The trend of upsets on Saturday, the first day of the NBA playoffs, should have the Heat on notice today as the team prepares to face the Charlotte Bobcats in its playoff opener at 3:30 p.m.
The lower-seeded team won three of the four games on Saturday. The East’s top-seeded Pacers were blown out by the Atlanta Hawks and the No.6 seeds on both sides of the bracket (Warriors and Nets) won their playoff openers. The Heat hasn’t lost to the Charlotte Bobcats since LeBron James arrived in Miami, but there are also plenty of questions hovering above the defending back-to-back champs as its bid for three in a row begins. Let’s explore five …
What the heck happened to Michael Beasley and Greg Oden?
Oden and Beasley were brought in this season to fill specific roles for the Heat. Remember when Charles Barkley said Oden was going to be the difference between the Heat winning its third title in a row or coming up short? If that’s still the case, then the Heat might be in trouble. Oden was supposed to be the Heat’s answer inside against Pacers center Roy Hibbert (and other imposing centers that have given the Heat trouble); Beasley appeared to be a nice replacement for Mike Miller. After 82 games, both players are expected to begin the playoffs on the end of the bench.
Sidelined with injuries for four seasons, Oden has had trouble with his fitness and it has affected his quickness inside. Never was that more apparent than in the first quarter of the Heat’s loss to the Pacers on March 26. Hibbert had arguably his best offensive quarter of the season and Oden has only played once since checking out of that game after the first six minutes.
As for Beasley, his return to the Heat basically was an extension of his first stint with the team. His ability as a scorer is undeniable, but depending on him defensively is something Heat coach Erik Spoelstra just isn’t willing to do. At this point, Beasley is a highly capable insurance policy if someone goes down with an injury, but nothing more. And that leads us to question No.2…
How will not having Mike Miller affect the team?
Mike Miller had a great season with the Memphis Grizzlies, which served as a constant reminder to everyone inside the Heat’s locker room and front office of just how important he was to the team’s postseason success in 2012 and 2013. Miller had over 100 three-pointers this season and shot 45.9 percent from three-point range. He also played in every game. In other words, he was better than every three-point shooter on the Heat’s roster except for maybe James Jones, who shot over 50 percent from three-point range, but was never a consistent contributor.
Miller shot 46.7 percent from three-point range in the 2013 playoffs and the Heat will have to find that offense in different places this postseason. Rashard Lewis is expected to begin the postseason in the Heat’s rotation with Shane Battier waiting in reserve. Chris Bosh reinvented his game to include a consistent three-point shot this season, and he is expected to shoot even more three-pointers during the postseason. After all, Bosh has shot 44 percent from three-point range during the Heat’s two-year championship run.
Historically, Spoelstra hasn’t hesitated to shake up his rotation if a shooter goes cold in the playoffs, so Battier will be on high alert. (If Beasley plays meaningful minutes, then something really went wrong.) Of course, Spoelstra’s propensity to tinker probably will not apply to Ray Allen, who hit the biggest shot in Heat history in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. Allen will be counted on even more during this postseason run. And that fact, of course, leads to our third question?
How will opponents defend the Heat on corner three-pointers?
The Bobcats’ scouting report on the Heat will be screaming this next statistic. By a wide margin, the Heat led the NBA this season in three-point attempts from the corner (696). The Clippers were second with 598. The Heat also connected on corner three-pointers more often than any other team (42.8 percent). The Mavericks were second at 42.2 percent. Not surprisingly, the Heat’s overall shooting percentage on corner three-pointers was in line with Allen’s individual percentage from that area. Allen attempted 131 corner three-pointers this season and connected on those shots 42.7 percent of the time. Battier shot 39 percent on corners three-pointers and Lewis finished the season with a shooting average of .402 on corner three-pointers.
Success against the Heat means limiting James and Wade inside, but also getting out to the corners to defend when the Heat’s slashers break down a defense and spray passes outside. The Bobcats limited opponents this season to 37.8 percent on corner three-pointers. Not bad.
Will Dwyane Wade stay healthy?
For obvious reasons, this question is impossible to answer. It’s also the most important question facing the Heat entering the playoffs. The team’s training staff has done an excellent job of managing Wade’s health this season. Sure, he didn’t like sitting out 28 games, but the hope is that more than twice the rest from last season (he sat out 13 games in the 2012-13 season) will be enough to keep Wade’s knees happy throughout the playoffs. Questions about Wade’s health have been a constant theme throughout the season. For kicks, take a look at this preview story I wrote way back in October. With a few tweaks, that story could probably run in the paper today.
Will LeBron James take the step from being his generation’s best basketball player to joining the game’s legends on Mount Rushmore?
Defining greatness is such a subjective thing, which makes that whole Mount Rushmore argument this season kind of silly. That being said, let’s take this time to name an NBA Postseason Mount Rushmore. I neither played in the NBA nor am I overly educated in NBA history, which means I’m more than qualified to throw out my own list.
LeBron knows the only way he can be added to the list of all-time greats is by winning more championships. He doesn’t necessarily have to win again this season to eventually get there, but it would help. Of course, simply winning championships isn’t enough to be considered among my NBA Postseason Mount Rushmore. You also have to dominate the Finals series. Wade dominated the Finals in 2006 and James did it twice in 2012 and 2013.
Only two players have won three straight NBA Finals MVP Awards. Shaq won three in a row with the Lakers from 2000 to 2002 and Jordan won three in a row twice (1991-93 and 1996-98). Of course, for many a conversation about the best player in postseason history begins and ends with Celtics legend Bill Russell. After all, the Finals MVP Award now rightly bears Russell’s name. He helped lead Boston to 11 championships over 13 years, including eight in a row. That, of course, was a different era, though, which is maybe why James controversially left Russell (and Kareem) off his NBA Mount Rushmore.
For the record, James’ Mount Rushmore of basketball legends entering this postseason: Magic, Jordan, Bird, Big ‘O’. That list, of course, would be a flawed Postseason Mount Rushmore, in my opinion.
For starters, Bird only won three championships. Three is great, but three doesn’t land you on Mount Rushmore. No, the only player from that era on my Postseason Mount Rushmore is Magic, who won three Finals MVPs over seven years, but you can make a case that he should have won five Finals MVPs over eight years.
Kobe Bryant is on my Mount Rushmore with five championships. Yes, Shaq won three straight MVP Finals and has four rings overall, but Kobe edges Shaq based on the fact that he won two more championships after Shaq was long gone from L.A.
So, here’s my Postseason Mount Rushmore with LeBron still having some work to do to knock Kobe off the mountain: Bill Russell, Jordan, Magic and Kobe. (I’m not ignoring Kareem’s greatness here, I’m just discounting it.)
The Miami Herald