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Biggest Eastern Conference Threats to Miami Heat Title Three-Peat

Ethan SkolnickNBA Senior WriterJuly 30, 2013

Biggest Eastern Conference Threats to Miami Heat Title Three-Peat

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    Something historic happened on Jan. 10, 2013, even if that wasn't apparent at the time. 

    Mario Chalmers, after sitting the entire fourth quarter, entered the game against the Portland Trail Blazers and missed an open three-pointer.

    "I'll take that shot any day," Chalmers said later. 

    The shot just didn't go down. That was the last time, during the entire 2012-13 season, that the Heat went down in defeat in a second straight game.

    It didn't happen in February, March, April, May or June.

    It didn't happen when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were taking breathers as part of the maintenance program.

    It didn't happen during the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks, the second round against the Chicago Bulls, the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers or even the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs

    Considering that, and considering that the Heat took the Eastern Conference top seed by a 12-game margin, it may seem a stretch to suggest they should be scared of anyone. Still, it's not crazy to claim that some teams have closed the gap. 

    As Chalmers recently told the Associated Press: 

    The East is going to be a beast this year. It's going to be tough competition every night. Brooklyn's making moves, Indiana just got Luis Scola, Derrick Rose coming back to the Bulls, it's going to be a tough Eastern Conference this year. At the same time, we'll still do what we do to try to get that third championship that we want.

    What are the five primary East challenges the Miami Heat face? 

    (All quotes for this piece were collected through the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post.) 

     

5. Carmelo Anthony Proving He's Capable of More

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    Erik Spoelstra is an advocate of efficiency. Even so, the Heat coach is an unabashed admirer of Carmelo Anthony, who squeezes off a great many shots without much concern.

    Anthony did plenty of damage against the Heat last season, scoring 30, 32 and 50 points in the three games he played. Of course, the final one came with LeBron James watching him from the sidelines, as the Heat had already begun their maintenance program. 

    After winning three of four season meetings, Anthony and the Knicks expressed confidence about the prospect of facing the Heat in the playoffs. That never happened, however, as the Indiana Pacers beat New York in six games in the second round. 

    Are the Knicks better positioned now to pose a threat? A cursory glance of the roster wouldn't suggest so. Yes, J.R. Smith re-signed, but his recent knee surgery may slow him at season's start and perhaps linger much longer. 

    Yes, they added former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani at great expense (three draft picks and a superior shooter in Steve Novak), and they lost the promising Chris Copeland in free agency to the Indiana Pacers.

    Yes, they added St. John's product Metta World Peace, but even if he outproduces the retired Jason Kidd, he isn't likely to be the same stabilizing presence in the locker room. 

    So that brings us back to Anthony. He will need to expand his game, beyond scoring, for the Knicks to be taken seriously. 

4.. New Nets Fighting off Father Time

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    Old Boston Celtics don't fade away. They end up in a New York City borough.

    Just when the Heat believed they had buried Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and even Jason Terry, they will now see all three playing for the league's newest super-team out Eastthe Brooklyn Nets. By the time the season starts, Garnett will be 37 and Pierce and Terry will be 36. That age, Brook Lopez's foot ailments and Jason Kidd's head coaching inexperience are potential problems.

    Still, there are plenty of reasons why they could be a serious threat out East: 35 All-Star appearances among the projected starting five, the toughness that Garnett and Pierce are sure to provide, and a bench deepened by the surprise signing of Andrei Kirilenko. 

    How will it come together? That will depend largely on Kidd. And while some have questioned the intelligence of the Nets' coaching choice, considering the win-now roster, don't count Heat officials among them. They are taking Kidd quite seriously, not only due to the leadership characteristics he displayed during his playing career, but because of the strong staff (which includes Lawrence Frank) the Nets have put around him.

    Kidd, who played through his 40th birthday, is uniquely qualified to monitor the minutes of his proud veterans and make them understand that it's in their best interest to occasionally take a seat.

    If he can get Garnett and Pierce through the season in one piece and stay on Deron Williams to stay in decent shape, Kidd could take a dangerous squad into the playoffs—one perfectly suited for the mental playoff grind.

3. The Dynamic Return of Derrick Rose

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    The Adidas advertising campaign promised The Return.

    On Oct. 29, barring the unforeseeable, that will become more than just a marketing slogan—Rose will finally take the floor at AmericanAirlines Arena for the season opener against the Miami Heat. 

