Are Miami Heat Clear Favorites or Complete Wild Card in 2014 NBA Finals?

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Are Miami Heat Clear Favorites or Complete Wild Card in 2014 NBA Finals?
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The Miami Heat are either an unstoppable juggernaut or a puffed-up pushover that the San Antonio Spurs will have no trouble dispatching handily in an NBA Finals rematch.

That's range that would make Ray Allen proud.

The Heat's incomprehensibly broad spectrum of possible outcomes is more than a little frustrating. After all, we've watched this team play 82 regular-season contests—and another 15 in these playoffs—since they took Game 7 from the Spurs to secure a ring in 2013.

Shouldn't we know everything we need to know by now?

Unfortunately, we don't. And our uncertainty arises out of the strange circumstances that led the Heat to this point—particularly the abject weakness of the Eastern Conference as a whole and the marshmallow-soft matchups Miami squashed in the postseason.

The Heat have sauntered to their current position without breaking a sweat, and it's annoyingly difficult to figure out whether that's a good thing or not.

 

Miami's Sound Machine

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Miami is 12-3 in this postseason, and it heads into the Finals looking every inch a champion.

It has the best player in the world in LeBron James, and he's highly motivated:

It also has a healthier Dwyane Wade—thanks to an ultraconvservative approach to his playing time this past season. Twenty-eight games missed during the slog of an 82-game schedule has him looking far fresher (and playing far more effectively) than he did a year ago.

Chris Bosh, too, is an improved version of his previous self.

He's stretched his game out even farther, making the three-point shot a major part of his arsenal instead of a gimmicky, infrequently used weapon. He buried 74 triples this past season, obliterating his previous career high of 21.

Take those factors, toss them in with a breezy playoff performance and a pair of championship rings and there's a case to be made the Heat deserve to be a heavy favorite.

Champs until proven otherwise, right?

Right?

 

It's Complicated

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It's just not that simple, though. To get a better idea of what we should think about this year's Heat, we need to dig deeper.

First, we shouldn't be drawing any conclusions about Miami based on its work against the East this season. There wasn't much quality in the conference besides the Indiana Pacers, and we all saw how they succumbed to inconsistency and infighting as the year wore on. Nobody in that conference tested the Heat.

So, what about the West?

The Heat posted a 20-10 record against the superior conference in 2013-14, marked by a 110.5 offensive rating and a 105.4 defensive rating, per NBA.com. Those figures combine to form a net rating of plus-5.0 points per 100 possessions—a solid mark, but marginally worse than the Heat's overall net rating of plus-6.1.

That data tells us the Heat played a little less effectively against the West, but we're not dealing with a huge sample or a particularly eye-opening disparity in performance. So, no real revelations there.

What's more informative is the two-game sample against the Spurs.

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Miami split a pair of games against San Antonio in 2013-14, which might not seem helpful on the surface. But in the Heat's win, the Spurs played without Kawhi Leonard. In the second game, a 111-87 blowout victory for San Antonio, both teams had all hands on deck.

That's as significant as you want it to be, as neither the Heat nor the Spurs have a reputation for taking the regular season seriously.

And if we expand the scope of the Heat-Spurs information search, all we learn is that these two teams have played one another remarkably evenly over the past two years:

Remember, though, San Antonio was mere agonizing seconds away from eliminating Miami in six games last year.

 

Back to Basics

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Maybe the best way to pin down the Heat is to approach them (and their matchup with the Spurs) independent of conference strength or postseason degree of difficulty. If we come at the issue in as basic a fashion as possible, a couple of things become alarmingly clear—and neither bodes well for Miami.

First, the Spurs are better this year than last. Their young players have grown, and their reserves are more dangerous than ever.

San Antonio won 62 games this past season, tops in the league and four games better than its total of 58 in 2012-13. Plus, the Spurs' regular-season per-game differential spiked from plus-6.4 to plus-7.7, per ESPN.com.

By any objective measure, the Spurs are a tougher matchup than they were a year ago.

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In addition to San Antonio's improvement, there's also the statistical fact that Miami's performance dipped in 2013-14. After piling up 66 victories in 2012-13, the Heat won 54 this past season. And their per-game differential dropped from plus-7.9 points to plus-4.8.

If you want to make a case that those numbers don't matter, you can rely on the "extra gear" argument that seems to give Miami an advantage against any opponent.

When its defense ratchets up, transition buckets come in bunches and before anyone knows what happened, the opponent is looking up from the bottom of a 20-point hole.

The Spurs aren't immune to that kind of high-octane athletic blitz, as the Oklahoma City Thunder proved in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals.

 

Geared Up?

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The problem for the Heat, though, is that they can't just shift into that proverbial gear when they feel it's necessary. Instead, they've got to start Game 1 in it and stay there for as long as the series lasts.

We've never seen the Heat sustain their peak level of play for long stretches. It's too physically taxing and if not executed with maximum effort, smart teams like the Spurs eventually take advantage of that fatigue.

San Antonio is better, hungrier and more dangerous than it was a year ago. And frankly, it should be defending a title right now instead of chasing one.

It turns out the Heat have confounded our efforts to categorize them yet again. They're not clear favorites or a complete wild card. They're something else entirely.

They're the underdogs. 

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