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Indiana has gotten close to knocking out Miami more than once and just keeps coming back stronger.
Last year, one got the sense that finding reasons to pick against the Heat was just wishful thinking, regardless of how hard anyone tried. From the offseason onward, they just seemed to be in the driver's seat, despite some bumps in the road. I hadn't felt that way about a team since the Jordan Bulls or the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. Miami was just that good, and it was obvious.
This year? It's not that clear-cut at all. The Heat showed they weren't invincible last year, and they know that. Now, much of their prime competition, East and West, seems healthier and/or stronger than ever before. This season doesn't feel like a given that they three-peat, and that's not wishful thinking.
You have to start with the Indiana Pacers. There might be a lot of focus on the Chicago Bulls, but we don't really know what Derrick Rose is going to look like yet. Indiana's getting Granger back, but that doesn't even matter to an extent. The Pacers' two best players, Roy Hibbert and Paul George, are going to be even better anyways, and that was a top-three starting lineup by nearly all metrics last season.
Their bench was terrible last year. It was holding them back. They were the worst bench in the playoffs, including the eight-seeds. Their bench guys were a combined minus-137 against the Heat. Now, Lance Stephenson presumably goes back to the bench because Granger is back. They add Luis Scola, CJ Watson and Chris Copeland, and they're versatile everywhere on the roster.
They might not be as good defensively, but they'll pick up the slack by being better on offense. Plus, George and Hibbert are at the point where they've learned so much from playoff experience, and it's all adding up.
The Bulls are up next, though I'm not sure how close they are behind. The Brooklyn Nets did a lot, but let's see them answer the health, chemistry and age questions first. Finally, I'm just not sure about what the New York Knicks did this offseason, but they'll be around in the Eastern Conference.
It has to be the Pacers, in the East, for me as well. They pushed the Heat to seven games this year, took it to them the year before, and now they're even better.
If the Pacers had one more bounce go their way or knocked down a couple extra shots last season, maybe the Heat never even make the finals. They were that close. Despite the Knicks, Nets and Bulls, I think most of us are confident envisioning Indiana and Miami squaring off in the Eastern Conference Finals again.
In the Western Conference, there just isn't the same amount of certainty. The OKC Thunder have Russell Westbrook back. The San Antonio Spurs might have a hard time getting back to the finals, but they were oh so close against the Heat and will be in the hunt again.
The LA Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets were good teams that really got better too. I'm not sure if they're title contenders yet, but they could be.
The Pacers are still probably the single toughest threat for Miami, but whoever comes out of the West would really test the Heat just like San Antonio did.
Joel C. Cordes
I actually think that the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, with the rivalry that's there, plus the fact they're now presumably at full strength and will be playing each other four times this season, I think they're going to end up cancelling each other out and wear each other down just a little bit.
That whole Central Division is going to be so tough now with the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers actually in the playoff hunt. The Milwaukee Bucks will be spoilers on some nights too. Indiana and Chicago will be stuck in a war all season long that the Southeast and Atlantic Division teams won't have to face.
I think Brooklyn gets hot by the end of the season after figuring out the chemistry, provided everyone stays healthy. With the Nets' depth and experience, especially from guys who have fought and beaten the Heat before, they're the team that will present the toughest challenge when it's all said and done.
The scariest thing for the Heat though? All three of those aforementioned teams, with the Knicks as the fourth wild card, could conceivably win a series against Miami this year. And that's not wishful thinking or hyperbole.