consecutive NBA Finals appearance.

A Larger Influence on the Boards

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    Is it true the Miami Heat is a poor rebounding team? Yes. They sacrifice size for speed and shooters, and Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh don't impose any sort of will against bigger teams.

    Is it true the Miami Heat's rebounding problem is overstated? Absolutely. Although they are grabbing fewer offensive rebounds than any other team, their rebounding differential is only minus-1.7. Even then that can be attributed to Miami's league-leading field-goal percentage.

    But could the Heat face run into problems on this front in the playoffs? Of course. Crashing the boards and making an all-out effort to grab offensive rebounds has been the attempted winning method for a number of teams during the season, including the Cleveland Cavaliers' recent onslaught of 15 offensive caroms.

    The Heat have been on the wrong end of some of the worst rebound differentials this year. They're grabbing a league-worst, and it's not even close, 38.4 rebounds per game and have allowed opponents to consistently beat them up on the offensive glass.

    However, they are allowing only 11.1 offensive boards per. That's actually among the upper-half of the league.

    Come postseason time, there will be few, if any, games where the Heat are going to get beat up on the boards to the point of risking victory. Remember the size advantage the Chicago Bulls had in 2011? They were disposed of in five games. How about the Indiana Pacers from last year? Six games and it could have been a sweep if Chris Bosh played more than 10 minutes the entire series.

    This is where LeBron James begins to make his presence felt on the glass. He's already leading the Heat in rebounds per with a career-high 8.2 and has proven that he can crash and dominate the rebounding battle, no matter the opponent.

    During 23 postseason games last year, LeBron had at least 10 in 10 of them. He never had less than six rebounds during any game after the first round and had at least 15 rebounds in three contests.

    He averaged 10.8 rebounds in the Heat's series against Indiana, which included a season-high 18 boards in a Game 4 win. LeBron never had more than 13 boards during the regular season, yet had two games of at least 15 boards against an Indiana team that boasted one of the league's strongest frontcourts.

    He also went a string of three consecutive games with at least 12 rebounds. 

    Take Miami's recent contest against Cleveland as another example. When the Heat were in dire straits of dropping an embarrassment of a game to the Cavaliers, James began to impose his will and ended up with seven of his 12 rebounds coming off the offensive glass.

    As much emphasis has been put on the frontcourts of teams like Indiana and Chicago, it has done little to deter the Heat when it actually matters. Speed and shooting has proven to be a winning formula.

Continue to Overachieve Outside of the Paint

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    It's almost as if LeBron James lurks on message boards to read criticism and then proceeds to work on that part of his game.

    In his not even three years with the Heat, the future league MVP has added more to his offensive repertoire than he had in seven years with Cleveland. And that includes a season where he won the scoring title.

    LeBron hasn't only improved his post-game, possibly after looking at comment sections of YouTube after the 2011 Finals, but his mid-range and overall perimeter game has become one of the strongest and deadliest facets of his offense.

    A year after taking a career-low 2.4 three-point attempts, LeBron is back to averaging 3.5 attempts from beyond the arc. It's the most he's taken since his his first year with the Heat, but pales in comparison to the 5.1 he was taking in his last season with Cleveland.

    While LeBron and coach Erik Spoelstra spoke of a larger emphasis on being aggressive and taking shots near the rim, James has found himself having the greatest shooting year of his Hall of Fame career. He's hitting a career-high 39 percent on his shots, on top of already shooting a career-high 55 percent from the field.

    It's not all just dunks and layups, either. LeBron has taken 613 of his field-goal attempts from within 10 feet, but has also attempted 604 shots from outside of 10.

    According to basketball-reference, LeBron is converting 42 percent of his overall jumpers, including a staggering 43 percent from 16 feet to the perimeter. For perspective's sake, he was only making 38 percent of his jumpers in his final season with Cleveland and 40 percent in his first year with Miami.

    He has never had this type of efficiency in his three-point shooting. LeBron hasn't shot this well since he was making 35 percent of his 3.9 attempts per in his second season, if you leave out the 36 percent he shot last year on only 2.4 attempts per.

    LeBron's strongest suit will always be his ability to get to the rim, but his new-found ability to consistently hit three-pointers (he's only a few percentage points off of Kevin Durant) has made it a near impossibility to defend him.

Neutralize the Opposition'S Best Player

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    Jeff Green sure did have himself a game against the Miami Heat this past Monday. Scoring a career-high 43 points on only 21 shots, hitting 5-of-7 from beyond the arc, and 10-of-13 from the foul line, Green had the sort of scoring performance you thought could only be achieved by someone like James, Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony.

    Green continued his onslaught into the fourth quarter, converting a three-pointer on the Celtics' first possession and hit a layup a few minutes later. In the first three minutes of the final frame, Green was 2-for-2 and had five points already.

