It’s On You, Western Conference

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Tuesday night’s game against the lowly Sacramento Kings always had the potential to be that awful ‘trap’ game for the Miami Heat. The Heat were riding an 11-game winning streak going into last night, and as bad as the Kings are in general, they are absolutely woeful on the road. So, as often is the case, the favoured team took their foot off the gas pedal, the unfavoured side played like it was their championship game, and we had a game that reminds people not to bet on sports. But, although the Heat played below their usual high standards, they still came out victorious—surviving double overtime and the game of Marcus Thornton’s life. 

Playing their 5th game in 7 nights, you could forgive Spoelstra’s boys for their lax play on the defensive end—giving up 112 points in regulation to the Kings—and their inability to close out the game at the end of the 48, and the first overtime period. At the end of the day, wins are wins. They don’t ask how, just how many—or whatever other sporting cliché you’d like to insert. The point is, the Miami Heat have just rattled off 12 straight wins, and after some inconsistent performances earlier in the season that had us all wondering if they were caught in a post-championship hangover, they are looking, for want of a better word, formidable.

Those 12 wins haven’t all come against NBA basement dwellers either. They’ve had solid wins against playoffs teams like the Rockets and Hawks, beaten the Bulls at their own ugly, but effective game, and most impressively, destroyed the Clippers and OKC. The OKC victory, on the road, was particularly ominous for the rest of the NBA—those teams hoping to challenge the Heat in the post-season. Walking into the loudest building in the Association, facing a team that on a nightly basis destroys teams in the NBA’s toughest conference, and taking that same team to the proverbial woodshed, was plain scary.

At 41-14 (at the time of writing) the Heat are hitting their stride—moving through the gears during the business months of the regular season. The defense, much criticized in the first quarter of the season, is slowly and steadily improving—a trend highlighted when the Heat held the Bulls to a measly 67 points on the road the other night. The Heat are now an above average team in points allowed per game (96.7) and opponent’s field-goal percentage (44.4%). They rank 10th in that latter category.

And then there’s the offense.

Remember the time when the Heat didn’t know what the hell they were doing offensively—when the plays alternated between a Wade or LeBron isolation, with the player not involved standing passively in the corner? Nope, neither do I. The Heat are currently the 5th best team in the NBA in points scored per game, and currently lead the NBA in field-goal percentage—averaging almost 50% as a team. Of course, a big reason for their transcendent numbers on offense is the transcendent play of King James. James is shooting an unworldly 56% from the field—sometimes you have to stop and remind yourself that he’s a perimeter player, not a centre just scoring on dunks—and I need not remind everyone of his recent streak of shooting the basketball at over 60%.

In the aforementioned game against the Kings, LeBron had 40 points and 16 assists—and to be honest, I wasn’t really aware he was even having that great a game. That’s where we are right now with LeBron. He puts up a line of 30-10-8—the greatest line that most players would have in their career—on a consistent basis and unless he does something that really stands out in our minds, we shrug and say to ourselves, ‘well, that’s LeBron, he should be putting up those numbers’. Oh, and I might have forgotten to mention it, but Dwayne Wade is having a pretty decent season too—shooting over 50% from the floor and, although overshadowed by LeBron, playing some fantastic basketball during Miami’s recent stretch.

So with the Heat playing the way we knew they could—but weren’t 100% sure we’d see after some early troubles—and the Eastern Conference being the type of conference that it is—not very good—is it realistic to expect any team other than Miami to be representing the East in the NBA Finals come June? My short answer to that is an emphatic NO; it’s not realistic to think that another Eastern Conference team is going to be able to beat the Heat 4 times. With LeBron and Wade playing like they are, with Chris Bosh bound to get better, with Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers ready to knock down open shots, and with room for improvement on the defensive end; No, no one is taking 4 games from this Miami Heat team.

