Miami Heat Are East's Ultimate Dark Horse When They Play to Their Potential

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 18, 2016

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 17:  Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat drives on Jeremy Lin #7 of the Charlotte Hornets  during Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals  during the 2016 NBA Playoffs  at American Airlines Arena on April 17, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

MIAMI — This was the Miami Heat team that excites fans, intrigues analysts and perhaps frightens potential playoff foes.

Its 123-91 series-opening victory over the sixth-seeded Charlotte Hornets was less a dominant performance and more a museum-quality masterpiece. Its offense simultaneously clicked on all levels. Its defense squeezed so tight that it was sometimes hard to spot Charlotte's trademark teal threads amid Miami's white-clad defenders.

"We knew it was time to play Miami Heat basketball," Hassan Whiteside said after posting 21 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and two steals in his playoff debut. "It was going to start with our defense, and defense led to offense."

Heat Flash Dominant Upside from Beginning

Both offense and defense came early and often during a first quarter that was nearly played to perfection. Before the Hornets had broken a sweat, the Heat had broken open a 9-1 advantage.

By the end of the first period, the Hornets already looked shell-shocked. Miami dominated every statistical category: 41-22 in points, 68.2-38.5 in field-goal percentage, 11-3 on the glass, 20-4 in the paint.

As ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh observed, the Heat had the kind of offensive efficiency typically reserved for the virtual realm:

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Whiteside and Deng combined for 24 points in the period without missing a shot (9-of-9 together).

"Obviously, particularly up front, we just got manhandled," Hornets head coach Steve Clifford said. "And if Deng and Whiteside are going to combine for that kind of numbers, it's going to be hard for us to win."

Charlotte finally punched back in the second quarter, with do-it-all swingman Nicolas Batum setting his system to alpha-scoring mode. The Hornets' only double-digit-point man in the first half entered intermission with a game-high 20 on 6-of-9 shooting.

But by then, the damage was already done. The Hornets won the second quarter, 28-26, but the Heat still carried a 67-50 edge into the break.

Once Miami opened the third quarter on a 7-0 run, it was clear where the contest was headed.

"We did an amazing job with everything that we were working on," Goran Dragic said after tallying 10 assists and nine points during his first career postseason start. "We executed perfectly. ... We played a perfect game on both sides." 

That's how the numbers viewed it. The Heat controlled all of their had-to-have areas: rebounds (42-28), assists (27-11), paint points (56-36). And they had several unexpected lifts. They hit more threes (9-6) and shot a higher percentage from deep (50.0-35.3) than the perimeter-oriented Hornets. They made one of the NBA's hottest teams look fortunate to have made the playoffs.

Oh, and they got 31 pointson 13 shotsfrom Luol Deng, the most he's scored in a Heat uniform.

"I think everyone has been feeling involved in what we're trying to do offensively," Dwyane Wade said. "When the ball is moving like that, you get a guy like Luol to score 31 on shots all within the flow of the offense."

 This was Miami at its most dangerous.

The ball skipped from one player to another, only stopping for longer periods when Wade or Joe Johnson schooled a Charlotte defender off the dribble. The threes fell often enough to keep the interior open for Whiteside to wreak havoc and all of Miami's penetrators to attack.

The offense came from everywhere. Five different players finished in double figures, and the other four scorers all had at least eight points.

Maybe that doesn't mean a ton for the series at large—"Whether you lose by 30 or one, it's 1-0," Clifford said—but it does underscore how high the Heat's ceiling can reach. Their seventh-ranked defense has been elite all season, and their multifaceted offense (which quietly ranked sixth after the All-Star break) can dismantle opponents in so many different ways.

"When [Whiteside] sets those screens and rolls hard, it's really tough to stop," Dragic said. "I would say there's no defense [against it]. If the big guy doesn't step up, it's a layup or a shot for me. If they stop me, it's a lob to Hassan. Even if they rotate from the weak side, it's a three-point shot."

Miami's Best Is a Problem for East Contenders

The Heat are as versatile as any team in the Eastern Conference playoff field.

They have veteran experience and energetic youth. They can play at breakneck speeds or methodically break down defenders. They can control games at both ends of the floor.

Combine all that with the Toronto Raptors looking vulnerable following a Game 1 home loss, and you get the impression that this squad could play like the second-best team in the conference when firing on all cylinders.

Furthermore, it's not hard to figure out why some have the Heat as a potential thorn in the side of the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers. But it's also impossible, based on Miami's track record, to guarantee an eventual meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat have vacillated between dominant and disastrous enough not to take this victory for granted or as foreshadowing of more greatness to come. This club, remember, is less than a week removed from a franchise-worst five-point quarter during a game it seemingly had to have.

MIAMI, FL  - APRIL 17: Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat during Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs against the Charlotte Hornets on April 17, 2016 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expre
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

So the next steps ahead in this series could be even more revealing about the type of club the Heat have.

"This, obviously, was a great win," Wade said. "But there's going to be a moment where we're going to be faced with challenges in this series somewhere. And that's where I want to see the growth of this team. We can play basketball. But when things start going south, it's not going your way, you're not making shots, how do we respond?

"Once I see we respond the right way, that's when I know we really have taken a step to that next level of where we need to go."

All quotes obtained firsthand.