    Then LeBron James took the floor. And Jeff Green didn't score again. From the moment James stepped on the floor with 7:03 left, Green finished off the game missing all three of his layup attempts.

    It certainly wasn't just LeBron. Shane Battier and Chris Bosh had two incredible blocks on Green, but it's no coincidence either that Jeff Green suddenly had his jets cooled once fourth quarter LeBron joined the fray again.

    While Green was held scoreless over the final seven minutes, James managed to score 13 points and dish out three dimes.

    LeBron had a similar performance in Miami's 99-93 win over the New York Knicks. While James went off for 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting, he completed what was thought to be impossible by denying Carmelo to the point he couldn't even shoot.

    Anthony had four points on 2-of-4 shooting in a fourth quarter where the Heat had a 26-16 advantage.

    That's what separates LeBron James from every other player who could be deemed as elite. There isn't another who's not only going to lead the way on offense, but is also going to end up defending the best wing on the other end.

    When the playoffs roll around, you can count on LeBron ending up on Paul Pierce, as he just did in denying Pierce's potential game-winner, Carmelo Anthony or Danny Granger.

    And if Derrick Rose wants to make the mistake of returning this season? There's no doubt he'll be seeing LeBron James between himself and the basket.

Maintain a Consistent Effort Throughout

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    This doesn't just go for LeBron James. It goes for this entire Miami Heat team.

    Miami has proven time and time again that it will show up for games that feature an elite opponent on the other end. During this streak alone, Miami has taken on and defeated the Los Angeles Clippers, L.A. Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics.

    At least one point during the season, all of those teams were anointed as possible threats to the Heat's championship run. Miami has stepped up to the challenge each time by not only beating all of those teams, but running a few of them out of the building, including double-digit victories against the Clippers, Thunder, Bulls and Pacers.

    However, falling behind has become all too commonplace with this Heat team. That even includes last postseason. You may not remember it because they won, but the Heat were actually on their way to a blowout loss against the Thunder in Game 4 if not for seldom-used role player Norris Cole scoring eight points in a run to bring Miami back.

    Miami also faced a number of deficits against Indiana and Boston, including needing a tremendous double-digit comeback in their pivotal Game 4 win on the road against the Pacers.

    It's up to LeBron James to set the tone. His role on the Heat is to carry the burden of being responsible for making everything work. Without LeBron, Miami is without its best playmaker, defender and rebounder. He is a necessity in Miami's offense, and his teammates work at whatever level he is on.

    LeBron and the Heat playing with their utmost intensity on defense has been witnessed this season.

    Specifically their 92-75 win against the Golden State Warriors where the Heat wouldn't even allow the Warriors' point guards to get across midcourt, as well as their 8-2 start against the Lakers that featured a number of turnovers turning into fastbreaks in the opening minutes.

    If LeBron is setting the tone by pressuring point guards as soon as they cross midcourt and wreaking havoc in the passing lane, his teammates will follow suit and produce similar activity. It is when the Heat is playing this type of pressure defense that they play their most efficient basketball on both sides of the court.

Be LeBron

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    Face it: when it comes down to it, the Miami Heat have LeBron James and nobody else does.

    That's what's going to lift the Heat to a third consecutive Eastern Conference title, as well as a second consecutive championship. As long as LeBron is playing average basketball, and getting some form of help from Miami's shooters to help space the floor, the Heat are better than their opponents by a wide margin.

    It's not cocky. It's history. Because even when Dwyane Wade was to the point of getting his knees drained in between games and Chris Bosh probably coming back too early in order to stave off elimination against Boston, it was still LeBron James playing basketball at the level he turns it on for when the playoffs roll around.

    Even in 2011 when the Heat ended up losing in the Finals, it was widely speculated that Miami didn't even have enough to get out of the semifinals. While you look at today's Heat bench and see Ray Allen and Shane Battier, the best the 2011 Heat bench had to offer was the likes of Mario Chalmers and an ailing Udonis Haslem.

    Miami was able to get by the likes of Chicago and Boston because LeBron was leading the way in each series, making the big shots that so many said he couldn't make and having the timely performances that so many said he wasn't capable of.

    This season has been a historic one, and it would be extremely difficult to imagine LeBron suddenly coming back down to planet Earth and playing below-average.

    The pressure to win a championship is off, he's riding one of the greatest win streaks in professional sports history and might have won the MVP award a month ago after dropping 39 in Oklahoma City if not for legal purposes.

    Plus, Miami is 11-and-a-half games ahead of second-place Indiana. The Pacers and Knicks both may have beat the Heat twice this season, but neither pose a serious threat when LeBron James is playing at the top of his game and asserting himself by using his 6'9" athletic frame to battle for rebounds.

    If the Celtics are touted as the team most likely to be the team out East to beat Miami, then there may be a serious need for division and conference realignment.