First-Round NBA Playoff Matchups the Miami Heat Do and Don't Want
The Denver Nuggets topped the Seattle Supersonics in 1994.
Unlike the Davis vs. Goliath-caliber shocks that occur with some regularity on the gridiron, the NBA playoffs aren’t typified by big round-one upsets.
But they can and do happen.
The 2013-14 Miami Heat probably won't be the next giant to fall. But while the Heat’s road to a three-peat is exceedingly likely to extend beyond the postseason’s initial series, LeBron James and company will, in fact, be playing a best-of-seven against a professional basketball team this April. And there’s at least some mathematical chance that one of those teams could derail Miami.
But which team would that be?
Given the glut of organizations packed into the Eastern Conference’s lower-middle class, and the tightening race for the No. 1 seed between the Heat and the Indiana Pacers, it’s difficult to project which teams will be Miami’s first playoff opponent. There are seven teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Charlotte Bobcats, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets, that the champs could possibly run into.
Some of these squads figure to pose very few problems for the Heat and some of them figure to pose…well, no problems for the Heat.
What follows is a look at each potential first-round matchup for the defending champs, ranked in reverse order of favorability.
*All stats updated to March 15.
Standing in Conference: No. 10
ESPN’s Hollinger Playoff Odds: 7.6 percent
The Cleveland Cavaliers are terrible—though not so terrible that an Eastern Conference playoff berth is entirely out of the question. With 16 games remaining, Cleveland sit four games behind the Atlanta Hawks in the race—well, it’s more like a jog—for the No. 8 seed.
It’s a race the Cavs, for what it’s worth, seem intent on winning. But while they added Luol Deng in January and Spencer Hawes at the trade deadline, Cleveland, if it advances to the dance, doesn’t have nearly enough firepower to hang with LeBron James and the Heat over a seven-game series.
The talent difference between the two teams is so vast that it renders any other analysis of the matchup unnecessary. That said, for intangible reasons, Miami might prefer different cannon fodder in the opening round. While it’s unlikely to make much of a difference, other things equal, what team would prefer to expose their best player to a potentially emotionally wrenching homecoming right before a title defense?
(Well, maybe if it meant they got to play the Cavs.)
This smells like a sweep.
Standing in Conference: No. 11
ESPN’s Hollinger Playoff Odds: 7.6 percent
*All stats updated to March 15
The Detroit Pistons and the Heat make for an interesting study in contrasts. Miami creates and thrives in space, the Pistons’ offense operates with as much elbow room as canned sardines. Miami’s roster is expertly constructed, with powerful synergies enhancing the production of already talented players. Detroit’s three best guys—Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith—can’t get on the floor together.
Oh, and Miami’s most expensive player—LeBron James—has a true shooting percentage of 64.8 percent and has developed into the most efficient player in recent history. The Piston’s top earner is Josh Smith—who, in the words of Grantland’s Zach Lowe, is “on pace for perhaps the worst three-point shooting season ever.”
It just doesn't add up for the Pistons. Detroit ranks 21st in the NBA in offensive efficiency and 22nd in defense, per ESPN. It strains credulity to imagine the Pistons generating enough points to beat a Miami defense that figures to turn things up a notch or two come playoff time, or making enough stops to slow a Heat offense that has a true shooting percentage of 59.8.
While Detroit managed to steal one of the three games it’s played against Miami this season—a 107-97 Dec. 3 victory in American Airlines Arena—the Heat, one suspects, aren’t exactly shaking in their Nike's at the prospect of a round-one matchup with Motown.
New York Knicks
Standing in Conference: No. 9
ESPN’s Hollinger Playoff Odds: 14.8 percent
New York, New York is a wonderful town—truly a concrete jungle where dreams are made of—but it’s saddled with a lousy professional basketball team.
No city’s perfect.
But despite their best efforts to psychologically devastate their fanbase—some pretty sick stuff has gone on at the Garden this year, stuff you can’t un-see, stuff that sticks with you—Carmelo Anthony, Mike Woodson and the New York Knicks were just 3.5 games out of the playoffs with 15 to play. ESPN’s Hollinger Playoff Odds give them a 14.8 percent chance of advancing, which is a possibility the NBA community has to prepare itself for.
The New York Knicks in the 2014 playoffs. Barricade the doors, hide the women and children. Make peace with your god.
If the Knicks do advance, they figure not to pose much of a threat to the Heat. The one concern—well, let’s call it a slight, but nagging, worry—is Carmelo Anthony. Melo might not be a great enough player to carry a team to a title, but he’s plenty good enough to catch fire and swing a playoff game. (See his 39-point effort in last spring’s season-ending loss to the Indiana Pacers.) And he relishes the challenge of going up against LeBron.