    Rose was on that floor in May, but just during warmups and practices in plain view of the media, dribbling between his legs, stepping back, swishing jumpers. At the time, he was still trying to convince reporters he was keeping the door open for a 2012 postseason return. 

    When was he coming back? Here's how he answered that then:

    "I wish I knew, but I know I’m feeling pretty good. My spirits are up, just happy to be here, my family here, my teammates here, just everybody that we need...

    "There’s no pressure at all. I haven’t had any pressure from anyone, not from the organization, not from my teammates. They know that I’m putting everything I have into trying to come back as fast as possible, but just trying to be as smart as possible with the whole situation. Just taking my time."

    Certainly, a healthy Rose has the potential to elevate the Bulls a level or two, as they lost to the Heat in five games in the second round. Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich were also missing in the series due to complications from a spinal tap and calf strain, respectively. And Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson were hobbling. 

    All three are back, and Mike Dunleavy Jr. has been acquired to replace Marco Belinelli, offering improved outside shooting. But it's all about Rose. He won't be the best player in the league, even if that's what he recently called himself. If he's merely a legitimate All-Star again, the Bulls could give the Heat all they can handle.

2. With a Better Supporting Cast, a Pacer Becomes a Superstar

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    Rashard Lewis, James Jones, Joel Anthony and, until the end, Mike Miller hardly played in the Heat's Eastern Conference Finals series against the Indiana Pacers. They probably would have played heavy minutes if they were on the Pacers.

    Indiana had one of the weakest benches in the NBA last season, and it was particularly putrid in those seven games. The Pacers' top four subs—D.J. Augustin, Sam Young, Ian Mahinmi and Tyler Hansbrough—were a combined minus-137

    Now, after some exceptional offseason work by the Pacers front office headed by Larry Bird, none of those four players figure to be in the regular rotation. Augustin and Hansbrough are gone. Young and Mahinmi return, but better options have arrived. 

    Without exceeding the luxury tax, Indiana re-signed David West, retained Danny Granger and still added veteran frontcourt scorer Luis Scola, emerging shooter Chris Copeland (42.1 percent from three) and proven backup point guard C.J. Watson.

    That makes them at least nine deep, whether Granger or Lance Stephenson come off the bench. Still, it's hard to make them favorites in the Eastern Conference unless either Paul George or Roy Hibbert becomes a full-fledged, undeniable and reliable superstar. 

    Hibbert played like one in the playoffs against Miami, averaging 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds while shooting 55.7 percent and providing such rim protection that even LeBron James appeared reluctant to drive through the paint. But, after an uneven 2012-13 regular season, he needs to prove he can do that over an extended period.

    George averaged 19.4 points on 47.5 percent shooting in that series, but at times he was overmatched by James, especially when the Heat star posted him up. George frequently praised James' play and spoke of how it would inspire him to improve. He needs to—as much as he did between his second and third seasons—for the Pacers to push past Miami.

1. Due to Age or Injury, Miami Comes Back to the Pack

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    A step ahead of every situation, Pat Riley has established himself as a sports legend in South Florida. Yet, after the Miami Heat won their second straight championship and third in his tenure, Riley shook off suggestions that he, like LeBron James, had no worries:

    "I've got a lot of worries. I’m a little different from LeBron. Worry is fear in depth. In order to be really good about what you do, you’ve got to have a little fear about the opposition. While I believe that man might not have any worries when it comes to the media, that man is respectful of the concept of fear. A good healthy dose of fear helps motivate you and keeps you in line. So I continue to worry. And I will."

    So what should make Riley worry more? The other teams in the East...or his own? More likely, the latter.

    Yes, with Ray Allen choosing to opt in and Chris Andersen re-signing for the minimum, the Heat return the nine players who formed the regular rotation that managed the 27-game winning streak. Still, four of those nine players will be at least 33 years old when the season starts. Three of themAllen, Andersen and Shane Battier—will be 35-plus.

    More concerning is that Dwyane Wade will be nearly 32, and the Heat used the amnesty clause on Mike Miller, whose presence afforded Wade the extra time off. Riley has publicly said that he wants Wade to slim down some to take pressure off his aching knees.

    Still, it's unclear how much that will help. So, unless more help is on the way—Greg Oden?—there may be even more pressure on LeBron James to stave off improving rivals and get to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season. 

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