Ranking Potential First Round Playoff Opponents for Miami Heat

Sam RichmondCorrespondent IMarch 12, 2014

Ranking Potential First Round Playoff Opponents for Miami Heat

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    With just 21 games remaining in the 2013-14 NBA regular season, the Miami Heat already know they'll all but certainly enter the postseason as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. 

    Who they'll face in the first round of the playoffs is very much a mystery, though.

    There are realistically seven teams that could play the back-to-back champions in Round 1, ranging from the No. 5 Washington Wizards (just 3.5 games ahead of the No. 7 seed Charlotte Bobcats) to the No. 11 Cleveland Cavaliers (just four games behind the Atlanta Hawks).

    We're going to break down these seven teams based on how big of a threat they would pose to the Heat, beginning with the smallest threat and concluding with the team Miami would least like to face in the first round.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    The Heat would breeze through the Cleveland Cavaliers if the teams met in the playoffs.

    The Cavs don't have nearly enough offensive firepower to hang with Miami. The on-paper talent might be there, but this is still a Mike Brown-coached team, and the Cleveland offense is putrid.

    Cleveland ranks 24th in points per possession and is dead last in both field goal percentage and two-point field goal percentage. 

    While the Cavs are a strong rebounding team, which is important when facing Miami, Cleveland is a below average defensive team. That's far from ideal when facing the likes of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

    With all of their weaknesses, it's hard to envision the Cavaliers being able to steal even a game from Miami.

6. Atlanta Hawks

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    Todd Kirkland/Associated Press

    There was a time when the Atlanta Hawks might have been able to give the Heat a little bit of a challenge. But in the past few months this team has lost Al Horford for the season and has seen Jeff Teague regress after a hot start and Louis Williams be a non-factor.

    The Hawks are still a deadly shooting team, and the Heat have struggled to defend the outside shot this season. That has helped Atlanta hang with the Heat (and beat them once) in their three matchups this season.  

    But Miami is known for clamping down on defense in the postseason, and it's likely the Heat could contain Kyle Korver and Co. for the most part.   

    Atlanta might be able to grab a game thanks to an incredible shooting performance, but without one of those, the Hawks would come up empty.

5. Detroit Pistons

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    The Detroit Pistons are a mess defensively and are a below average offensive team. So what prevents them from almost being the team the Heat most want to face in the playoffs is how much size they have.

    Motor City has a trio in Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith (when Smith's not shooting ill-advised jumpers) who can do some damage around the basket. The Pistons rank first in offensive rebounds and seventh in total rebounds, while Miami ranks dead last in both categories. 

    The Pistons have earned a win against Miami, thanks in part to their domination on the glass. Detroit outrebounded the Heat 46-34 in a December win in Miami. 

    Now, the Heat obviously know how to overcome their rebounding deficiencies (and they've done so twice against this Pistons this year), so this is still a likely sweep. 

4. Charlotte Bobcats

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    The Heat are 4-0 against the Charlotte Bobcats this year, and their most recent win involved LeBron scoring 61 points. 

    Still, the Bobcats aren't as big of a cakewalk as those facts make them seem. Charlotte actually ranks sixth in fewest points per possession and have held the Heat under 100 points throughout regulation in three of their four matchups. 

    This is a team that can slow Miami's offense down; it's a mistake to blame them for how scorching hot LBJ was when he dropped 61.

    Thanks to the 2013 offseason acquisition of Al Jefferson, the Bobcats have the talent to beat the Heat inside, where Miami is vulnerable. LeBron's scoring was clearly the story in Miami's March 3 win, but it shouldn't go ignored that Jefferson scored 38 and added 19 rebounds.

    Also, factor in the emergence of Kemba Walker, and this is an interesting Bobcats team. We're still talking about them facing a juggernaut, though; so it's unlikely Charlotte could do anything more than win a game.

3. New York Knicks

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    Look out, the New York Knicks have won four straight and find themselves back in the mix for a playoff spot (3.5 games behind the No. 8 Hawks). 

    Even with all of its struggles this season, New York still has talent, and if this recent stretch is the Knicks putting the pieces back together, then they don't make for the easiest of first-round matchups.

    The Knicks don't have the defensive ability (25th in the league) to truly challenge Miami, but if Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. have it flowing offensively, New York has the ability to make the Heat sweat in a couple games.

    While Anthony is overrated as an elite superstar, he still represents the best player Miami could face in the opening round, which boosts New York's ranking on this list significantly.

2. Washington Wizards

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    The Washington Wizards currently occupy the No. 5 seed in the East, so a matchup with the Heat is pretty unlikely. That's a good thing for Miami.

    In the three matchups between these two teams, Washington played the Heat close in two and dominated them in the other. In that lone Wizards win, they outscored the Heat 43-18 in the first quarter.

    The Wizards can give the Heat trouble with a balanced offensive attack. They can win outside, relying on Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza, or inside, with Marcin Gortat and Nene (currently injured but expected to be back for the playoffs). Of course, they also have an all-star in John Wall running the show.

    On the other side of the ball, the Wizards fair well. They are 11th in points per possession allowed and have held the Heat under their 104 scoring average in each of their three contests.

    Washington would likely lose in four or five games like the rest of the teams on this list, but at the very least they would play Miami tough.

1. Brooklyn Nets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The Brooklyn Nets aren't the postseason threat that some of us thought they would be at the start of the season; however, they remain the team Miami would least like to play in the first round.

    For one, the Nets are 2-0 against the Heat this year, although all matchups have taken place in Brooklyn to this point. Also, after an abysmal start to the season, Brooklyn is 13 games above .500 in 2014.

    Still, this a team that ranks 20th in offensive rating, 15th in defensive rating, 29th in rebounds and 26th in assists. 

    The Nets wouldn't beat the Heat, but it's at least possible to envision a scenario in which Deron Williams and Paul Pierce find their form, and they, along with Joe Johnson, steal a game or two from Miami in May.