The NBA playoffs are right around the corner, and the bottom half of the Eastern Conference is in a tight race for playoff positioning.
Seeds five through eight are all jockeying for position, with all four teams within four games or less of one another.
It is going to be a very exciting and close battle with less than 10 games left in the regular season.
Currently, the Miami Heat sit in the sixth position, holding onto a half-game lead over the seventh-seeded Bobcats and a one-game lead over the eighth-seeded Raptors. They trail the fifth-seeded Bucks by three games.
Barring an epic collapse, the Heat should end up with a fifth through eighth seed. That would mean a first-round encounter with one of the top four Eastern Conference squads: Cleveland, Orlando, Boston, or Atlanta.
All four teams are the class of the NBA and will be very difficult to upset, as they all have championship aspirations. However, Miami has fared better against some of those teams than others, and the Heat play each of those teams differently.
I am going to examine who the Heat would be most suited to play and who they would have the best chance against.
If Miami falls all the way down to the eighth and final seed, they would have a daunting first-round task against LeBron James and the Cavs. The Heat failed to beat Cleveland this year, going 0-3 against the top seed in the East. In those three defeats, Miami only lost by a combined eight points—and the Heat were a couple of bad plays away from beating the Cavs early in the season in a one-point loss.
While a Dwyane Wade/LeBron James head-to-head show would be a highly anticipated match-up that would surely be entertaining, the Heat would have no chance against such a powerhouse. Cleveland is simply too deep and too poised to allow a slip-up in the first round.
If the two do happen to meet in the first round, Miami would put up a fight, and games would be close on the Heat's home floor. But Cleveland would advance without much problem.
Prediction: Cleveland in five.
A Sunshine State showdown between the two Southeast Division rivals would be an excellent first-round match-up. Miami fared very well against its in-state rival this year, going 2-2 in some very heated battles.
In the teams' first meeting of the season, Miami won a nail-biter on Orlando's home floor on a last-second tip in by Michael Beasley that gave the Heat a narrow 99-98 victory. In the teams' second meeting, Miami absolutely dominated the Magic in an impressive 104-86 blowout.
However, Orlando got its revenge, as the Magic beat the Heat in their final two meetings of the season by an average of 11 points.
Either way, Miami played very well against the defending Eastern Conference champions this year, showing they can hang with the big boys.
This would be a very exciting first-round series, with plenty of story lines to fuel the buzz.
First of all, there would be the match-up between two of the NBA's biggest stars in Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard. Then, there is the return of former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy to Miami in what would be his first playoff encounter against his old team. Lastly, Jason Williams, who was the Heat's starting point guard during their championship season in 2006, would be making his first trip back to the postseason as an opponent of the Heat.
Neither team would have to travel far, and this series would generate a lot of conversation.
The Heat could definitely give the Magic a scare with Wade leading the way, as the Magic still have found no answer to contain him on either side of the floor. The superstar has lit the Magic up in the past, even dropping 50 points in a loss last season.
But in the end, Orlando is too strong and has too much size for Miami to overcome.
Prediction: Orlando in six.
The Celtics are a team Miami has struggled against all year—and out of the four potential first-round match-ups, this is the one series the Heat should hope to avoid.
As it stands right now, Miami is set to have a first-round encounter with the Atlantic Division champs. Thankfully, Miami still has 11 games left to play, and the Heat's current seed could easily change.
Although Miami only lost by an average of six points in three losses against the C's this year, the Heat have way too much trouble closing out games against them. In all three contests against Boston this year, Miami outscored them in the third quarter but ultimately fell apart in the final quarter.
The epitome of Miami's games against Boston this year came in the Heat's heartbreaking overtime loss at home back in January. With the score tied and less than 10 seconds remaining in regulation, Dwyane Wade picked Ray Allen and scored on a breakaway dunk that appeared to give Miami the game-winning basket.
However, with less than a second left to play, Paul Pierce found Rajon Rondo on a lob for a last-second lay-up that sent the game into overtime.
Boston eventually pulled away in overtime and handed the Heat a demoralizing loss.
Miami simply hasn't found a winning formula against the Celtics this year—and there is a good chance it would be a similar story in the playoffs.
Prediction: Boston in five.
This would be a repeat of last year's first-round match-up between the bitter Southeast rivals. Last year's series went all the way to seven games, with Atlanta getting the best of Miami.
This year, the Hawks are a lot better than they were last year—and they would certainly give Miami a lot more trouble.
But the Heat did a great job versus their rival this season, finishing 3-1 in mostly dominating performances. Miami fared exceptionally well against Atlanta on its home floor, winning by an average of 11.5 points in two games at American Airlines Arena. Overall, Miami won by an average of 13.6 points, including a convincing 18-point victory on Atlanta's home floor.
If Miami were to pull off a first-round upset, the Hawks would be their best chance at accomplishing that. The Heat play the Hawks well and know their system after facing them in last year's playoffs. Atlanta almost has the same exact roster from last year, with the exception of Jamal Crawford—which is dangerous for the Heat.
Crawford has always dominated Miami, dating back to his days with the Knicks. He will be Atlanta's X factor in the series—and if he is on, like he normally is against the Heat, Miami will find itself in a bad way. But if the Heat defense can contain Crawford, they might actually have a shot at surprising the Hawks.
Miami will also need Jermaine O'Neal to step up big in this series, as he is the only answer for Josh Smith defensively.
Prediction: Atlanta in seven.
Miami has been playing its best basketball of the season recently, winning eight out of its last 11 games and recapturing the sixth seed. Whether the Heat finish with the fifth seed or the eighth seed, they will be the underdogs in any series.
Realistically speaking, the Heat will most likely be sent home early, as the top four teams in the East are too much for Miami to handle with its current roster. However, Miami should be entering the postseason with a lot of momentum—and the Heat could definitely make some noise. They will undoubtedly give a scare to any team they face with a motivated Dwyane Wade leading the charge.
But Miami's best shot at an upset will come against either the Orlando Magic or the Atlanta Hawks. As it stands right now, the Heat are set to face the Celtics, but anything could change during the final 11 games of the season.
Hopefully, the Heat do encounter either the Magic or Hawks and give them a run for their money. Only time will tell who the Miami Heat will face in the 2009-10 playoffs.
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