The NBA postseason sort of sprung up on us this year, didn't it?
At least that was the impression I felt. The second-half of the season isn't dragging on as much as it usually does and there have been plenty of stories to calm the impatient fanbase that just wants a postseason already.
Among ongoing stories such as the Los Angeles Lakers and their run to an eight seed and Carmelo Anthony stealing the scoring title out from under Kevin Durant, the Miami Heat and their recent stretch of winning at a historical rate have also caused heads to turn.
As this is being written, the Heat are 65-16 and have been the league's best team for a long time. Marc Stein of ESPN has had the Heat ranked first in his power rankings for the past seven weeks.
But fans of this team know better than to judge anything that can happen in the postseason by the regular season. Miami has truly enjoyed keeping their fanbase in suspense, even last season when they were losing halfway through the fourth quarter in Game 7 of the Conference Finals.
It even occurred this year. Miami's defense was sluggish out of the gate and meandered their way to a 29-14 record, fighting it out with the New York Knicks for the one seed.
Since then, Miami has gone 36-2. The Heat are riding a little bit of momentum going into this year's postseason, which starts this weekend with a game at home against the Milwaukee Bucks.
By going 29-2 after the All-Star break and winning 36 of their final 38 games. The Miami Heat went from 29-14 and attempting to fight off the New York Knicks for the number one seed to 65-16 and now 12 games ahead of that same Knicks team for first place in the East.
They're 21 games ahead of the second-place Atlanta Hawks in the Southeast division.
Miami is five games better than the team with the next best record and are running off a seven-game winning streak, despite having each member of the 'Big Three', as well as other key role players, in their maintenance program.
Since a loss to Indiana in early February, Miami has loudly set themselves apart from every team in the league.
LeBron James has only continued to excel and has maintained a 57 percent field-goal percentage and a 40 percent three-point percentage, while continuing to hit his jumper at a pace that's only a few shades below Kevin Durant. He's averaging 28 points in his past 14 games and hasn't shot below 56 percent in a game since March 20th.
Dwyane Wade has delivered on his preseason promise of playing up to his usual dynamic self post-All-Star break. He's only averaging 21.2 points per (the lowest since his rookie season) but is shooting a career-high 52 percent.
He had been sluggish recently following a two-week layoff, but raised spirits with 22 points on only 12 shots in a win over the Chicago Bulls, a possible opponent for the Heat in the semifinals.
Going unnoticed has been the Heat bench. While the Heat have lost a mere three games since Chris Andersen signed onto the squad in late January, Miami has also received substantial contributions from Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem.
Cole's sudden-found ability to hit from the perimeter has greatly improved the likelihood that he continues to see minutes in the postseason. He had 16 three-pointers from the beginning of the season through March 13th. He has hit 19 threes since March 15th.
Between October 30th and March 22nd, Cole had three games where he hit at least two three-pointers. He's had that occur seven times since March 24th.
Is somebody getting lessons from Ray Allen?
Even those out of the rotation, Mike Miller and Rashard Lewis, have contributed in a big way late in the season. Despite not converting a basket in a two-month stretch from January to March, Miller has stayed fresh and has hit at least three threes in six of the past nine games.
Miami has seven players shooting above 35 percent from beyond the arc and four players shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc, with the exception of Chris Andersen who is shooting 67 percent on three attempts.
Outside of the usual contributions from James, Wade and Bosh (averaging 16.6 points on a career-high 53 percent shooting), Miami has been heavily reliant on their spot-up shooters and it has paid off in dividends.
Per SynergySports, the Heat's offense comes on spot-ups 25 percent of the time. The Heat rank first in the league when running that play, obviously feasting off the shooting abilities of those like Allen, Battier, and Chalmers, who are respectively shooting 43, 42 and 41 percent.
Miami's defense has also showed great improvement after early struggles making up for the addition of Ray Allen into their fast-paced, quick-rotating defensive system. They now have the seventh-most efficient defense, per John Hollinger's rankings.
He may not end up with Coach of the Year, since it's usually an award that strays away from the coach with three legitimate All-Stars on his team, but coach Erik Spoelstra has performed arguably the greatest job in sports when it comes to managing minutes and egos.
