After watching the way the Miami Heat -- or more specifically, Lebron James and Dwyane Wade -- dispose of the game but obviously inferior Indiana Pacers in 6 games, you have to wonder whether this is finally the year that Lebron gets his first ring.
Haters are going to hate, and there are a lot of reasons for hating Lebron, Wade and the Heat. But you are just not being honest with yourself if you say this team doesn’t look very capable of scooping the Larry O’Brien trophy this June. I’m not sure you can say they are flat out favourites to win it all, considering the way San Antonio and Oklahoma City have looked, but when Lebron plays in his 40 point, 18 rebound and 9 assist form (of game 4) and Wade plays in his 41 point and 10 rebound form (of game 6), it’s hard to imagine any team beating them. And that’s not even including the very important Chris Bosh, who can probably afford to comfortably rehab until the Finals.
The Pacers had the better TEAM overall and the better top 8-10 players. But Miami has two guys who are better than any player that has ever put on a Pacers uniform -- ever. I’m might be doing the Pacers a disservice here, but I have a feeling those game 2 and 3 wins were more from the Heat being off their game than the Pacers really being the superior team.
Of course, the Heat looked pretty unstoppable on their way to the NBA Finals last year, and look what happened. In this era of overanalysis, it’s very easy to get too excited over a single game or injury. When the Pacers eked out game 2 and blew out the Heat in game 3, the series was supposedly over and it was a foregone conclusion that the Heat would not be able to win without Chris Bosh. When the Heat won the next 3 games and the series, they suddenly became unstoppable and were better off without Bosh. As we’ve seen it’s really pointless to put stock in what the experts and analysts have to say after every game.
So what about the four teams left in the playoffs that could potentially face the Heat?
At the moment, the Heat's most likely next opponent is the Boston Celtics, who are favored to win their next and final game against the Philadelphia 76ers. But the resilient 76ers have shown that they are capable of winning it too. If the Heat get through to the Finals, they will face either the San Antonio Spurs, who have not lost since the Stone Age (or at least it feels like that) or the Oklahoma City Thunder, the only other team in the league with two superstars that can take over any game like Lebron and Wade.
No one really expects the ageing Celts to give the Heat too much of a problem. After all, the Heat disposed of the Celts last year in 5, and this year the Heat are supposedly better and the Celts are supposedly older. But no one is writing this gang off because they still have the Big 3(4) and they have championship experience. Kevin Garnett is playing better than he has in years (though that could be because of matchups thus far). Ray Allen is still Ray Allen, a guy that can give the Heat fits when his shooting is on. Rondo has been great, even better than he was last year before he dislocated his arm against the Heat. And Paul Pierce is the one guy that can take this team over the top. You thought the Pacers were physical? Well, this Celtics team is going to rough them up. Importantly, with the number of stars of their team, you know the refs are going to cut them some slack. That's a privilege the Pacers didn't have. The question, however, is whether the Celts' celebrated D can contain Lebron and Wade for a whole series. It's a shame Avery Bradley is out because he was their best chance at shutting down Wade. My guess is that if they play the Celtics, the Heat will advance in 5 or 6. I have too much respect for them to predict a sweep.
If it is Philly that gets through, I think the Heat will have an easier time. It'll be like facing a less talented version of the Pacers, and with less physicality. The Heat had their way with the 76ers during the regular season and there's not a lot of reasons to expect differently in the playoffs. The chances of them catching the Heat off guard are much lower now that the Heat has received a mini wake up call from the Pacers. However, Philly has shown through the Bulls and this Celtics round that you can never count them out. They have a toughness and resiliency that the Pacers didn't have, and they are a much more disciplined ball club. Not that it will be enough, but I think they could steal a game if things go right.
In the West, things are much more complicated. Some say the solid, offensively improved Spurs will roll through the Thunder. Others say the youth and energy of the Thunder will be too much for the ageing Big Three of the Spurs. A few think it will go down to a bounce here or there in game 7. Whoever wins, the Western Conference Champion will get home court advantage in the 2-3-2 format.
If the Spurs get through, I think they have the best chance of not only beating the Heat, but embarrass them. They have a revitalized Tim Duncan, who is also apparently having one of his best stretches in years. Parker is just about back to his Finals MVP form, and of course Many Ginobili is a crafty veteran and a handful for any team. He can also flop with the best of them, giving Wade and Lebron a run for their money. They also have youth, depth and experience, championship experience, and the best coach in the game, Popovich, this year's COY winner. And they are on a crazy roll right now. If they rattle the Heat early on, we might see a collapse like we did last season when the Heat buried their heads against the Mavs. I really don't know how it will turn out, to be honest. The Spurs could sweep them, but the Heat might also pull out a surprisingly easy victory. Health will be an issue. If Bosh is out, Duncan could be dominant, certainly more dominant than Roy Hibbert was or was supposed to be. But if any of the Spurs' Big Three fall down, you'd have to give the Heat the edge. All things being equal, I have to lean towards the Spurs. Too deep, too clinical, too experienced.
As for the Thunder, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will be a massive handful. They also have James Harden off the bench, and he will no doubt provide huge problems for Miami's second unit. And Serge Ibaka will provide a Tyson Chandler-esque presence at the rim, the kind of presence required to deny the Heat's frightening penetration. It's an intriguing matchup, one that could also go either way. The series will depend on whether Westbrook can tear up Mario Chalmers and the Heat's defense. Westbrook can be a double-edged sword sometimes, and I believe he will be key. Durant will have his hands full with Lebron, so I think his effectiveness will be somewhat limited. If Ibaka can stay out of foul trouble and Westbrook is explosive I think they can take out the Heat in 6 or 7. But provided Bosh is healthy my guess is that the Heat's defense will be enough to get Lebron the first of his "not 1, not 2, not 3..."