Do Miami Heat Need True Playoff Test En Route to NBA Finals?

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Do Miami Heat Need True Playoff Test En Route to NBA Finals?
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It’s (nearly) summertime, and the living is easy. But have the first few rounds of the 2014 NBA playoffs been too easy for the Miami Heat?

Maybe. There’s a reasonably persuasive school of thought that suggests the Heat need a challenge in these playoffs before they (almost certainly) face off against whatever juggernaut emerges bloodied but battle-tested from the Western Conference. It's the "rest" versus "rust" debate all over again.

If, say, the Oklahoma City Thunder grind past the Los Angeles Clippers this round before knocking off the San Antonio Spurs in a Western Conference Finals that could well be a classic, Kevin Durant and Co. would be entering the finals with, for lack of a better word, that edge.

They’d have three hyper-competitive playoff series behind them, during which they’d have gained confidence from coming up big on the sport’s grandest stage. The Thunder—or the Spurs or the Clippers—would be primed and prepared, ready for the challenge.

The Heat, meanwhile, are practically waltzing through the East, Saturday night's 104-90 loss notwithstanding. The Nets hit 15 of their 25 three-point attempts in the win, a mark they're profoundly unlikely to reach again during the series. 

About that waltz. The Heat blitzed an obviously overmatched Charlotte Bobcats team 4-0 in Round 1. Now just two wins against the wheezing Brooklyn Nets and a best-of-seven versus either the s(t)inking Indiana Pacers or 44-win Washington Wizards separates them from a fourth consecutive berth in the finals.

Yawn. Wake us when they get there.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The Heat overwhelmed the Bobcats and appear well on their way to doing the same to the Nets.

Across sports, pundits often point to teams that clinch too early, rest their players and then get upset in the postseason. This kind of analysis invariably includes lines like, "they took their foot off the pedal" and, "they thought they could flip the switch back on just like that."

An overly smooth road through the postseason, the thinking goes, could have the same effect. In the championship rounds—when the stakes are highest—the team that had to scrape and scrap to get there often looks better prepared than the squad that enjoyed a relative cakewalk.

"The debate is renewed every postseason," Chris Johnson wrote for Sports Illustrated last week. "Do teams that finish off their opponents quickly benefit from extra rest, or will they 'rust' and be at a disadvantage against a team that played a full seven games?"

Just last season, the Heat seemed to have benefited from the Round 2 fight they got from Tom Thibodeau and his scrappy, fearless, relentless Chicago Bulls. While the Heat ultimately prevailed 4-1, it was a grueling series.

"We gave it everything we had," LeBron James told The Associated Press after finally dispatching Chicago in Game 5. "I have no energy left."

The sample sizes are small, but it’s worth noting that in each of the Heat’s consecutive championship runs, they were taken to seven games at least once before the NBA Finals arrived. Conversely, before the Heat lost to the Mavs in 2011, they coasted to three 4-1 series wins in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Brock Williams-Smith/Getty Images
The 2012 and 2013 NBA playoffs were a grind for Miami. And both ended with titles.

The 2014 postseason, at least so far, appears to be conforming to the 2011 pattern—which has to be at least a little disconcerting for the Heat faithful.

But not that disconcerting.

While there's probably something to the "watch out for rust" argument, for this roster, plenty of rest and recuperation is almost certainly what the doctor ordered. This is, lest we forget, an old, tired basketball team.

Miami not only has the most geriatric roster in the NBA, but the team has played 74 playoff games and counting these past four postseasons. That’s a potentially problematic combination, especially for a group that already seems to be dragging.

The team won 12 fewer games in 2013-14 than it did in the previous season.

Do the Miami Heat need a challenge before the NBA Finals?

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Miami, given its ample playoff experience and the leadership LeBron and Dwyane Wade provide, also figures to have less to gain from a playoff slugfest than just about any other squad. What are the Heat going to learn against Brooklyn that they don't already know?

If ever there was a "flip the switch" team, it’s these Heat. As Exhibit A, look no further than Miami’s 6-0 start to the playoffs after losing five of six to close the regular season. When the Heat have to turn it on, they can and do. And fast.

There’s also reason to believe that Miami’s relatively rocky road to the 2013 NBA Finals didn’t galvanize the team but actually enervated it.

After leaving the Chicago series with "no energy left," the Heat were taken to seven games by the Pacers, then needed another seven to knock off a Spurs group they were heavily favored against.

Was Miami able to top these opponents because of the toughness it developed in the Chicago series, or did the Heat let the Spurs and Pacers hang around so long because they had been worn out by the Bulls? Given Miami's age and experience, it seems likely that it's the latter. 

Either way, the Heat, at the moment, appear to be in fine shape. If people are wondering if you’re winning too easily, you’re probably doing something right.

It’s a nice problem to have.

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