Sort of has a ring to it, doesn’t it (more like three)? Most people, as it seems on social media lately, would give an arm or a leg if it meant that LeBron James and the Miami Heat would not win their third straight NBA championship. After The Decision, LeBron unintentionally placed a target upon his back and upon the back of the Heat organization. LeHaters united into one and scrutinized LeBron for everything that went wrong with the Heat. Warranted or unwarranted, the hate LeBron received lit a fire inside of him, and every word uttered by a hater was like pouring gasoline on the fire. The Heat went on to make three straight Finals appearances, losing to the Dallas Mavericks in ‘11 and beating the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs in the subsequent years.
LeBron and the Heat seemingly silenced the haters, and the LeLovers united into one and sang praises of their favorite player and favorite team. Bandwagon fans or not, they all have one very strong point: the Heat are the best team in the NBA until someone topples them at the peak of the mountain. Tim Duncan and the Spurs tried to do it last year, and got within a few seconds of winning their fifth title in the Duncan-era. But the late game heroics of Ray Allen kept the hopes of an entire city alive when he hit a three with time winding down in Game 6 to tie the game up and force OT (Heat went on to win – the rest is history). So who will be next up to the plate to try and slay the King and his army? Let’s take a look at the possibilities.
First up are the Indiana Pacers. Indiana took Miami to the limit in their Eastern Conference Finals matchup but couldn’t get the job done. With the return of Danny Granger and off-season acquisitions of C.J. Watson (what’s better than D.J.? C.J. of course) and Luis Scola (replacing the often ineffective Tyler Hansbrough), could Indiana have the perfect combination to beat the Heat? Indiana looked to pound the ball down-low early and often to their deadly combination of big men: David West and the 7’2” Roy Hibbert. In order to topple the Heat, you need good post-play. Hibbert had a breakout series and dominated Miami’s bigs often (Note: Chris “Birdman” Anderson was suspended for shoving Hansbrough). Paul George seemed to trade blows with LeBron, and Lance Stephenson played better than he ever has, though a tad reckless at times. A lot of people are speculating (especially those Pacers fans) that the Pacers now have the players required to sabotage LBJ and the Heat’s quest for three.
In order to get to the Heat, the Pacers might have to run through the Chicago Bulls first. Two teams that have given trouble to the Heat in the Big Three-era are the Pacers and Bulls. Over the past three regular seasons, the Bulls are winning their series against the Heat 7-4, including a 101-97 victory on March 27th, 2013 that ended Miami’s 27-game winning streak in one of the most physical games of the year. But as we all know, the playoffs are what matters. The Heat have won both of the series against the Bulls 4-1 in the playoffs, though both series were much closer than what the outcomes show. Bulls play Miami how you should play them: Physically. They tire every player on the court out and frustrate them with hand-checks and pushing, much like the Detroit “Bad Boys” used to do against MJ and the Bulls. The Bulls problem against Miami (and in general) is they don’t have a consistent second scorer behind Rose. On defense, they have three great defenders (Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, & Joakim Noah) attempting to neutralize Miami’s Big-Three. The Bulls need better outside shooting (drafting Tony Snell and acquiring Mike Dunleavy should improve their outside shooting) and either Deng or Boozer to step up and be the consistent second scorer behind Rose if they have any hopes of trampling the Heat on their way to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1998.
Many thought and hoped it was going to be a second straight Finals loss for the Heat when they squared off with Oklahoma City, especially after the Thunder won the first game. Their hopes were squandered after the Heat trounced them, sweeping the next 4 games en route to winning their first title since 2006, a team that featured Dwayne Wade and the big Shaqtus, Shaquille O’Neal. The very next year, the Spurs were poised to topple the King’s army, only to have their defenses crippled to the point where they could only stand by and put up fight, delaying the inevitable Heat victory in a thrilling Game 7. Two titles under his belt already, LeBron and the Heat are still hungry for more (not one, not two, not three…). No team has had the combination of the right players and right strategy to topple the Heat. There’s a saying that goes, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” If Miami wants to three-peat, they need to stick to what they’re best at. On offense, they need to keep the pressure on the defense and make them react on their heels. Whether it’s a fast break or in the half-court set up, they need to score quickly because their offense often becomes stagnant if they hold onto the ball for too long, leaving the ball in the hands of Lebron or Wade with 4 seconds left on the shot clock. On defense, Miami needs to continue with their suffocating combination of speed and anticipation. They like to trap whoever brings the ball up the court right as they cross half-court, and if their defense gets into a groove, it’s nearly impossible to break them out of it. They will need lots of forced turnovers leading to fast-break buckets to build leads early and often. As long as their formula remains unchanged, the likelihood of a three-peat seems rather high at this point.
Teams know what it takes to beat the Heat. The Heat know what it takes to climb the mountain and reach the peak. Eventually, some team will topple the Heat. Whether it’s a team like the Bulls, Pacers, or Spurs, or a surprise team like the Nets, Clippers, or Rockets remains to be seen. With the loss of Mike Miller, the Heat lose some of their three-point artillery, so people like Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, and Shane Battier will have to take on the load that was left by Miller. With the low-risk, high-reward acquisition of Greg Oden (2-year contract for the veteran’s minimum and a player-option for the second year), the Heat addressed something teams have used against them in the past: size. The Heat ran rampant last year on nearly every team standing on their path to a second title. Expect a much more grueling and interesting year for the Heat, with Eastern Conference teams like the Pacers, Bulls, Nets, and Knicks addressing their needs in the offseason. The Heat are in the midst of trying to accomplish something only the Lakers, Celtics, and Bulls have done. Every team in the NBA would love to be the one that thwarted Miami in this epic quest, and the King would love nothing more than to fit a third crown upon his head.