This was supposed to be the toughest year yet for the Miami Heat.
The fatigue of pushing their way to consecutive NBA titles in three trips to the Finals was supposed to drag down them down this time around. The added depth and breadth of competition in the Eastern Conference—between the talented Indiana Pacers, the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls and the expensive Brooklyn Nets—was supposed to deter the Heat's pursuit of the league's first three-peat since that of the Kobe-Shaq Los Angeles Lakers and their first fourth-straight conference championship since Larry Bird's Boston Celtics back in the 1980s.
To some extent, the Heat held up their end of the "bargain." Dwyane Wade missed 28 games amid a panoply of nagging injuries. Chris Bosh's productivity dipped for the fourth time in as many seasons since he left the Toronto Raptors. The supporting cast endured troubling swings in its collective effectiveness—not any great surprise, given the wear and tear across the board and the fact that the roster, on the whole, is the NBA's oldest.
As a result, LeBron James was often forced to bear many of the same all-encompassing responsibilities that dogged him during his days with the Cleveland Cavaliers while the Heat stumbled from 66 wins in 2012-13 to "just" 54 this time around.
Luckily for the Heat, their top competition in the East has done anything but live up to its preseason billing—and has left Miami with what would appear to be smooth sailing in its quest for another banner.
The Bulls lost Derrick Rose to another knee injury in November, Luol Deng to a trade in January and their postseason hopes to a red-hot Washington Wizards team in April. The Pacers have fallen apart since their 33-7 start, with the invisible Roy Hibbert, who's already registered three games without a point or a rebound in these playoffs, emerging as the sacrificial scapegoat.
As for the Nets...well, we all saw how that played out on Tuesday night. Brooklyn looked lost and lethargic in a 107-86 Game 1 loss to a Heat team that the Nets were supposedly built to beat.
Those four regular-season wins against Miami? They're meaningless now, especially when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett don't show up. It's not as though any of Jason Kidd's other options were at all able to keep the Heat from attacking the basket and carving up the Nets' vaunted, switch-happy defense with smart, patient passing.
"Everybody was being unselfish," Mario Chalmers told Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick after the victory. "We took the shots when we had them. When we didn't, we got to second situations. We just tried to keep it moving."
The Nets' flat-footedness was largely predictable. They were fresh off a draining (both physically and mentally) seven-game series against the Raptors. The Heat, on the other hand, were just plain fresh after sweeping the Charlotte Bobcats out of the postseason.
Chances are, there will be more competitive games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals than the salvo with which these two teams opened at AmericanAirlines Arena. The Nets have had some time to separate themselves from their first-round escape and regroup accordingly. The Heat, on the other hand, will no longer enjoy such a clear advantage in time off.
Still, it's tough to picture these Nets giving the Heat the run for their money that Mikhail Prokhorov's checkbook escapades were supposed to buy. Miami has the three best players in this series on its side. Ray Allen (19 points) more than doubled the entire combined scoring output of his former Boston Celtics teammates (eight points total for Pierce and Garnett) in Game 1.
As ESPN.com's Israel Gutierrez noted, what made that performance all the more impressive was how quickly the Heat were able to rediscover their rhythm and how prepared they were to decimate Brooklyn's defense, despite only learning of their second-round matchup on Sunday:
But perhaps more surprising than the fact that such a clean offensive performance came after a long layoff was that it came against these Nets.
See, for four regular-season games, Jason Kidd's team caught the Heat in what Chris Bosh called a "web."
Their switching defenses and determined paint protection had the Heat settling for a lot of isolation offense and difficult shots against a veteran team that frustrates you with physicality. Shane Battier called it being "lazy" against Brooklyn's style.
Technically, the Heat had only one practice session after they actually knew their second-round opponent. But based on how sharp the offense was against Brooklyn, it was as though Miami had been preparing for the Nets' defense the entire week.
Jason Kidd will have plenty of potential adjustments to consider—more time for Andrei Kirilenko?—but the rookie coach would be hard-pressed to outwit the battle-tested Erik Spoelstra. Spo's decision to start Shane Battier over Udonis Haslem paid off in spades for the Heat, and figures to be only the first of the many tricks up the coach's sleeve revealed in this series.
