With due respect to Paul Pierce, five other East players should be foremost on the Heat's minds.
The Heat have no reason to fear any team in the Eastern Conference.
I’m not worried about that. We’re not worried about it. We don’t need victories versus top four teams to prove what we’re capable of doing. We don’t need ‘em. We’d love to have ‘em, but we don’t need ‘em.
Since then, the Heat lapped all of those squads in the standings.
Still, the real season—the postseason—starts in roughly two weeks, and Miami will need to beat back the best of the East again.
So which players are the most worrisome?
Well, Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford has had his moments against Miami this season, averaging 17.3 points on 60.8 percent shooting.
And Boston Celtics stalwarts Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce won't go easily, if either is still reasonably healthy by the time the teams would meet—which, if Boston stays in the No. 7 seed, wouldn't be until the Eastern Conference Finals.
But here are the five most likely to pothole the Heat's path to the NBA Finals.
All quotes in this piece, unless attributed otherwise, were collected over the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post. All statistics were accurate as of Thursday morning.
Brandon Jennings will put pressure on the Heat point guards.
The NBA has become a point guard league.
It just might not seem that way in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.
The Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat don't start dominant ball-handlers at the point guard spot—Boston due to the injury to Rajon Rondo.
The Chicago Bulls, barring the now-unexpected return of Derrick Rose, have turned to Kirk Hinrich, whose best days are behind. Jeff Teague of the Atlanta Hawks is an improving player, but he isn't quite the caliber of others—Jrue Holiday and Kyrie Irving—who didn't make the playoffs.
In that context, Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings—as well as the man introduced on the next slide—stick out.
Jennings still isn't the most efficient player, and he's shooting just 41.1 percent against the Heat this season. But he does apply consistent pressure, and his average stat line against Miami (21.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists) suggests some level of success.
Milwaukee looms as the Heat's likely first-round opponent.
And while others on the roster (Ersan Ilyasova, Monta Ellis, J.J. Redick, even John Henson) have had their moments against the Heat this season, the Bucks' energy and explosiveness start with Jennings.
Chalmers and Norris Cole will need to keep him from getting loose.
Deron Williams has had some struggles against Miami, but the Heat won't take him lightly.
If you've watched Deron Williams play against the Miami Heat this season without knowing his All-Star reputation, you probably wouldn't take him seriously as a threat.
In three blowout losses, Williams has averaged just 11.0 points against the Heat—his second-lowest output against any opponent. He has appeared a step slow, and he has shot just 1-of-11 from behind the arc.
How much of that was the Heat defense, and how much was on Williams?
It's hard to say for sure, but there's no question that Williams has been a much better player—much more like his old self—since the All-Star break, after losing weight and treating his chronically-injured ankles.
He even dunked this week.
Before the break, when all three of the games against the Heat occurred, he averaged 16.7 points on 41.3 percent shooting.
Since the break, he has averaged 22.2 points on 46.9 percent shooting.
And they know not to take him lightly.
David West has been a handful for the Heat this season.
When Chris Bosh strained his abdomen in Game 1 of a 2012 second-round series, the Indiana Pacers gained an even greater advantage on the interior.
The Pacers had a front line of Roy Hibbert, David West and Danny Granger, and Miami had so few options that Erik Spoelstra eventually settled on Shane Battier as an undersized power forward.
And it worked.
It worked in large part because Battier managed to neutralize the much bulkier West, who didn't have much lift in his legs a year after knee surgery.
This season, West—while still a below-the-rim artist—has shown a bit more spring. In Granger's absence, he has given the Pacers more offense and emerged as the team's clear leader.
Most of all, he has given the Heat lots of trouble.
In three games against Miami, two of them wins, West has bullied Bosh, Battier, Udonis Haslem and anyone else who has gotten in his way, to the point that LeBron James has had to take some defensive turns.
He has averaged 22.7 points and 7.7 rebounds while shooting a ridiculous 65.8 percent.
Paul George is the Pacers' most complete player at this stage.
But Miami has two answers for him. James and Dwyane Wade have both guarded the 2013 All-Star, and Wade did so with success last month.
West? Miami has had massive issues trying to make him miss.
Little comes easy at the rim when Joakim Noah is out there.
Hollywood as Hell.
That was Joakim Noah's derisive characterization of the Miami Heat, after the Heat beat the Chicago Bulls in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Noah hasn't stopped talking since, even declaring after the Bulls beat the Heat earlier this season that he didn't think "that small ball is going to work against us."
It did work in the teams' next meeting, with the Heat holding to the Bulls to 67 points.
And then, oddly, with Noah sitting, the Bulls bullied the Heat to end Miami's 27-game streak on March 27.
So why is Noah so high on the threat list, when he's not an elite scorer and he had nothing to do with that upset?
Because his strengths as a player target potential Miami weaknesses, especially with Chris Bosh rebounding at a career-low rate.
And his traits as a person—notably his ability to annoy and agitate—have the potential to get Heat players off their games, especially in a series in which they have the displeasure of seeing him night after night.
Even if Derrick Rose finally returns from knee surgery, he won't be 100 percent.
If the Bulls make a series against Miami interesting, it will likely be due to Noah's electric energy.
Can Carmelo Anthony finally shove aside Miami?
Since they entered the league in 2003, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have faced each other 17 times in the regular season.
Anthony has won 10 times.
They have faced each other in the postseason just once—last spring, and James' Heat beat Anthony's Knicks in five games.
By now, most NBA observers believe that, for all of Anthony's brilliance as a volume scorer, James is the superior all-around player. Still, that doesn't mean anyone on Miami takes Anthony lightly.
"For our coaching staff, he's a nightmare," Erik Spoelstra said.
That was proven again on April 2 when, with James sitting out, Anthony scored 50 points in the Knicks' third win in four tries against the Heat this season.
In an East postseason bracket largely bereft of superstars, Anthony represents the greatest challenge for Miami. It's likely that Shane Battier or Udonis Haslem—whomever starts—would get the initial assignment, but James would certainly pick it up at some point.
That's what happened in New York on March 3, when Anthony was held to 3-of-11 shooting in the second half to finish with "just" 32.
Anthony's explanation then?
"They were going to take the ball out of my hands in the second half. For us, it was just a matter of keeping good spacing and take what they were giving me."
This is for sure:
If he sees the Heat again in the postseason, Anthony better be prepared to take his best shot.