The Cleveland Cavaliers are, by popular measure, the prohibitive favorites in the Eastern Conference. Nobody is expected to challenge the LeBron James-led team as they look for a second consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals. However, in the early games of the playoffs’ first round, one team stands out as a potential roadblock on Cleveland’s road to the Finals.
That team is LeBron’s former club, the Miami Heat. In Game 1 of their first-round series against the Charlotte Hornets, Miami rolled to a 32-point victory on their home floor. In that win, the Heat had five players score in double-figures, owned a plus-14 advantage in the rebounding department, and dished out 16 more assists than the Hornets.
Those impressive numbers are reason enough for the Heat to at least make it to the Eastern Conference Finals (likely against the Cavaliers), but we have three big reasons why this team can truly challenge for a Finals berth this season.
The Heat’s roster is full of experienced players who have been a part of multiple playoff runs, something teams in the conference outside of Cleveland can’t really say. Even without Chris Bosh (who’s out due to injury), the team still has Dwyane Wade (three-time NBA champion), Luol Deng, and Joe Johnson in their starting lineup to provide a veteran presence that allows them to handle any adversity the postseason brings.
On the bench, longtime NBA players like Udonis Haslem and Amar’e Stoudemire also provide maturity to support the Heat’s cause. While this aspect of the game can be overrated, the experience on this roster is so prevalent that it can’t be ignored. It helps younger players like rookie Justise Winslow and less-experienced vets like Goran Dragic prepare for the drama and pressure of the playoffs.
Furthermore, these seasoned players are critical contributors to the team. Wade was second on the team in scoring during the regular season, Johnson proved to be a solid addition at the trade deadline, and Deng started 73 games (and led the team with 31 points in Game 1 against Charlotte). This group gives Miami plenty of production to compete with any team in the conference, including Cleveland.
2. A force down low
Hassan Whiteside really burst onto the scene in his second season in Miami. A young player who averages 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks per game this season, Whiteside has turned into one of the best big men the game offers. Simply put, he gives the Heat an advantage that most other teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs can’t handle.
In that first game against the Hornets, Whiteside went for 21 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks, and two steals in his first-ever postseason game. Charlotte didn’t have an answer for him with their big men like Cody Zeller or Al Jefferson, and the case could be similar for their potential second-round opponent — be it the Indiana Pacers or the Toronto Raptors. Whiteside’s ability to control the paint on offense and defense can’t be overlooked. Without Bosh, the fourth-year pro is critical to Miami’s success.
1. Success against Cleveland
Clearly, it looks like the Heat are the superior team when compared to the Hornets. While there is still plenty of time for Charlotte to make things interesting in that series, the Game 1 loss was telling of how it may ultimately end up. Should Miami continue to play well and handle Charlotte in round one, they will face either Indiana or Toronto Raptors.
Miami was only 1-3 this season against the Raptors and just 2-2 against Indiana, but their playoff experience should give them an advantage in the conference semifinals. A win in that series would get them to the conference finals, where they would have a chance to knock off the Cavs.
Based on their success against Cleveland this season, an upset could be in order. The Heat lost their first game this season against the Cavs way back in October, but Miami excelled in two blowout victories against the top team in the East in their other meetings (although they both came in South Florida). That’s a clear indication that the Heat could push the Cavs to the limit in a seven-game series.
Wade seems to love playing against his good friend LeBron James. He went for 24 points in their most recent meeting and as two of the top players of this era, Wade would love nothing more than to prove he can win yet another title without LeBron (Remember, Wade won his first title back in 2006 before LeBron was a member of the Heat). That alone provides a chip in Miami’s shoulder concerning a potential conference finals series.
While Cleveland is the clear favorite to win the East, nobody seems to have a greater chance of knocking them off than the Heat. Miami’s ceiling feels high even without Chris Bosh and if they get to the conference finals, we could be in for a historically great matchup with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.