In the event that Miami advances (perhaps easily so), the Eastern Conference Finals may not offer much more of a challenge. Should the Pacers survive, they'd likely do so after a long, brutal series against the Wizards, with only what remains of their tattered confidence intact. If Washington cracks the conference finals for the first time in 35 years (!!!), it'll have to rely on its young backcourt to take care of the ball against the Heat's aggressive, trapping defense; John Wall tallied 16 turnovers in the three games the Wizards played against the (somewhat) full-strength Heat this season.
Washington did well to split its season series with Miami in 2013-14, but asking the Wizards to come even close to that in the playoffs may be too much. They're 5-10 against the Heat since Wall came aboard in 2010 and were ousted by LeBron James three years in a row between 2006 and 2008, when James was with the Cavs.
The Wizards of today, though, have looked in these playoffs like an entirely different team than the one that squeaked out 44 wins and sneaked into fifth place in the East—much less the one mired in the mediocrity of previous seasons. Much the same could be said of the Heat, who've come out with guns blazing in the playoffs after sleepwalking their way through the regular season.
That should serve Miami well as it moves through the ever-softening Eastern Conference gauntlet. There would seem little cause for concern that the Heat might find themselves in another six- or seven-game dogfight like the ones they endured opposite the Celtics and the Pacers in the last two springs.
From where the Heat stand now, this could be their "easiest" journey to the Finals in the four years that this core group has been together. Even the 2011 edition, which ended each of its series in the East in five games, had to contend with tough, talented, veteran teams in Boston and Chicago.
Those Heat may have unwittingly demonstrated the potential perils of skating through the playoffs largely unscathed. They were challenged infrequently on the way to the Finals, where they found a Dallas Mavericks squad that was undaunted by Miami's prodigious talent. Instead, the Mavs smothered James on defense and sliced up the Heat's defense with quick passes and deadly perimeter shooting.
All while Miami grasped desperately for any semblance of an identity under pressure.
Kidd was the starting point guard for Dallas that year. He played a pivotal role in carving up the Heat. Perhaps he can (and will) impart that expertise upon his players, many of whom—particularly Garnett and Pierce—are already well-versed in Miami's ways.
But the Heat of 2011 are a far cry from the Heat of today. Miami stumbled upon its current quirky, "small-ball" identity during the 2012 playoffs, thanks to Bosh's abdominal injury. They've since followed that formula to two titles and to within 11 wins of a third.
That's not to say that a five-game streak to start these playoffs guarantees the Heat safe passage to yet another victory parade. Last year, they dispatched the Milwaukee Bucks in four and the Bulls in five before going the distance with the Pacers. Indy's ongoing struggles belie the extent to which that team has been constructed specifically to oppose the Heat.
And if these Pacers can't duplicate the success of the previous surprising squad, perhaps the Wizards—who, like the 2013 Pacers, are coming together at the perfect time after a rocky regular season—will put up a fight. For all of its youth at guard, Washington still brings plenty of veteran leadership to the table: Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza have both played in the Finals, while Nene and Andre Miller have seen their fair share of postseason situations.
Tactically speaking, the Wizards' strengths (i.e. at the point and in the paint) align beautifully with the Heat's weaknesses. Even so, Miami would have the upper hand, thanks to its own clear advantages in talent, collective experience and home court.
The Finals would present the Heat with an entirely different caliber of obstacle to overcome. Assuming the Portland Trail Blazers don't wind up representing the West, Miami would enter the Finals without home-court advantage for the first time in the Big Three era. The Heat would have to contend with either the San Antonio Spurs, who came within a Ray Allen miracle of upending them in last year's Finals; the Oklahoma City Thunder, who've matured as a team since getting spanked by the Heat in five games two years ago; and the Los Angeles Clippers, who sport the inside-out star power and coaching acumen to keep pace with Miami.
Then again, whichever team emerges from the West will likely bear the scars of the melees that one would expect to break out in a competitive conference. The Heat, by comparison, could waltz into the final round relatively unscathed.
And, really, getting there is more than half the battle.
This isn't to suggest that winning a championship is or will be a cakewalk for the Heat by any means. This team, as great as it is, has always been one to do things the hard way. Each game affords Miami as much opportunity to shine as it does to stumble. The wear and tear incurred over the course of the Heat's three previous trips to the Finals only amplify their odds of having to huff and puff their way back to the top of the NBA's championship mountain.
From their current vantage point, though, the Heat are about as close to that summit as they've ever been at this point in a given postseason. So long as they take care of their own business, the Heat should find the rest of the basketball landscape shifting into position for the third coronation that they were really supposed to have coming to them in the 2013-14 campaign.
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