Can Anyone Beat the HEAT?
So here’s a ridiculous question: Is there any Eastern Conference team with even a smidgen of a shot at upsetting the Miami HEAT in a seven-game series?
The short and easy answer to that question is, “What, are you kidding?” We spent over a quarter of the regular season wondering if there was a team in the league with the ability to beat Miami even once to snap their streak, let alone four times out of seven to win a playoff series. They are so, so much better than the rest of the conference that to have this argument with a straight face is almost as challenging as watching “Splash” with anything but comedic intrigue.
Here’s a little something to put this all into perspective: the HEAT are such major Vegas favorites to win the conference that you’d have to bet $100 to win only $16, while the second-best odds in the conference are for the New York Knicks, who would net you $600 for every $100 bet. Indiana and Chicago, the next couple of teams on the list, are at 13/1 odds, which proves just how great the gap is between Miami and the rest of the conference.
But that’s not going to stop fans from watching the Eastern Conference playoffs and hoping that somebody can give the HEAT a run for their money. The question is, truly, can anyone? Here are the only three teams in the East with even a hint of a prayer:
While the Pacers will likely end the season as the third-best team in the conference, there is no question that they’d struggle in a series against the HEAT. It’s great to be the best defensive team in the league and everything, but when you’re facing a team that is every bit as effective on the defensive end as you are, though far superior offensively, that league-best defensive loses a little bit of its luster. Miami will not struggle to the score the ball, but Indiana will at times, and that could cause some big problems in a seven-game series.
Yes, Indy won two out of three games against Miami this season, and yes, they were the team to go up 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Semis a year ago, but Indiana’s biggest stars are still rather young and inexperienced, which matters in the NBA playoffs.
Plus, they’ve lost four of their last five games, so it’s not as if Indiana is on the verge of getting hot at the right time. They’ll have to get past Chicago and New York just to have a shot at Miami, and that’s just about as tough a playoff road as a young team can expect. They’d give the HEAT a physical series, but they’d be lucky to win two games, let alone three or the necessary four to move on.
There have been some epic heavyweight bouts between Chicago and Miami the last few years, including the one about a month ago in which the Bulls snapped the HEAT’s 27-game winning streak, but it’s important to remember that the aforementioned streak-snapping victory is the only win they have had against Miami all season.
Even if Derrick Rose were back playing at full strength—and at this point, that obviously isn’t going to happen—the Bulls wouldn’t have matched up well against their conference foes, and without Rose the disparity in talent is even more glaring.
The Bulls also were among the league’s top defensive teams again this year, as they have been every season since Tom Thibodeau took over, but that probably wouldn’t matter much in a series against Miami for all the same reasons that it wouldn’t matter much for Indiana and their own great defense. The HEAT’s offense is just too much, and the Bulls are banged up and understaffed and missing their MVP. The media loves a good Chicago/Miami series, but this year a Chicago/Miami series probably wouldn’t be all that interesting, as sad as that is to admit.
New York Knicks
In so many ways, the Knicks are the best bet any Eastern Conference team has of beating the HEAT in a seven games series, if only for the simple fact that they took three out of four games from Miami during the regular season. Granted, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade sat out the last matchup of the season, but even a 2-1 series advantage in a season like this one is worth noticing.
Also worth mentioning is Carmelo Anthony’s recent hot streak. He’s averaging 36.9 ppg and 9.9 rpg in the month of April, easily one of the most incredible eight-game stretches any player has had this season, and he’s riding that momentum straight into the playoffs. Who wouldn’t love to see this Carmelo Anthony go head-to-head with LeBron right now?
The Knicks have won 14 of their last 15 games, which makes them hot enough to have a shot, especially if they’re hitting threes the way they’re capable of doing. Should these two teams meet in the Conference Finals, there would be some very tight, very physical games, but New York would need everything to go right in order to win the series, and Miami still has another gear they’ve apparently been saving for the postseason. If they kick it up a notch, the Knicks don’t have any better chance at winning a series against Miami than any other team in the conference. If Miami can’t find that next level, however, the Knicks are the only team hot enough to take advantage of that.
All this means that the first couple of playoff series against Miami probably aren’t going to garner much interest. If the current playoff picture holds, the HEAT will see some combination of Milwaukee, Brooklyn, and Atlanta in the first two rounds, and every one of those matchups screams “sweep.” Things won’t get interesting until the Eastern Conference Finals, when one of the other aforementioned three teams is most likely to meet LeBron and Co., but most people would agree that things won’t get really interesting until Round 2 of Thunder/HEAT in the NBA Finals.
For those of us hoping for a different matchup this time around, though, New York is the best hope we’ve got. If they can’t do it, Miami could end up with a mostly-free ride back to their third consecutive NBA Finals.