With conference seeding nearly decided but still subject to change, it's a great time to look at the best and worst scenarios for Miami in terms of postseason opponents. We're going to go round by round and take a look at the ideal path for a Heat three-peat and what path would prove to be most difficult.
Before we get started, let's take a quick glance at the Eastern Conference standings.
|Eastern Conference Rank||Team||Record|
|9||New York Knicks||29-41|
Regardless of whether the Heat catch the Indiana Pacers (currently two games behind) for the No. 1 seed in the East or remain in the No. 2 spot, there looks to be four realistic opponents for Miami.
Those teams are the Washington Wizards, Charlotte Bobcats, Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks.
Given those choices, the Atlanta Hawks would be the most desirable first-round opponent for Miami. Now, the Hawks have played the Heat well this season; they're 1-2 against Miami, and one of those losses came in overtime.
But Atlanta is still missing their best player in Al Horford, who's out for the remainder of the season after right pectoral surgery. That's a huge blow in their potential to match up with the Heat, who have been abused by talented centers over the years.
Atlanta doesn't do anything particularly well, ranking just 15th in offensive rating (points scored per possession) and 16th in defensive rating (points allowed per possession). They also struggle to rebound the ball (28th in the league), which is another area teams that give Miami trouble excel in.
On the flip side, the least desirable first-round opponent for Miami would be the New York Knicks. Yes, the Bobcats and Wizards have absolutely proven themselves to be better teams than the Knicks this season.
But any team that faces Miami in the first round is a long shot to win. So, among long shots, it's best to avoid a team that is loaded with talent, has one of the best scorers in the league and is playing the best basketball of its season right now.
A team's always a threat when it has a guy capable of doing the following:
The Heat could very easily knock off the Knicks in four games. But the Knicks, if Carmelo Anthony and co. get hot, are perhaps the only potential first-round opponent that could make Miami sweat a bit.
The Heat's realistic second-round opponents are the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards.
The Wizards would be the most desirable second-round opponent for Miami. For this matchup to take place, the Wizards would likely have to remain in the No. 6 slot and defeat the Toronto Raptors in the first round.
The Wizards are no slouches. But the Bulls are a bad matchup for Miami (given their size), the Nets have been the best team in the East throughout the New Year, and the Raptors have been great since ditching Rudy Gay, currently ranking top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating.
Washington has a stingy defense (10th in defensive rating) and a balanced offensive attack, but they lack the top-of-the-roster talent needed to keep up with Miami. (Although John Wall and Bradley Beal are both really good and improving players.
Going back to the Bulls being a bad matchup for the Heat, Chicago would be the least desirable second-round opponent for Miami.
With Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson, the Bulls are a physical and big team that can beat the Heat up inside and on the glass. Without Derrick Rose (injured) and Luol Deng (traded midseason to the Cleveland Cavaliers), Chicago is still a team that doesn't have the firepower to keep up with Miami.
Even though the Heat would likely take care of Chicago in, say, five games, what makes them least desirable is that their gruelingly physical style could take its toll on Miami in the later rounds. Teams don't get through playoff series against Chicago without being tired and having a few bumps and bruises.
There's a reasonable argument one could make that there's just one Eastern Conference Finals foe for Miami, that being the Pacers.
With that said, Indiana's struggled recently, so it's at least opened up the possibility another team could knock them out prior to the NBA's Final Four. Let's add Toronto and Brooklyn alongside the Pacers as potential adversaries for the Heat.
Among those three, the Raptors are the most desirable third-round opponent for Miami.
Not only are the Nets playing fantastic basketball right now, but they're also 3-0 against the Heat this year.
Toronto, on the other hand, is 0-3 against Miami in 2013-14. While the Raptors impressively have five players who average double-digit scoring, when the benches shorten and stars begin to matter more, Toronto doesn't hold up to the Heat.
As expected, the Pacers are the least desirable third-round opponent for Miami. They took the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last year and are a better team in 2013-14. Indiana has the size (especially in Roy Hibbert, who has dominated the Heat over the years), elite talent and depth to give the Heat another incredible run for their money.
The Pacers, when they're firing on all cylinders, are the worst matchup for Miami in the whole sport.
The Western Conference is loaded, but there are likely four, if that, teams that could potentially represent the conference in the league finals: the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets.
The Clippers are the most desirable finals opponent for Miami. Experience tends to be overrated in sports, but there is some value in it. While the Chris Paul era Clippers haven't even been past the second round, the Thunder and Spurs have been to the finals the past two years while Houston's two best players, Dwight Howard and James Harden, have each been to the finals.
From a more tangible perspective, while the three-ball has been a way teams have exploited Miami this season, the Clippers have struggled shooting the ball (No. 22 in 3PT%). In general, Los Angeles just hasn't received enough consistent production from their wing players.
The Clippers are still an extremely talented team and would be a tough out, but they're just a bit less formidable than the other Western Conference juggernauts.
Lastly, the Spurs are the least desirable finals opponent for Miami. What don't they have that makes them scary? They were a Ray Allen miss away from being the 2013 NBA champions, and, like the Pacers, are a better team than they were last season.
They're remarkably efficient on both sides of the ball (fourth in offensive rating and sixth in defensive rating), while possessing incredible depth and perhaps the best coach in the NBA.
If a rematch does occur, expect another seven-game series with the slight edge (again), going to Miami.
Most-desirable path: Hawks-Wizards-Raptors-Clippers
Least-desirable path: Knicks-Bulls-Pacers-Spurs
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