No news is good news for Spoelstra, and there has been minimal talk surrounding one of the league's most successful coaches, who has a winning percentage of 64 percent over a four-year career. Only recently with Coach of the Year talk arising has Spoelstra heard his name in a positive light for once as a coach.
Yet you won't find many analysts mentioning how Spoelstra is completely redefining the game of basketball. His "positionless" basketball hasn't just made the center position obsolete, he's made it a downright liability to have a traditional center on the floor. Opponents are constantly adjusting to how Miami plays, rather than the Heat being forced into their opponent's style.
He has the Heat tied for the league's most efficient offense, garnering 110.3 points per 100 possessions, per Hollinger's rankings. For comparison, Miami was getting 109.3 per 100 in 2011 and 104.3 per 100 in 2012.
And it's catching on. The New York Knicks have started to realize that having Carmelo Anthony play power forward makes the team more efficient than when he's playing at his traditional position at the three.
LeBron James has a PER of 34.8, per 82games.com, when playing at the power forward position this year. His player efficiency rating when playing small forward, meanwhile, is at 29.
And, yes, he has played more time at the four than at the three this season.
Miami's "positionless" lineup has led to a call for shooters, rendering Chris Bosh's post-game nonexistent (per SynergySports, 32 percent of his offense comes from spot-ups and only 14 percent are post-ups) and Chris Andersen being played as the only traditional center on this team.
Spoelstra's run the current starting lineup (Chalmers, Wade, James, Udonis Haslem and Bosh) 46 times this year and is most likely going to keep his bench similar, too, with Battier, Allen, Cole and Andersen being primarily used.
However, the Heat's current lineup isn't the same as the one that ran through Oklahoma City Thunder for the 2012 title. It was Battier who started and ended up averaging 37 minutes per, while Haslem was on the bench playing only 16 minutes per game.
So, will the Heat eventually swap out Battier for Haslem? Which would inevitably lead to Andersen being chosen over Haslem off the bench, and then either leading to a short bench or the introduction of Mike Miller or Rashard Lewis into the rotation?
As the saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Miami is 37-9 with the current lineup and only 8-4 when Battier starts in place of Haslem.
However, Battier's ability to stretch the floor and take opposing power forwards out of their comfort zone was instrumental down the stretch in the Finals.
With Battier out on the floor, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins had their roles minimized. Like many other teams, Oklahoma City simply didn't have the personnel to keep up with the driving and shooting ability of an offense that runs as efficiently as Miami's.
Unless the Heat start losing games, however, it would be unexpected for Battier to take Haslem's place in the starting lineup when they're winning games.
Norris Cole had his spot in the rotation questioned, but his recent stretch of shooting has given the coaching staff, as well as Cole, confidence going into the playoffs.
Regular season matchups
at Miami (11/21): Heat 113, Bucks 106 (OT). James: 28 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists; Bosh: 24 points, 18 rebounds; Jennings and Ellis: 28 points on 13-of-41 shooting; John Henson: 17 points, 18 rebounds.
at Milwaukee (12/29): Bucks 104, Heat 85. James: 26 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds; Wade: 24 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists; Jennings: 25 points, 7 assists, 4 steals; Bucks 35-14 in fourth quarter.
at Milwaukee (3/15): Heat 107, Bucks 94. James: 28 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists; Bosh: 28 points, 7 rebounds; Ersan Ilyasova: 26 points, 17 rebounds; Jennings: 21 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds.
at Miami (4/9): Heat 94, Bucks 83. James: 28 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists; Heat 24-13 in third quarter; Jennings: 30 points on 10-of-16 shooting; Nobody else scored in double-figures on Bucks
LeBron James will be defended by Marquis Daniels.
Thank you and good night.
What? Does there need to be more analysis? The Bucks are going to be throwing Marquis Daniels into the lion's den by having him defend the future league MVP. In case you haven't seen James' numbers against Milwaukee this season, they're gaudy.
In Miami's recent win against Milwaukee, one that featured the Heat without Wade and Bosh, the Bucks sent Daniels, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Larry Sanders to take a stab at defending the undefendable. Obviously if you look at the numbers (28 points on 16 shots in 30 minutes), there wasn't much resistance.
Outside of Jennings, no member of the Bucks has seen anything near sustained success against the Heat this season, including Monta Ellis. The player who once attempted to compare himself to Dwyane Wade has scored under ten points in three of four meetings with Miami this season.
