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Are Miami Heat Suddenly the 2014 NBA Title Favorites Again?

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Are Miami Heat Suddenly the 2014 NBA Title Favorites Again?
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Well, that certainly didn't take long.

The Miami Heat succeeded in making quick work of the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday night, completing the first-round series sweep with a 109-98 victory in Game 4. Though there was a certain inevitability to their handy work—they were 4-0 against Charlotte during the regular season—their performance was equal parts satisfying and telling.

There isn't much to learn about the Heat at this stage of the season and the Big Three's time together. Not against a seventh-place Bobcats team featuring an injured and ultimately absent Al Jefferson. But we learned enough.

A regular-season hangover never came. That mental barrier, the one that often left Miami playing apathetic basketball against inferior opponents, never appeared. The Heat did what they were supposed to do—eliminate the Bobcats swiftly, never once ceding control as their quest for a third straight championship continued.

In these brutally competitive NBA playoffs, in the middle of the Heat's quest for another title, that tells us all we need to know. But does it say enough for us to place faith in these Heat as championship favorites once again?

 

The Perks of Swift Exits

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Rest is fun. 

For the Heat, it's necessary.

Serious amounts of mental and physical energy are expended during the regular season. It's been worse in Miami, where the Heat have spent nearly four years attempting to forge a dynasty. The seasons are longer, the stakes higher and the workload heavier.

LeBron James has appeared in 365 games—regular season and playoffs—since joining the Heat. That's an average of 91.3 games per year, and his current season isn't even over yet. Chris Bosh has played in 349 (87.3). Mario Chalmers has seen action in 355 (88.8). Even the injury-prone Dwyane Wade is averaging close to 80 games a season since 2010 (318 total appearances). 

Long postseason runs take a toll. Contending and winning championships is hard work. Any rest and relaxation the Heat can get this time of year should be welcomed.

By dispatching the Bobcats in four games, the Heat assured themselves of at least five days off. At least. If the Brooklyn Nets-Toronto Raptors series—currently tied at two games apiece—goes seven games, they're looking at more than a week of downtime and additional preparation.

The rest of the NBA, meanwhile, is lumbering through one of the most wacky, hard-fought first rounds in recent memory. Every other series will span at least five games. Most of them will go six. Some of them will go seven.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Whichever team the Heat face next will be at a disadvantage. It doesn't matter if it's the Nets—who beat Miami four times during the regular season—or the Raptors. The Heat will have had ample time to lick their wounds and stretch their legs. And once they're done resting, a potential cakewalk awaits.

Once considered a legitimate threat, the Indiana Pacers have been pushed to the brink of elimination by the eighth-place Atlanta Hawks. Their season is over. Done. Even if they somehow manage to steal Games 6 and 7, they're no longer a threat. Not the way they're playing.

If and when they do fall to the Hawks, the Heat's road back to the NBA Finals will run through two of the Raptors or Nets, and Chicago Bulls/Washington Wizards or Hawks.

Now tell me that isn't a better path than the Heat could have ever hoped for.

 

That LeBron Dude

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Consider James' switch flipped.

You can't quite say that James' first-round performance went swimmingly. Josh McRoberts saw a bull's-eye on his neck, and James bumped knees with Bismack Biyombo in Game 4. For a while after, James was walking and running as if his legs were made of toothpicks and the court covered in ice.

But he was still magnificent. Even though he was taking a beating, crashing to the floor and moving gingerly at certain points, he was sensational.

Through four games, James averaged 30 points, eight rebounds, six assists and 2.3 steals. Do you know how many other players in league history have reached said benchmarks during the playoffs through a minimum of four games?

Zero.

To go along with his historical stat line, James also shot 55.7 percent from the floor. And 35 percent from deep. And posted a player efficiency rating of 33.2. 

"We got tested by a young, scrappy Bobcats team," James said afterward, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "We responded with a championship-type attitude."

Not every opponent will go down as quietly as the Bobcats. James' production could also prove unsustainable. But the Heat must feel good about their overall performance.

James was dominant. Wade was able to log over 30 minutes of action every night while pouring in 17.5 points on an economical 49.1 percent shooting. Bosh came alive in Game 4. The Heat shot over 40 percent from deep collectively. They held the Bobcats to under 100 points in all four games, and under 90 points twice.

With James playing like he is, and the rest of the Heat playing like they are, it's tough to imagine any team beating them four times in seven games.

 

Title Favorites or Just Lucky? 

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Here's the part where we use the Heat's fortunes against them.

The first round wasn't a test for the Heat. It was a formality. They were always going to beat the Bobcats, always going to advance to the second round.

While impressive, there is danger in such proceedings. It creates a lull. A false sense of security. Every other team is being tested. The Heat cruised their way past a stepping stone that diminished in size and intimidation once Jefferson started playing on a battered foot.

As Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick admitted, the playoffs haven't really started for the reigning champs:

Now the Heat go where everyone expected: onward. And, sure, many will downplay eliminating a green 43-win team with a hobbled, and then absent, best player.

[...]

Yes, it seems that, for Miami, the playoffs haven't started yet, at least not when compared to the slugfests around America. But Miami isn't concerned about providing gripping entertainment, at least not at this stage. It just wanted to advance, as expeditiously as possible.

Tougher opponents await the Heat. Even if they're able to sleepwalk through the Eastern Conference—very possible—the Western Conference isn't as forgiving.

Series out west have been absurd. Three of four matchups will go at least six games. If the Houston Rockets stave off elimination against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 5, every series will span at least six contests. Multiple Game 7s could then follow.

Each of the eight Western Conference playoff teams arguably pose more of a challenge than any squad in the East. Skating through the first three rounds, then, only guarantees the Heat a wake-up call. They go from steamrolling inferior opponents to meeting a more dangerous foe. The cakewalk ends there.

Championships won't be won with the Heat being outscored when their three best players are on the floor.

Victories will turn to losses if they wait to step on the throats of their opponents, like they did a few times against the Bobcats.

More talented teams, actual championship contenders, will exploit every mistake the Heat make, every misstep they take. 

To that end, a rather effortless path doesn't bode well for a Heat club that found itself suffering from inertia numerous times during the regular season. A weak Eastern Conference could hurt them. It could be their undoing later on.

Are we about to render the Heat title favorites just because they beat Charlotte? When their first true test may come two rounds from now? When the Western Conference is a hellacious blend of powerhouses, dominant contenders and scrapping and clawing dark horses (sup, Memphis?)?

Well, um, yes.

Yes we are.

Lynne Sladky

Potential pratfalls have not gone unnoticed in Miami. The Heat know where they stand. They know what they need to do, what they're supposed to do.

And, unlike everyone else, they're doing it.

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The San Antonio Spurs weren't supposed to engage in a long, tightly contested series with the Dallas Mavericks. The Oklahoma City Thunder weren't supposed to find themselves bending to the will of the ever-resistant Memphis Grizzlies. The Pacers weren't supposed to play like this is the first time they're picking up a basketball. The Rockets weren't supposed to find themselves facing elimination this soon. Same goes for the Bulls.

Of every title contender, only the Heat have met expectations. Regardless of how, that means something. It counts for something.

"And we've got to get better," James said, via Skolnick. "We can't play like we played this round next round."

Maybe they can, maybe they can't. But thanks to taking care of business early on the way reigning champions and title favorites should, they have more time than anyone else to figure out what must come next.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise attributed.


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