Before the season began, it was the Celtics that were seen as the team that could slay the Miami monster, especially after they gave them all they could handle in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals. They had the big game players, were playoff savvy, and had added some seemingly nice pieces in the off-season—the likes of Jason Terry and Courtney Lee. Things haven’t worked out as planned in Beantown, however. The team, although ironically better since the Rondo injury, is struggling to even make the playoffs. And frankly, before Rondo went down for the year, the Celtics looked like a team on their way out—a team that could still swing and drop a Brooklyn or New York on their way down, but never the Miami Heat.

And speaking of the Knicks, they were everyone’s early season darlings—a team that shocked everyone with their jarringly successful shooting from downtown, refreshing chemistry, and great passing. For a few months there they looked like the Diet San Antonio Spurs—not quite the real thing, but close. And the Knicks have blown out the Heat twice this season, looking fantastic in the process. But reality has begun to set in at MSG over the past couple months. The 3-point shots aren’t falling like they were in November and December, they’re not playing defense like they were early on, and age is catching up to guys like Jason Kidd. 5-5 over their last 10, the Knicks have ceded 2nd place in the conference to the Pacers. Early on many of us asked the question, ‘Are the Knicks for real?’ The answer now is the same as it was back then. If ‘for real’ means a playoff team that could make it to the Conference Finals, than yes, the Knicks are for real. But if it means beating Miami, then no, forget about it.

The Heat’s biggest weakness is their lack of interior size. With Chris Bosh, who some would call an undersized power forward, playing centre, teams with true big men at the 4 and 5 spots can punish the Heat. We saw it on Tuesday against the Kings. DeMarcus Cousins, 270 pounds and brutishly strong, destroyed Bosh. Cousins had 24 points and 15 rebounds, while Bosh finished with just 15 points and 8 boards. Earlier in the season we saw the Grizzlies, with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, beat up on the Heat; while the Jazz, another team with a monster frontcourt, had success against Miami. The Knicks and the Celtics don’t have the size to trouble Miami, but two Eastern Conference teams do: the Bulls and the Pacers.

The Bulls are the big ‘what if’ team this season. What if they had Derrick Rose for the whole year? What if Derrick Rose came back now and was 60% healthy, or even 50%? Would that be enough for the Bulls to challenge the Heat? Thibodeau’s men certainly have the defensive chops to make games with the Heat close, and they have the size inside—Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah being natural rebounders—to bother Miami; and if Rose was playing they’d have a shot maker. But Rose isn’t playing, and he may not play at all this year. The Bulls are a woeful offensive team—they have no 3-point shooting, and rely on perfect execution just to stay above water. Without Rose there’s no one who can create their own shot in the half-court. A Bulls team with a Derrick Rose who’s not at his best isn’t taking four games off the Heat. A Bulls team without Derrick Rose isn’t taking one game off the Heat.

That leaves us with the Indiana Pacers, the team that has the best chance of dethroning the Heat and becoming the East’s representatives in the Finals. The Pacers are 2-0 against the Heat this season, winning both games impressively. They were 2-1 against them in the playoffs last year, don’t forget, and felt like they let Miami off the hook. Paul George, a player who faced unrealistic expectations last season, has developed into a genuine NBA star, and is a fantastic perimeter defender. But most importantly, the Pacers have the size down low to disrupt the NBA champs.

But still, the Pacers aren’t winning 4 games against the Miami Heat. Even with West, Hibbert, and Mahinmi causing Bosh major grief in the paint, even with the NBA’s stingiest defense and an ever-improving offense, and even with Paul George defending LeBron as best as he can, I just don’t see it.

The Heat are going to get better in the playoffs—they did last year and they will again. Bosh will be a better rebounder in the post-season, like he was last year, and they’ll give him more support inside. Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem will provide some paint protection and they’ll rebound by committee. They’ll front Roy Hibbert just like they did last season and he won’t be able to get the ball. LeBron James will guard David West and still put up 35 at the other end. And the Pacers won’t be able to stop LeBron and Wade—at least not both of them in the same game—and just one of them on fire can take the game away from you. It’ll be a good series if they meet in the Finals, and sure, the Pacers will win some games, but they won’t beat this Heat team—not four times. It’s just not happening.

The mighty task of dethroning the Miami juggernaut is too mighty a task for the Eastern Conference. That onus will fall on a team in the West. 

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