So, super quick.
Less than one year ago, the Heat won their second consecutive NBA title. Remember that? OK, good. Some people seem to forget. The way in which the Heat were doubted, their dynamic questioned and Dwyane Wade's demise exaggerated reached new levels of laughable by regular season's end.
Most criticism stemmed from trailing the Indiana Pacers for most of this year. Losing six of their final eight games helped advanced the discussion, as did their (slightly) declining defense.
Still, these are the Heat, the Heatles, the reigning NBA championships. They're built for the postseason, assembled to win championships. Regular-season contests are a formality and—right or wrong—of little significance.
In truth, they're regular-season performance bears no resemblance to the team they are or can be. Over the course of 82 games, it can be easy to lose sight of that, of their ceiling. Reminders are needed. Memories need to be triggered.
Cogent statements must be made.
Statements like the one Miami has the opportunity to deliver against Charlotte.
For an entire quarter, Game 1 between the Bobcats and Heat looked like it would be close.
Commended for their defense, the Bobcats opened things up with dynamic offensive sets. Al Jefferson did Al Jefferson things. Gary Neal was feeling it. Kemba Walker's shot wasn't falling, but his dimes were dropping. The Bobcats moved the ball, shot well and looked good.
But then Jefferson suffered a strained plantar fascia in his left foot, and everything changed.
Though he would return in the second quarter, he wasn't the same. Getting up and down the floor was a struggle, he favored his foot on the offensive end and he was grimacing frequently.
To make it through the rest of Game 1, Jefferson needed injections to mask the pain, per ESPN.com's Michael Wallace:
Al Jefferson took a painkiller shot in order to play through foot injury in second half.— Michael Wallace (@WallaceNBA_ESPN) April 20, 2014
Treatment did little. Jefferson labored through the rest of the game, trudging up and down the court as if he were wearing slabs of marble for shoes.
The Bobcats, meanwhile, couldn't properly function with a hurting Jefferson. After shooting 57.9 percent in the first quarter, they shot just under 42 percent the rest of the way, inevitably falling victim to a fourth-quarter surge by Miami that put the game out of reach for good.
"Just gotta suck it up," Jefferson deadpanned afterward, per Turner Sports' Rachel Nichols. "I'll be fine for the remainder of the playoffs."
Or so he thought.
Per The Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell, Jefferson's status for Game 2 is trending in the wrong direction:
Steve Clifford sounded less than certain at practice that Al Jefferson would play Wednesday.— Rick Bonnell (@rick_bonnell) April 22, 2014
Playing with a limited, medicated and tattered Jefferson is better than not playing with him at all. The team relies on him as its primary source of scoring, as instant offense on a squad that checked in at 24th in offensive efficiency during the regular season, according to NBA.com.
As Jefferson goes, so does the offense. If he can't play, the Bobcats' season is over, as the The Charlotte Observer's Tom Sorensen writes:
Unfortunately, it's this simple.
If Al Jefferson isn't effective, the Charlotte Bobcats have no chance to beat the Miami Heat. If Jefferson ceases to be Big Al, if plantar fasciitis limits what he can do when he has the ball as well as when Miami has it, Charlotte's season ends quietly.
Not that anyone expected the Bobcats to overthrow the Heat. They were 0-4 against the reigning champs during the regular season, and as we saw in Game 1, the Heat can take control even if Jefferson is on the floor.
Big Al's absence, while inconvenient for the Bobcats and unfortunate for proponents of playoff contests with meaning, paves the way for a four-game sweep. It was always a possibility.
Now, provided Jefferson isn't Jefferson or he's forced to sit, it's closer to likely.
Rest and Relaxation
Rest can bankrupt the rhythm of NBA teams.
Related: The Heat aren't most NBA teams.
Grant Hill once stressed the importance of rhythm in the Association to yours truly, explaining how a week or even a few days off could put you in a funk. If the Heat take down Charlotte in four games, they might have ample time on their hands before facing one of the Toronto Raptors or Brooklyn Nets.
Is that a bad thing?
If it is, bad things never sounded so good.
Much of Wade's nonexistent demise has been attributed to injuries and protracted absences. But those absences, planned or not, are a big reason he's playing right now. Without that rest, he doesn't log 34 minutes of playing time in Game 1, he isn't scoring 23 points and dishing out five assists, he isn't running the floor circa 2005.
LeBron James is human too. He missed only five games while averaging 37.7 minutes of action throughout the regular season. Any rest he can be given is a bonus and boon for his well-being, not a barrier that crimps his all-world style.
This whole game-planning thing is pretty important as well. Sending the Bobcats home in four games gives the Heat time to prepare, to practice.
James and Wade are also given additional time to sync up. They spent the least amount of time on the floor together this season than any other year since joining forces in 2010, per NBA.com (subscription required). Any kinks they need to iron out or hurdles they need to clear can be worked through.
Similar luxuries were provided last spring, after the Heat eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks in four games. They sat tight, waited for the Nets and Chicago Bulls to finish their seven-game slugfest and entered the second round well rested, ready to storm past the former in five games, despite dropping Game 1.
Unlike other situations, a rested Heat team is a dangerous Heat team.
Dispatching a Jefferson-less Bobcats team won't warrant celebrations.
Confetti won't be thrown, banners won't be hung, trophies won't be handed out. But winning with ease does send a message.
Without even playing another team, the Heat deliver a crushing blow to every Eastern Conference playoff faction placing a stake in its postseason push.
How many games will it take the Heat to beat the Bobcats?
Yet again, the Heat will have advanced past the first round facing little resistance.
Yet again, they're one step closer to another Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
Yet again, the NBA is reminded the Heat won't bend, cringe or break when it matters most.
By just handling the Bobcats the way they're supposed to, the Heat put a punctuation mark on their status, clearing their path to a three-peat, even if only slightly.
"Can't look no righter," James said after Game 1, when asked if Wade looked right, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick.
Can't be in a better situation, either. The Heat are once again in a position of power, within reach of striking first, moving forward, putting more distance between themselves and anything and anyone suggesting they'll fall off at the wrong time.