While the twice-defending champs coasted to a sweep of the Charlotte Bobcats, the Oklahoma City Thunder needed seven games to slip by the Memphis Grizzlies, the San Antonio Spurs required the full set to eke past the similarly "OG" Dallas Mavericks, the Los Angeles Clippers went the distance before knocking off Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, and the Houston Rockets were forced into an early summer vacation. And that’s just the Western Conference.
In the already-enervated East, the Heat had the pleasure of watching one ostensible rival—the Chicago Bulls—get bounced unceremoniously from the postseason while a second—the suddenly sad-sack Indiana Pacers—narrowly avoided becoming the sixth No. 1 seed in the Association’s long history to fall in the playoff’s initial round.
LeBron James and Co., never wanting for confidence, would be forgiven if they’re feeling pretty good about their chances of joining the ranks of NBA three-peaters. Miami needed a rest—and it got one—while some of the biggest threats to the belt had to grit and grind past rivals and had a few warts and liabilities exposed along the way.
And Miami should feel pretty good. According to OddsShark.com, the Heat have 7-5 odds of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy for a third straight year this June, the best in the Association. That’s up from the 2-1 number Vegas put on the team’s chances when the playoffs began a few weeks prior.
"We did what we were supposed to do," Dwyane Wade told Fox Sport’s Charlie McCarthy after the sweep. "We went out there and won four games for a reason, to be able to have this opportunity to not only rest but get some work in behind the scenes."
But despite the red-and-black-tinted glasses through which the betting public is now viewing this postseason, there are still some significant hurdles the favorites face—and some credible threats to their dynastic ambition.
One particularly problematic opponent comes this round: the Brooklyn Nets. The veteran Nets aren’t coming into this round with the layoff the Heat benefited from—they too needed seven games to get by their Round 1 counterpart, the Toronto Raptors—but Jason Kidd’s group has had Miami’s number this season. Brooklyn ripped off a 4-0 record against Miami in 2013-14, the first time in LeBron’s pro career that a team of his has been swept in four games in the regular season.
While each of the Nets’ wins over Miami came on razor-thin margins—Brooklyn had three one-point wins plus a 104-95 victory that went to two overtimes—this still augers poorly for the Heat. According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton (subscription required), head-to-head regular-season record is the single best indicator of a potential playoff upset.
Lower seeds that won the season series outright have gone 10-9 during first-round series. Meanwhile, lower seeds that lost the season series are a staggering 4-46. (For completeness, lower seeds that split the season series are 6-13.)
While Pelton’s analysis was limited to first-round series, this is still a figure that could be bad news for Miami. So is this. The Nets shoot a ton of three-point shots and play really slow basketball: A perfect recipe for an upset.
Here’s why. Three-point shots introduce variance into basketball games. This is fairly easy to grasp: They go in less frequently than twos and are worth more when they do.
And pace of play similarly encourages flukier outcomes. If a great team plays fast basketball—i.e., it uses a lot of possessions—it increases the number of opportunities it gets to demonstrate that it’s better than its opponent. To borrow an analogy from ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh, if you’re playing one-on-one with your older brother and you’re only playing to, say, five, you might have a chance to knock him off. You hit a few shots, grab a random steal and you’re on your way. But if you’re playing to, maybe, 15, he’s going to have a much better chance of topping you.
Which brings us to this: The Nets not only finished 25th in the NBA in pace, per ESPN, but led the league from Jan. 1 on in percentage of points that came from three-point shots, according to NBA.com.
Couple this with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce’s long track record as LeBron antagonists, the Nets’ gangbusters performance in 2014—before quasi-tanking its way into the Toronto series, Brooklyn went 33-13 between the New Year and April 8—and the other team from NYC looks like a plausible candidate to knock off the champs.
But not the most plausible. While the San Antonio Spurs are old, boring and, as far as finals picks go, about as sexy as a library card, Gregg Popovich’s group has as good a chance as anyone to top Miami this tournament.
Remember this: San Antonio should have beaten the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals. Objectively should have. As in: According to Inpredictable, before Ray Allen’s miracle shot, the Spurs had 66-1 odds of winning Game 6 and the series. The title was theirs for the taking.
And despite a subpar Round 1 showing against the Mavs, San Antonio is actually an improved team this season. According to ESPN, the Spurs score 2.3 more points per 100 possessions than they did a year ago, while giving up only 0.9 more. Tim Duncan and Co. outscored opponents by 1.7 more points per game in 2013-14 than they did last season and won four more contests.
If "threatened" is the right word, Miami doesn't seem especially threatened by anyone at the moment. Its concerns are mostly internal. Getting Wade rested and energized. Ensuring Shane Battier and Allen's three-point shots start to fall. Fine-tuning the defense. Helping LeBron be LeBron.
This is fine, as far as it goes, but it may be overly narrow. There are exogenous threats as well to the belt that's belonged in South Beach the last two years. The Heat would do well to remember them.