“We’re going to win in six.”
This was the self-assured sentiment of one Brandon Jennings, a young point guard who wanted to deny the inevitability of going up against the best team in the league.
Between their 27 game winning streak during the regular season (which was subsequently snapped by the resurgent Chicago Bulls), and their lackadaisical sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami appears to be the ultimate platoon that is going at light speed towards another inevitable championship.
While it may be too soon in the eyes of some critics to foresee such a bold prediction, consider the competition that stands between the Heat and their desired destination.
Assuming the Chicago Bulls are able to finish the job at home against the Brooklyn Nets, they would once again have the opportunity to repeat what they did earlier in the season: send the Heat home in utter disappoint and dismay.
Obviously, playing one game during the regular season is not tantamount to a seven games series, however if nothing else it displayed that the Bulls have the tools at their disposal to play a tight, and defensive battle royale. Between Boozer’s undeniable physicality that has proven effective at squelching LeBron’s shooting prowess, and Joakim Noah’s persistent ability to grab offensive boards, the Bulls will force the heat to play consistent transition basketball in order to come out on top.
It’ll come down to a six, possibly seven game series, but in the end the Bulls won’t be able to keep up with the dynamically effective duo that is LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. On top of that, it’s hard to fathom an injured (although mentally determined) Joakim Noah matching up with the Chris Bosh. a center who can not only garner as many rebounds as Noah, but who can also shoot effectively at various positions on the court with a solid degree of accuracy (53% during regular season and playoffs).
At this point, it would appear that the only other eastern conference team that stands a chance at defeating the Heat before they make their return to the big time are the New York Knicks. Their style of play is more akin to the Miami Heat in that they shoot first and ask questions later.
In this regard, Carmelo Anthony is clearly the key to the Knicks ability to be able to beat the Heat at their own game by doing what he does best; making clean perimeter shots. J.R. Smith will provide some much needed relief for Anthony by nailing some clutch threes of his own.
Defensively, the Heat will also have to contend with the ever omnipresent Tyson Chandler, who may not be able to garner the most points per game but his size and tenacity allow him to snatch rebounds quickly to ultimately set up the offense down the court.
This combination of offensively fluid tactics and overall defensive stoutness will give the Knicks a realistic chance of dethroning the Heat. The only problem with this scenario is at times the Knicks can lull themselves into a false sense of security by becoming to reliant on Anthony’s ability to make shot after shot (see game four against the Celtics). In this situation, the Knicks can’t expect Carmelo to bail them out in the second half when they’re down by double digits. If they want to win this series handedly, they will have to rely on their proven versatility on both sides of the court rather than shooting themselves in the foot at crucial moments in the series.
If neither of these eastern conference powerhouses can get the job done the torch will fall to a more formidable adversary in the western conference. At the beginning of the playoffs it seemed the Oklahoma City Thunder were the clear favorites to upset the Heat given that Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant matched up favorably against Wade and James. However, with Westbrook out of the picture due to injury, the phantom weight of his earned prestige falls on the shoulders of Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson. While Fisher isn’t a pushover at his position, he is clearly at the back end of his career at 38 years of age and averaging only 7.5 points per game.
In essence, the San Antonio Spurs have become the favorites to win the west by default after their decisive sweep against an ailing Lakers squad. Not only do they have one of the best point guards in the game in Tony Parker, they also have Tim Duncan on their squad as both an accurate shooter and a defensive juggernaut who can likewise play well off the glass (9.9 rebound per game during the regular season).
While all of these teams have something to offer in terms of their specialized skill set, there is one category which none of them can effectively compete with; depth. Between the offensive presence of both Matt Miller and Rashard Lewis, and Chris Andersen’s rebounding abilities, beating the Heat becomes more of a question of endurance and stamina rather than innate skill.
Only time will tell if any of these teams can use their own multi-faceted talents to defeat the Heat, but one thing is for sure; it won’t be easy.