"I love to compete against him," Anthony told ESPN’s Ian Begley in February. "He brings the best out of me. Hopefully, I bring the best out of him and we go from there. It's always a battle."
In the 24 times they’ve gone head-to-head in the NBA, Melo and LeBron have each won 12, according to ESPN. But if the two stars get an opportunity to play a few more this spring, it’s likely James would break the tie.
Standing in Conference: No. 7
ESPN’s Hollinger Playoff Odds: 99.2 percent
The Heat seem on a collision course with the Charlotte Bobcats in round-one of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, which, one suspects, is just fine with them. The Heat swept the ‘Cats in their regular-season series 4-0.
LeBron, in particular, thrives against a Charlotte team that is simply ill-equipped to deal with him. While Charlotte has held opposing power forwards to 18.36 points per game so far in 2013-14—the fourth-best figure in the NBA, according to RotoGrinders.com—LeBron averaged 37.8 points on 62.9 percent shooting this season against the Bobcats, including a career-high 61-point effort on March 3.
A playoff series would likely include more of the same.
After all, two years ago, when the Heat were gearing up for a playoff run that would culminate in James’ first title, the Bobcats were licking their wounds from the worst season in NBA history. Things have changed a bit since then, but unfortunately for Charlotte, they haven’t changed quite enough.
Standing in Conference: No. 8
ESPN’s Hollinger Playoff Odds: 74.3 percent
Paul Milsap is a versatile and talented basketball player who, with the welcome addition of a three-point shot to his repertoire, may not yet have hit his ceiling. In March of 2014, that is the only remotely interesting thing about the Atlanta Hawks.
Yeah, the Hawks are on a three-game winning streak—against the murderer’s row that is the Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets, each of which they beat by five points or fewer—but the team won one of 15 games that preceded it.
Atlanta is playing so poorly right now, that in a March 6 mailbag column on Peachtree Hoops, a reader asked, without a trace of irony, if the team was tanking. Meanwhile, the Miami Heat have LeBron James. Any additional analysis here would be superfluous. Next slide.
Standing in Conference: No. 5
ESPN’s Hollinger Playoff Odds: 100 percent
If winning a first-round series 4-1 rather than executing a sweep unnerves the Miami Heat, then the Washington Wizards are keeping Erik Spoelstra up at night.
The quick case for the Wizards: John Wall is on the precipice of a leap—he’s reaching the point where, as a player, his successes and failures occur irrespective of what the defense does—while Trevor Ariza is sneakily having a tremendous season. The overlooked veteran quietly leads Washington in win shares, per Basketball-Reference, and wins produced, according to Boxscore Geeks, and is on pace to finish with a career-high player efficiency rating.
Granted, none of this means a whole lot. Miami appears well positioned to neutralize the Wizard’s strengths.
While Wall has been great, the Heat have a knack for containing point guards. According to RotoGrinders.com, opposing floor generals have scored just 16.97 points per game against Miami so far this season on 39.79 percent shooting. These figures rank first and second in the NBA.
Standing in Conference: No. 6
ESPN’s Hollinger Playoff Odds: 99.6 percent
No potential round-one opponent should scare the Heat. But the Brooklyn Nets might spook them a little.
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and company have been playing great basketball of late and have had Miami’s number this season. After a dreadful start to the campaign, the Nets are 23-10 so far during 2014. In head-to-head matchups against the Heat, Brooklyn is 3-0 with a pair of one-point squeakers and a 104-95 overtime win on Jan. 10.
"Brooklyn is clearly a confident bunch when it faces Miami, and the Nets clearly matchup well against the Heat," wrote ESPN's Mike Mazzeo after the Nets topped Miami 96-95 on March 12. "Both teams play a smaller lineup and struggle to rebound."
The Nets' veteran core also has a track record of success against Miami in the Big Three era. While with the Boston Celtics, Garnett and Pierce took the Heat to seven games before losing the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, entering Game 6 with a 3-2 lead.
That’s the worrisome news for the Heat. The good? Garnett and Pierce are each posting what would be the lowest PERs of their respective careers, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Also, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams are expensive basketball players who are aging like milk; Brook Lopez is in street clothes, and for all the talk of a turnaround, the Nets are still sporting a point differential of minus-1.4 on the season—which, for point of reference, is worse than what the Knicks have done.
Of all the teams the Heat could realistically face in the opening round, the Nets are the matchup that would be the least favorable. There's a valuable lesson we can draw from this: The Heat will play in round two.