J.A. Adande, who lives in L.A., and Israel Gutierrez, who lives in Miami, are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives. Today, they discuss which teams in the Eastern Conference could challenge the Heat in the postseason.
(A quick word on those unis. When they broke out the all-black uniforms last season, I complained that it was too hard to see the numbers on TV. These throwback uniforms make it too easy to see the numbers. That fake-3D effect dominates the screen. How did we ever watch games back then? Maybe it wasn't so noticeable before HD.)
Where was I? Oh yeah, what's up with the Heat? Don't look now, but they're 0-2 against the Indiana Pacers and 0-2 against the New York Knicks this season. They lost to a Boston Celtics team that didn't have Rajon Rondo, whose season-ending knee injury doesn't look like it will prevent Boston from making the playoffs. Meanwhile, Derrick Rose might be back at full speed come playoff time, and the Heat already lost to the Chicago Bulls without him.
In other words, the Heat haven't done so well against most of the teams they're likely to face in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The East was supposed to be the Heat's playground. I thought the only location choices I was looking at for the set of Eastern games in the NBA Finals were downtown Miami (closer to the arena) or South Beach (closer to ... well, what do you think?). Now I'm starting to think the unthinkable: The Heat might not make it to the Finals.
Are they starting to sweat in South Florida? And if the Heat don't represent the East in the Finals, who will?
Oh, come on. I hear Indianapolis is lovely in June -- and just one or two flights from the beach of your choice. But don't blame me if I don't make those reservations just yet.
Before we start diving in to the suddenly growing list of Eastern Conference contenders, let's at least recognize that this regular season has mirrored each of the last two Heat seasons in certain aspects.
Year One of the Super Friends included a 1-6 regular-season record against Boston and Chicago, but that turned into 8-2 come the postseason. Even last season, Miami lost its last four regular-season games combined against the Celtics and Pacers, only to beat both teams in the playoffs, without Chris Bosh for nine games in those two series. So it's not as if regular-season results have been a good predictor of postseason success. That said, those two losses to the Pacers would be the first place to look when searching for teams that can dethrone the Heat in the East. It was the exact style of game that troubles the Heat most. There were a total of eight Heat transition points -- total! -- which included a single fastbreak point in the first meeting.
And when you slow the game down against the Heat, they're exposed as the small team they are. That's why the Heat got outrebounded by 19 in that first meeting and scored just 77 points.
The main difference in last week's meeting was there weren't as many rebounds to grab, because David West pounded the Heat inside to the tune of 12 of 15 shooting and 30 points. Plus, even though he managed only 15 points, Paul George looked like a star for the first time against the Heat, adding six rebounds, six assists and giving LeBron James some issues.
I'd say wait 'til Danny Granger comes back, but Indy doesn't even need that extra scoring to scare the Heat. They've done a better job bullying Miami without him.
Granger coming, yo!
I just wonder who's going to ride to the rescue for the Heat?
It took as great a dual performance as you'll ever see in a playoff game from LeBron and Wade (70 points, 27 rebounds and 15 assists between them) to get the pivotal Game 4 W at Indiana last season. But the underrated part of that game was Udonis Haslem's 14 points. Haslem hasn't scored 14 points in a game this season. You'd think that duty would fall to Ray Allen now, but he has yet to score in the two games against the Pacers. Zero, zip, nada.
It's been difficult for any player outside the Heat's ruling troika to get a score against the Pacers. Meanwhile, Indiana's getting enough points from enough sources to complement Paul George. It means the Pacers can damage the Heat with or without Roy Hibbert, who was a critical part of those two playoff victories but faded like that photo in "Back To The Future" as the series went on. Hibbert's point production has been so up and down this season; the Pacers don't have to worry which version they'll get against Miami as long as they can count on David West.
Here's why they should be concerned: The Pacers are five games behind the Heat in the loss column. The Heat will cruise to enough victories to keep the Pacers at bay in the battle for home-court advantage. Having to play up to four games in Miami could prove too much to ask for a Pacers team that's currently 10-16 on the road.
You know which team isn't afraid to go down to Miami? The Knicks. They'll have all of those relocated New Yorkers (you know, the ones you always hear complaining about the inferior pizza and bagels in your state) cheering for them in American Airlines Arena. The Knicks can draw on that 112-92 stomping they put on the Heat down there on Dec. 6. And if they can get all of their old guys healthy by playoff time, they'll have a combined 495 games of postseason experience represented in Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas.
It's a roster built with an eye toward the playoffs. The question is, can their style of play win enough playoff games? They're so dependent on the 3-pointer, taking and making the most 3s in the league. They've hit 46 percent of them in the two victories against the Heat. Can they keep that up in a seven-game series?
