Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Road to the Three-Peat

The Miami Heat's path to its third consecutive championship has not looked clear all season (except maybe when LeBron did this). In one of the most competitive first rounds in NBA Playoff history, the Heat's best competition are not only wearing themselves out playing 6 and 7 game series (a real thing that affects elite players apparently - see, e.g. LeBron James in the 2011 Finals, LeBron James in every season before he joined the Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder the past few years), bearing the brunt of the concomitant wear-and-tear and injuries that come along with it, but also are looking and presumably feeling more vulnerable as a result. An ancillary benefit of these hotly contested series is that the Heat can sit home and pick apart tape from their potential contenders in the Finals; these teams going seven games deep into their series and going into several overtimes are having to pull out every trick in their playbook, every set, every out-of-bounds play, every defensive adjustment, and every gimmick ("Hack-a-______" in the cases of Portland and Golden State). All this while the Heat sit home and get their aging stars some much-needed rest to keep them spry for a long run. The only obstacle in the way of the Heat in getting more rings is the possibility of injury. Roy Hibbert has literally picked up every stone and moved it out of the Heat's path to the Finals. For the other Eastern Conference Finals "Contender," the remainder of the Playoffs is a slow Sisyphean climb to an eventual kick back to the bottom of the pile compliments of LeBron & Co.

Like I've said before, the Clippers and the Grizzlies are the teams that are the most dangerous to the Heat. Thankfully, the Clippers and Spurs don't have the same matchup problems with the Grizzlies that the Heat do, and so the Grizzlies will never make it out of the Western Conference. Everyone thinks that the Spurs are the team to beat, but really it has to be the Clippers. They are equipped with an almost perfect combination of personnel to beat up on the Heat. The best point guard in the game, a springy athletic center who can dominate the paint and offensive glass, a dominant power forward who is athletic and aggressive (i.e., can't be checked by Bosh in the paint), and shooters like J.J. Redick. Then, when you can bring in guys like Jamal Crawford off the bench in order to stop the bleeding or simply give you a break when you have no rhythm to the Chris Paul-led offense, and a solid rest of the bench to come in and give you quality minutes at every position, you are in great shape. An X-Factor like Barnes (a defensive specialist who can get hot from 3) adds to the problems for the Heat. However, against the Heat, the Clippers simply have no "LeBron stopper," which is someone who can match his size, athleticism, and effort enough to make him uncomfortable. Matt Barnes can play great fundamental defense against LeBron, but will get ruthlessly posted up and blown by such that double teams will be required. 

Moreover, the Heat's second biggest threat has no one to guard him besides J.J. Redick (who happens to be deathly afraid of LeBron), which is a tough proposition if Mr. Wade is healthy. Those are also post-up opportunities waiting to happen. If the Heat can play their typical inside-out (albeit not traditional) style of basketball in which they post their skill players up in the paint or run sets from the elbow to get wide open threes for Allen, Lewis, Jones, Battier, Chalmers, and Cole, or get free buckets, they are tough to beat as well. Both teams would bring great defensive effort, but the advantage presumably goes to the Heat here because they truly rotate on a string and have championship experience doing so and a proven track record of being able to simply stop opponents form scoring when they need to. DeAndre Jordan, oddly enough, would be the key to this series. If he can assert himself offensively OR just be absolutely dominant in the paint on defense (affecting shots and blocking them and encouraging the Heat to take jumpshots like in the 2011 Finals), then the Clippers could be NBA Champions.

I'm backing the best player in the game, though, and his championship surrounding cast. You know, Bosh might not put up the stats that he should when he's up against Blake and DeAndre, but he is still Big Shot Bosh.