My guess is that Wade didn't take too kindly to such a comparison, thus why Ellis hasn't scored more than 14 points in a game against Miami this season. He's averaging 9.5 points on 30 percent shooting when playing Miami.
Meanwhile, Wade is averaging 24 points on 51 percent shooting to go along with six assists and five boards per game in three games against Milwaukee.
The Bucks will need more than Jennings' ability to hit low-percentage jumpers if they're going to want to even begin considering an upset. They'll need a tremendous amount of help from their frontcourt, which may not occur with center Larry Sanders dealing with a sore back.
Ilyasova, with the exception of the 26 points and 17 rebounds he had in the third meeting, has struggled mightily, recording six or less points and five or less rebounds in the other three contests.
The Heat are averaging five more boards than the Bucks in their four contests this season. Bosh has had two of his best rebounding performances of the year when matched against Milwaukee.
Former coach Scott Skiles could have continued to make Milwaukee a nuisance to Miami (he was the coach in the 19-point win in late December), but his job has since been taken by a coach who has been a part of Miami's two double-digit wins against the Bucks this year.
It will be a surprise to everyone if the Bucks even steal a game from the Heat. Milwaukee has looked incredibly vulnerable in their past two meetings with the Heat and have been restricted to either relying on offensive rebounds from Ilyasova or isolations from Jennings.
Jennings has taken more three-pointers against the Heat than he has against any other team this season. Miami's got him exactly where they want him, even if he is averaging 24 points on 45 percent shooting against the Heat.
It's all a part of Miami's plan to make their opponents take jumpers. Jumpers, like the ones Brandon Jennings takes, don't fall in the playoffs, especially when matched up against a defense like Miami's.
A great deal of this series is going to fall on Larry Sanders, one of the league's top shot-blockers garnering 3.7 blocks per 36 minutes. In four games against the Heat, however, Sanders only has seven blocks and is averaging less than eight points and eight rebounds per game.
He's averaging 9.8 points and 9.5 rebounds on the season. He's only playing in 24 minutes worth of action per when playing against Miami, and could see that number drop if the Bucks are seriously considering having him defend LeBron.
It's either him or Mike Dunleavy. Milwaukee will throw Daniels and Mbah a Moute at James, but Sanders could be the designated third option if neither of those two are up to the task.
Per SynergySports, Sanders ranks 211th when defending spot-ups. Good luck having him defend Chris Bosh.
Miami's going to be expected to sweep, and they will.
Eyes across Miami were peeled on Tuesday night's seemingly meaningless contest between the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks.
With the Hawks losing, however, they now move into the sixth spot where they will likely take on the Indiana Pacers. Moving into the fifth spot were the Chicago Bulls, who will take on the Brooklyn Nets if everything stands.
What does this mean to Miami? Their possible semifinals matchup, of course. There's no reason for Miami to hope to evade certain teams, but it's obvious the Heat would rather have the winner of a series against Brooklyn and Atlanta, rather than face the possibility of playing the Bulls.
Miami is a combined 7-0 against the Nets and Hawks this season. They're only 2-2 against Chicago, including one of their two losses since the All-Star break which ended their historic winning streak.
The Bulls and Hawks are currently tied for fifth. Chicago gets Washington for their season finale and Atlanta gets New York. The positions would only change if the Bulls lose and Hawks win, since the Bulls own the tiebreaker.
It's tough to see Chicago not taking their season finale seriously. A matchup with Brooklyn is far more appealing than one with Indiana.
If Miami gets past Milwaukee, they'll most likely end up with the winner of Nets-Bulls series. Which may actually be a good thing, since the only thing worse than a series between Brooklyn and Chicago would be a series between Brooklyn and Atlanta.
Obviously, the Heat are going to want Brooklyn. The Heat won all three games in the regular-season series by at least 13 and the average margin-of-victory was 21 points.
Deron Williams averaged 11 points, 6.7 assists and 5.7 turnovers per in three games against Miami. Brook Lopez was no better averaging 14.5 points and 7 rebounds in two games vs Miami, including an early season effort where he finished with eight points and seven boards.