More importantly, can they keep it up for three seven-game series? Because by the time the Heat and Knicks square off, it will be in the conference finals. It feels like that's about as far as this Knick ship can sail. That would still mean two more playoff series victories then they've had in the 21st century.
Even with those two blowout wins against Miami already in their back pocket, the Knicks remain in show-me mode come playoff time, no matter how "veteran" their roster.
I know this isn't indicative of how New York has played this season, but last season, after hitting 2.5 threes a game over 54 games, Steve Novak could only get off seven attempts in five playoff games against Miami, hitting four (0.8 a game).
Granted, the Knicks have Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd this season, and J.R. Smith is more effective. But that Novak stat still tells me the Heat defend better in the postseason, particularly against the 3, which the Knicks rely so heavily upon.
And frankly, if the Knicks hold on to a two or three seed, it's more likely they lose to the Pacers, Bulls or Nets in the second round than make it to the conference finals.
It's another team, a team that's currently incomplete, that might be most poised come April and May to truly test Miami.
The Bulls are the best road team of the Heat's competitors. The Bulls are right there with the Pacers as the best defense in the East. And the Bulls are fighting for a top-three seed even without Derrick Rose all season.
If Rose comes back after the All-Star break and gets more than a month to work himself back into a groove before the playoffs, it's the Bulls that'll be the biggest threat to the Heat.
A healthy version of this year's Bulls would even be a different Bulls team than the one Miami beat in five games in 2011. Joakim Noah is an All-Star now. There are fearless contributors like Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler who weren't there two seasons ago when Rose was desperate for scoring help. And there is a veteran, professional Dwyane Wade agitator in Kirk Hinrich back on the squad.
The Bulls already won in Miami by grabbing 19 offensive rebounds to the Heat's four. They might already have the formula to beat the Heat, and that's without their superstar back in the fold.
But how will the Bulls' superstar fold in? There are six players who weren't on the team when Rose went down last year. They need to get used to Rose; Rose needs to get used to them. Even if he comes back right after the All-Star break, that leaves only 30 games before the playoffs. I don't think that's enough time for everyone to adjust to the new roles -- because if Rose is playing the way he has in the past, it means everyone has to slide down a notch.
If the Bulls are going to beat Miami, they're going to need Rose to drive to the basket -- a lot. According to the shot charts on vorped.com, the Bulls have taken 874 shots from the midrange area from around the free throw line to the 3-point arc. That's the third-most in the Eastern Conference. So much of their offense has been about passing from the paint out to jump shooters but they have attempted the second-fewest 3-pointers in the league, so they're not stretching out the defense. We've seen Indiana beat the Heat inside and the Knicks beat the Heat with 3s. The Bulls don't excel in either of those areas, so I don't like their chances to win a series with Miami.
It gets back to the Pacers having the best shot. I think they'll be the angriest -- that's a good emotion to have in the playoffs -- because they let Miami off the hook in last year's series. I think they have the right formula.
And I think I'm worried, because St. Elmo's is a big drop-off from Prime 112.
OK, we're already too caught up in who has beaten the Heat in the regular season. Let's remember, it's still the other guys who have something to prove in the postseason.
But all of them, along with a few other principals on the East rivals, have been quieted significantly against Miami in playoff series in the past two postseasons.
West, despite playing mostly against Shane Battier, managed to shoot just 45.3 percent in the six-game series last year. George was miserable, with a 36.5 shooting clip, and Granger was barely better at 37.7 (meanwhile, LeBron was at his usual 50 percent against the bigger Indy team, and Wade even finished at 47 percent despite his 2-of-13 horror in Game 3).
The Knicks stars? Not only was Melo held to 41.9 percent shooting and J.R. Smith an erratic 31.6, but even Tyson Chandler, he of the Chamberlain-like shooting percentage, could shoot only 44 percent from the floor.
And Boozer back in 2011? Well, after his 40.7 percent shooting and 14.4 points a game in the conference finals, Bulls fans would've traded him. Point is, the Heat's defense goes to a different place in the postseason, especially when pushed. And the rebounding totals don't mean nearly as much when Miami is forcing turnovers and shooting a high percentage.
The Heat's main concern won't be matching up against the Pacers or Knicks or Bulls for the rest of this regular season. Hanging on to that top seed is more critical to a team that tends to win on the road against good teams only when absolutely necessary.
Hopefully by then, your eyes will have recovered from those obnoxious 3-D numbers on the throwback jerseys.
Then you'll see there wasn't much to worry about for Miami, after all.