5 Takeaways from Miami Heat's Eastern Conference Finals Performance
The Eastern Conference Finals matchup and the result were forecast since the beginning of the season, as reported by Matthew Glenesk of The Indianapolis Star. But with a 2013 NBA Finals rematch on the horizon against a significantly better opponent, Miami needs to figure out what differentiates its 2014 squad from its past two title-winning teams and use that information to its utmost advantage.
There are several burning questions from an outsider’s perspective as well: Does this Heat team have postseason fatigue? Which former benchwarmer will be the key for Miami’s third consecutive championship? And can the Heat survive another slow start from Chris Bosh?
All of those questions and more will be answered in these five takeaways from the Heat’s Eastern Conference Finals performance.
Bosh's Presence Is Vital, but His Scoring Isn't
It’s easy to call LeBron, Bosh and Dwyane Wade the Big Three, but truthfully it’s been the LeBron Show for quite a while. The Eastern Conference Finals were proof of that.
In the first three games versus Indiana, Bosh scored nine points in each contest. Yet Miami continued to operate as normal, jumping to a 2-1 series lead. Compare his statistics from the first three games to his last three games, obtained via ESPN:
|Games||PPG||FG%||RPG||Blocks||Heat W/L Record|
The Heat’s usage of Bosh as a floor-spacing decoy makes him more expendable than James or Wade as an offensive weapon. In the first three games of the series, Bosh took just two free throws, a far cry from his versatile scoring days in Toronto.
Bosh delicately toes the line between NBA All-Star and high-end role player, depending on what the Heat need him to do. This was exemplified in his Game 4 performance, when he scored 25 points—eight on free throws and nine on three-point makes. It was his turn to be the non-LeBron Heat player with a scoring outburst.
That’s not to take away from Bosh’s immense talent, but as long as role players such as Ray Allen and Norris Cole step up when necessary, his best asset is to draw lane-clogging centers like Roy Hibbert away from the basket.
When Bosh’s jump shot is falling, the Heat’s offense becomes dynamic. But when he’s having a quiet game, the Heat can turn to other spacing specialists on their bench for tertiary scoring. In fact, one former benchwarmer has become an X-factor in Miami’s offense, and he even started the last three games.
Rashard Lewis' Emergence Gives Miami Extra Depth
Throughout most of his tenure with the Heat, power forward Rashard Lewis has been a nonfactor. Against the Pacers, however, he was the Heat’s key role player through the second half of the series, making 10 three-pointers in the last two games.
Center Chris Andersen’s thigh injury made a lineup change necessary, as the Heat’s frontcourt depth was wearing thin. Lewis provided Miami with another three-point shooter for LeBron and Wade to work with. Before Game 6, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann wrote about Lewis' impact against Indiana:
Lewis is a series-high plus-35 in the conference final. Though he shot 0-for-7 in Games 3 and 4, the Miami offense has been at its best with Lewis on the floor. His work (and “work” is the right word here) against David West has allowed the Heat to remain strong defensively without playing big.
At 6’10” and 235 pounds, Lewis has the requisite size and bulk to defend post-up forwards like West. On offense, he puts them in uncomfortable situations with his three-point shooting. He gives the Heat an extra scoring option without sacrificing much on defense. In that respect, he is a poor man’s Bosh.
Lewis will make an impact in the finals, as a starter or a role player. Considering his position in last year’s playoffs, this is an unprecedented leap.
LeBron Shows Signs of Mortality
The Heat had a chance to tie the game on the final possession of Game 5, despite James scoring a playoff career-low seven points and collecting five fouls.
Against the San Antonio Spurs, a performance like that would make the game an automatic blowout. The leap in defensive prowess from Lance Stephenson (who guarded James throughout Game 5) to Kawhi Leonard is massive.
Leonard is the exact opposite of Stephenson personality-wise, and he is a bigger body with better length to lock down James one-on-one. James could afford to have a bad night against listless Indiana, but San Antonio will be motivated to keep him quiet and avenge last season’s NBA Finals defeat.
Yet if there is one thing James has shown in the last couple of years, it’s his ability to bounce back under immense pressure. Take a look at the difference between Game 5 and Game 6, with stats via ESPN:
If James doesn’t put up his usual 27-8-8 stat line in an NBA Finals game, the Heat will likely lose. And with the strategic brilliance of the Spurs, it could happen just like it did in Indiana. That shouldn’t give San Antonio any sort of relief, however. It would just guarantee a monster LeBron performance in the next game.
Postseason Wear Isn’t an Issue and Won’t Be
The battle for the NBA championship begins Thursday, giving Miami nearly a week of rest.
This is a good thing, as the Heat have been to the NBA Finals for four consecutive years. The sheer amount of games required to get to the finals—along with the added playoff pressure—accumulates quickly. Sean Deveney of Sporting News broke down the numbers:
Miami, though, is back, playing for a championship for the fourth straight year. The win on Friday moved them to 12-3 in the postseason, and makes them 58-24 in the playoffs over the last four years. That means that Miami has played a full, extra 82 games over the course of the last four playoffs. They’ve played five seasons in four years.
Individually, every player on the roster appears healthy and in shape. Ray Allen, at 38 years old, is still capable of scoring outbursts like he had in the fourth quarter of Game 3. Lewis has found his niche with the team, looking the best he ever has in a Heat uniform. The only player who missed most of the Eastern Conference Finals was Andersen.
Also, Erik Spoelstra expertly handled Wade’s minutes throughout the regular season. That has clearly helped the brittle shooting guard, who hasn’t just played in every playoff game but every practice and shootaround as well, as Spoelstra told The Palm Beach Post’s Matt Porter during the Brooklyn series.
LeBron isn’t human, of course, so he doesn’t need rest.
So postseason fatigue has not and will not be an issue for Miami in the playoffs. The Spurs have had their fair share of playoff games too, so any advantage would likely be minimal in that category.
Greg Oden Is Very Excited About an ECF Title
Wait, Greg Oden is on the Heat?
It may be easy to forget. The former No. 1 overall draft pick has played just five minutes in these playoffs. His impact has been negligible, and he certainly isn’t going to have a throwback performance against the Spurs.
However, Oden’s return to the NBA has been nothing short of incredible. As documented in Adam Fromal of Bleacher Report's excellent timeline on Oden, his myriad knee injuries have caused constant setbacks throughout his career, but he has been healthy enough to log minutes for Miami this season.
Besides Toney Douglas, Oden is the only member of the Heat who wasn’t on last year’s team. That’s an obvious fact, however, when looking at the way he reacted to the Eastern Conference championship trophy on Friday.
It was as if he’d never seen anything like it. So, according to Ethan J. Skolnick of Bleacher Report, he just smiled and bounced.
A trophy ceremony for a team that has won it four consecutive years may not sound that eventful—that is, until one of the league’s most heartwarming stories is thrown into the mix. Oden won’t be battling Tim Duncan every possession like many hoped when he was first drafted, but his first NBA Finals appearance will be another chapter in a compelling story.