On Friday night, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat will put their four game winning streak on the line against the New Orleans Hornets which has won its first four games to start the season behind an extraordinary effort from Chris Paul.
The Hornets are only winning by an average of 6.75 points per game this year; however, their wins are made more impressive by the the quality of teams beaten this year. The four teams that New Orleans have played and beaten thus far were all playoff teams last year, including San Antonio and Denver.
The Heat, thus far, have had a much different type of schedule. While Miami is 1-1 against Boston and Orlando, two of the Eastern Conference's best teams, the Heat's other games have been against inferior competition in the 76ers, Nets and Timberwolves. Nevertheless, since the initial loss against Boston, the Heat have been dominating opponents and have a point differential of over 26 points per game.
Miami will certainly have its hands full with Chris Paul and the undefeated Hornets. Here are five things to watch for in Friday night's primetime matchup.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra must be a terrific half-time motivator, or maybe the Heat have some kind of super gatorade. Whatever it is, Miami has absolutely dominated third quarters this year.
The Heat have outscored opponents by a total of 65 points over five games during third quarters. Consequently, a 13 point average differential in the third quarter has allowed Miami to turn all of their games into major blowouts. Even in their loss against Boston, Miami used a third quarter run to eventually close what was a blowout into a competitive game.
If Miami is able to make their usual run of points in the third quarter, it won't matter how New Orleans starts or competes in the first half. Not only does the talent of the Miami Thrice cause problems, but also the ability of James Jones and Eddie House to drain three pointers in spurts has allowed Miami to make big runs and score in bunches.
Additionally, Miami is not the type of team to get down against. Because of their stingy defense, teams haven't able to go on big scoring runs against the Heat.
Chris Paul is obviously a key factor in any game New Orleans plays in, but he plays an especially important role against the Miami Heat. While the Miami thrice has an advantage over virtually every team at the two, three and four, point guard and center are the achilles heel of the Heat.
As exemplified by Rajon Rondo's 17 assists in Miami's first game, the Heat could face problems defending opposing point guards particularly one as talented as Chris Paul. The former Demon Deacon is averaging nine assists a game this year, including a season high 16 assists in the opener against Milwaukee.
Paul can cause problems not only through his one on one matchup, but also through drawing defenders and hitting open shooters. Miami has to be careful to close out on three point threat Marco Belinelli and Peja Stojakovic.
Lastly, Paul has the ability to disrupt the offensive flow of a team. Miami has appeared frustrated in the half-court offense at times this year, and Paul could make life difficult for Carlos Arroyo and the Heat's ball handlers.
Could there really be a Heat game preview without mentioning LeBron James?
The King's stats have dropped all around this year, but the Miami Thrice knew from the beginning that joining forces would ultimately lead to a decline in individual statistics.
Chris Bosh responded to this question earlier this week saying that "[y]ou can do everything you want, you can average the best numbers, but if you don’t win it really doesn’t matter."
Even though the statistics may not always demonstrate perfectly the events on the court, LeBron has been a major facilitator in the Heat offense this season. Facing consistent double-teams and help defense, LeBron has able to collapse defenses and find Eddie House and James Jones for open looks. Additionally, James has set the tone for the Miami defense which has been the best in the league thus far.
LeBron will definitely be motivated for this game, particularly because of his friendship with Chris Paul. James mentioned this week “[t]hat’s bragging rights in the offseason…I definitely try to give a little bit more when I go against Chris and good friends.”
In a clash between two of the top power forwards in the NBA, David West and Chris Bosh will square off against each other.
Bosh has struggled to find a rhythm thus far this season. Bosh is averaging 11 less points per game, 4.4 less rebounds, and even fewer assists. While some of this can be explained by a reduction of minutes per game, Bosh's field goal percentage has also dropped this season by almost a full 10 percent.
Bosh may not have been needed to play a large role for the Heat just yet, but against David West he will have his hands full.
West has been the Hornets second best player over the last few years and has been a major reason for their undefeated start this season. West's numbers are also slightly down this season, but he still averages over 17 points and six rebounds per game. As the second option to Chris Paul, the Hornets will rely on West to have a big game in order to beat the Heat.
New Orleans is one of three undefeated teams left in the NBA. As previously mentioned, there schedule hasn't exactly been a cakewalk either. Chris Paul is unquestionably the best point guard in the NBA and one of the best defenders in the league.
Since a poor first half in their first game against the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat have been absolutely dominating opponents. The Miami Thrice have shown greater chemistry in each of their five games. As they have improved, the Heat have transformed into a dominant force that has looked like the Goliath that so many expected they would be.
The question of who wins will ultimately come down to whether the Heat can beat themselves. New Orleans is a terrific, talented team; however, their roster just doesn't measure up talent-wise to the Heat.
If New Orleans is able to slow up the game and force Miami to play a half-court style offense, they could possibly create a defensive slugfest which would force a close game. The Hornets, who are sixth in the league in defense, may have the aggressive defenders and big bodies needed to slow down the Miami offense.
In any case, the Miami Heat defense should continue to stifle opponents. The Hornets may be able to hold Miami to 90 points, but it won't matter if they can't score above 80. Although the game will be close throughout the first half, I see Miami pulling away in the second half with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh actually playing significant fourth quarter minutes.