Thursday, April 17, 2014

Heat Three-Peat Preview: A Healthy Wade

There's a lot of talk around the league about the Heat looking (and performing) the worst of any of their four seasons together in the Big Three era. While it's probably true, the Heat area also the healthiest they've ever been going into the playoffs with the most robust lineup they've ever had. In their first year together, the critical players were fully healthy (with the exception of Bosh and Haslem) down the stretch, but Mike Bibby, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Jamal Magliore, and Joel Anthony were all getting big time minutes. To boot, Bibby shot the worst from 3PT of not only his career, but also the history of the playoffs. In the other two runs, Miller, Bosh, Wade, and other role players had nagging injuries or worse. This made the Heat have to pull out heroic performances from LeBron and Wade as well as standout role player performances from Battier and Miller at crucial times. Chalmers, as always, shined in the spotlight.

This year, despite the lack of continuity and rhythm, the team is completely healthy. Bosh and LeBron logged some pretty heavy miles down the stretch, but have now had more than a full week off before the beginning of the series. Bosh is going to get worn down a little in the first round against Charlotte, but no one is really going to tax LeBron unless he's asked to guard Jefferson in crunch time. Wade, barring any setbacks, is looking spry and ready to dominate like he did against the Mavericks in 2006 and 2011, and in key games against the Pacers two years ago.

I have no doubt that the Heat find their rhythm after the first series. The East is the worst it has been in decades and the Heat are pulling the Bobcats and then probably the Nets (or if they're lucky, Toronto). They'll have home court in both of these series. If Toronto manages to beat the Nets, the Heat will have a good chance of sweeping both opponents in the first two rounds and being fully rested for their matchup against Indiana (assuming they don't continue their free fall in the playoffs.) Oh, and anyone who thinks the Nets are really a threat because they won 4 games by less than 3 points, you're nuts. Remember when the Bulls and Celtics clobbered the Heat in the 2011 regular season...well, they were much better teams and the Heat dismantled them each in 5 games.

As much as the Heat-Pacers rivalry has been hyped up, the Pacers truly aren't the threat to the Heat that the media makes them out to be. When Lance Stephenson is your best answer to a healthy Dwyane Wade, and Roy Hibbert can't dominate the undersized Udonis Haslem, you're going to have some serious problems.

The West is more concerning though. Miami won't have home court against any team that's likely to make it out of that conference. Every team except one team concerns me - the Oklahoma City Thunder. Miami made short work of them two years ago in the Finals and that was when they had Harden, who's now one of the best players in the league. Durant can't win the series on his own (much like the Lebron-era Cavaliers), and Westbrook will take just enough of Durant's shots to complicate things even further. They can't exploit the Heat's size weakness because Ibaka's offensive skills haven't developed enough and Kendrick Perkins is simply a big dumpster parked at the rim.

As crazy as it sounds, I'd probably prefer to see Miami play the Spurs rather than the Clippers. The Clippers, if they can pull it together, are young, athletic, great shooters, and exploit the Heat at point guard and center (their two biggest weaknesses). Jamal Crawford can make even the best defense in the league useless with his crazy shotmaking ability, and DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin might just clip the wings off of the Birdman. On the other hand, the Spurs are older and Manu Ginobili looked like he needed to be carted off in a wheelchair after each game in last year's finals. While Ray Allen won't always be there to bail us out, Tony Parker also wont' make scoop shots from 16 feet away from the basket while on the ground and smothered by LeBron. Danny Green won't shoot like the 2011 Mavericks again either. And, Marco Belinelli is overrated.

Remember, with all the talk about the burden being on LeBron, we haven't seen a full-strength Wade in the Big Three era playoffs in full takeover mode. He had the best Finals performance ever, far better than anything Jordan ever did in the Finals, let alone the Playoffs. If he's healthy, the Heat win. It's that simple. He'll be extra motivated to make sure LeBron doesn't even have the thought of leaving this summer. As much as he seems to like the ridiculous nickname "Three," he's going to start making it "Four."