The Bulls, meanwhile, have continued to see regular season success when playing the Heat. In their win that ended Miami's winning streak at 27, they were playing without Joakim Noah, Marco Belinelli and Richard Hamilton.
Chicago had to uncharacteristically have 60 percent of their offense derive off of jump shots, but it was still enough for a four-point victory. Once again, they dominated the glass with a 43-31 advantage overall and 12-6 on offensive rebounds.
In four games this season, the Bulls are outrebounding the Heat by ten and are averaging eight more offensive rebounds per. As a result, the Bulls are averaging 81 possessions to the Heat's 71.
If it does come down to it, Miami simply needs to keep Chicago away from the rim. Both losses to the Bulls were results of poor rebounding, including giving up a 48-28 advantage in the first game, and Chicago knows that they can win through physical play.
But that's the regular season. And if we have learned anything about the Heat the past two years, it's that the regular season doesn't mean too much to the Heat, who lost all three games to Chicago in the 2010-'11 season before winning in five games in the Conference Finals matchup.
As for beyond? It's best not to get too ahead of ourselves.
It's painfully obvious the Miami Heat's lone goal is winning a title, and anything else would be a devastating disappointment.
Oh, the woes of a team that rides a 27-game winning streak. The pressure on the Heat to win a second consecutive title will be immense, especially when you consider how large of favorites they are and just how good they've looked over the past two months.
As stated before, they're 12 games better than the second-best team out East and five games better than any team in the league. They're 6-0 against the Western Conference's top three teams (Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Denver) and history will lead you to believe not to judge the Heat on any of their regular-season games against the East's best.
Miami is a combined 2-5 against Indiana and New York this year. In 2011, they went 1-6 against the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics, respectively the one and three seeds at the time, and ended up 8-2 against those teams in consecutive series come playoff time.
However, the Pacers and Knicks have played some of their best ball this season against Miami.
New York has used dribble-penetration from their point guards and crisp passing en route to two 20-point victories. Carmelo Anthony dropped a cool 50 on only 26 shots last meeting, but was defended by Udonis Haslem for a vast majority of the game.
Indiana, meanwhile, has limited Miami to some of their worst offensive outputs of the season; a season-low 77 points in the first meeting and 89 in the second. Strong performances from David West, Paul George and Roy Hibbert on both ends of the floor kept the Heat in check, before Miami ran Indiana out of the building in the third meeting.
The Heat lucked out when garnering the one seed. They avoid the Pacers and Knicks until the Conference Finals. New York, a team that recently set the all-time record for three-pointers in a season, will play against Boston (the league's second-best defense at guarding the perimeter) in the first round.
And if they make it past Boston and play Indiana, New York will then be playing the best defense in the league when it comes to defending the perimeter. The Knicks will have to shoot over the top of those defenses for up to 14 games, all just to play arguably the most elite defense in the league in Miami.
Meanwhile, the Heat get Milwaukee in the first round, the winner of what will most likely be a Nets-Bulls series, and then take on an energy-drained foe in either New York, Indiana or Boston.
The Knicks are taking 34 three-pointers in four games against the Heat this season, five more than any other team. However, they converted nearly 15 of those per game. The Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings are the only other teams to average at least ten makes from beyond the arc per against Miami this season.
Miami is only forcing the Knicks into 12.5 turnovers per game in those four meetings.
Boston's never getting ruled out. They were a fourth quarter away from the NBA Finals last year.
When it comes down to it, the Heat simply have too much firepower on both ends of the floor. Of the ten most efficient offenses, they're one of only three teams giving up 100.5 points per 100 possessions or less on the defensive end.
Remember: this was a team that once ranked as high as 21st in the same category in the first few months of the season. They had a lot of ground to make up to become the seventh most efficient defense.
Also, there isn't a LeBron-stopper in sight. Besides Memphis, James is averaging at least 20 points against every team in the NBA and is shooting less than 50 percent against only four teams, Denver and Memphis being the only playoff teams to do so.
Add all of the rest each rotation player has received over the past few weeks and then there's really no excuses for the Heat to not just win a championship, but to do so in a way that rivals the 15-1 run the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers had when they won the title.
On offense, there is too much space on the floor. On defense, there isn't enough.
To think that the switch has yet to be flipped. The 2013 Miami Heat postseason could end up being just as memorable as the Heat's 2012-'13 regular season.