With a healthy, world-beating LeBron James, the Heat can win any given game as long as the rest of the roster can muster competence on the court. For a round or two, that may even be enough to win entire series.
But the level of competition looking to knock off the Heat has increased this season. There are no fewer than four bona fide contenders who can legitimately match Miami's talent level. The West is even stronger than last season and can better check the Heat's athleticism, while the Indiana Pacers are not surprising anyone with their juggernaut play this season.
Sure, the Pacers have been slumping of late, but the Heat have had their struggles, too. After losing five of six in a mid-March stretch, Miami finished the month with a 51-22 record, moving into sole possession of first place in the East for the first time in 2013-14.
Now that the Heat are back on top—territory familiar historically but uncharted this season—let's start there as we examine how they might get knocked off.
Even if the Heat hold on to home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, the streaking San Antonio Spurs are 6.5 games up on Miami, and the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers are both ahead of the Heat as well. Home court in the Finals is no longer an option.
And it's not like Miami has a stranglehold on the East, either. Indy is just percentage points back; if the Pacers win their final meeting with Miami, five of their other six games are against Eastern foes, which could help them turn things around.
Finishing the regular season strong would pay dividends down the line for the Heat. They're 29-6 at home this season versus a more pedestrian 22-16 away, and their splits reflect the difference in their caliber of play:
Over the past two postseasons, the Heat are 10-8 on the road, but that record includes away sweeps of teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls last season, neither of whom were poised to give Miami much difficulty.
Dropping two of three games last postseason in both Indiana and San Antonio is more worrisome. The numbers suggest that, if forced to travel for a Game 7, the Heat could revert to a higher-volume, lower-efficiency jump-shooting approach.
An unforgiving defense like Indy's could make those looks hell while still protecting the lane, and a high-powered offense from out West could turn Miami's misses into easy transition buckets on the other end.
Dwyane Wade's Health
It seems counterintuitive that Dwyane Wade—notorious for his uninspired transition D, often featuring delays to whine at refs—could help the Heat limit their fast-break points allowed.
But a Wade at or near 100 percent bolsters the offense to the point of significantly reducing opponents' easy counterpunch opportunities.
The Heat feature three players with assist percentages over 20: James, Wade and Mario Chalmers. Chalmers is not an expert dribble-driver, so his dishing capabilities improve when there are more penetrators on the floor with him.
Attacking the basket is Wade's game, same as always. That's how he's still able to average 19.2 points per game and shoot a career-high 54.6 percent from the field.
In fact, he's somehow finishing inside better than he ever has. Per Hoopdata, he has converted on 74.7 percent of his attempts at the rim this season; since 2007 (the extent of Hoopdata's database), Wade had not hit above 67 percent at the rim.
With Wade slashing from one side of the floor, James gets that much more wiggle room to work on the other. Both are also gifted interior passers, allowing one to feed the other in the lane as the protection shifts.
Wade catalyzes the offense into a more effective and also safer entity than it is without him; those shots inside produce less long rebounds and limit the run-outs the aged Heat have to contend with.
As we saw last postseason, though, a hobbled Wade is not at all the same player. Without his ability to probe the defense, he becomes more or less a non-factor offensively. Miami needs him at his best, but it also cannot afford to trust him at something less.
He is currently grappling with a hamstring injury, which, as he told Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald, he has dealt with before:
Wade on his hamstring: "I can’t even say I don’t want to push it because I can’t yet."— Joseph Goodman (@JoeGoodmanJr) March 28, 2014
Wade on hamstring: “I’ve had one before. I missed the whole preseason ... obviously, it’s not at that [severity]."— Joseph Goodman (@JoeGoodmanJr) March 28, 2014
Add a potential ache like that on top of Wade's always balky knees, and his mobility is in serious jeopardy. Protecting Wade's legs has to be a top priority for Miami. With him, it's not just a matter of always wanting to be healthy for a playoff run; his wellness is a permanent question in a way that James' and Chris Bosh's aren't, and it has significant strategic implications.
In the past, the Heat's biggest flaw would inevitably be their big-man D, a shortcoming designed into their strategy that they managed to fend off with greater strengths.
This season, the issues on defense run deeper.
After ranking fourth and seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions, the Heat are down to 11th this season with 102.6—not bad, but closer to the last-place Utah Jazz (108.7) than the leading Pacers (95.9).
As Dane Carbaugh of SB Nation pointed out during Miami's losing skid, offenses are capitalizing on familiarity with the aggressive Heat pick-and-roll tactic. When Miami sends a big to hedge hard, he's encountering multiple screens now, and opponents are using more off-ball actions that utilize their speed to disrupt the Heat even in the half court.
Now that things are looking up again, James credits the bounce back on redoubled defensive focus, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel:
As far as the rhythm of our defense, we look like our old selves once again. We got guys that are out there that know the system.
The problem Miami was facing on defense falls somewhere between aging, effort and awareness.
Foes haven't been exacerbating the Heat's slowness as much of late, but it's not like they're any faster now. If they nail their rotations and play perfect on-a-string D, they can conceal their age, but even geniuses like Shane Battier are going to get exposed now and again.
Step too slow or react too late, and guards can break the trap and get the ball moving to an open shooter. In fact, Miami's issue extends to the trap itself; outside of James and Bosh, no Heat big has the quickness to show out and get back to the woefully unprotected rim.
If this seems severe, it's because Miami's competition is built to exploit weaknesses like this. The Spurs have been doing this for centuries, while the other Western contenders all have the athleticism and offensive savvy to give the Heat hell. Even the Pacers can throw multiple ball-handlers out at once to evade the trap.
The defense only failed Miami for a short stretch, but that's no reason to think everything is solved now. It's not, and when pitted against a great team in a seven-game series, it's vulnerable.