As the NBA playoffs approached, several teams appeared to be strategically tanking to manipulate their seeding for a more favorable matchup in the first round and beyond. The two-time defending champions were no different. After losing six straight games to the Nets, it's evident the boys from South Beach were looking to avoid a trip to Brooklyn at all costs. But even with their championship credentials, the Heat may be looking ahead a bit to soon.
The Bobcats are hot heading into the playoffs, closing out the regular season with a 7-1 record. Their defense, orchestrated by first-year coach Steve Clifford, has been one of the best in the league all season, ranking in the top five in points allowed and efficiency. And while the Bobcats were swept by the Heat during the regular season, they did produce numbers above their season averages in points, rebounds and field-goal percentage. Miami stumbles into the playoffs, finishing with a 3-6 record, but that's partially because coach Erik Spoelstra elected to rest his stars down the stretch. It'll be interesting to see if the Heat show any rust early.
The Case For The Heat
They have LeBron James. Need more? Even with the Bobcats playing well, the Heat have been superior in almost every facet. In fact, Miami is 15-0 against Charlotte since James and Chris Bosh came to South Beach in the summer of 2010. And this season, Miami's advantages were especially evident during their last matchup, on March 3, when James single-handedly trounced Charlotte by scoring a career-high 61 points. The Bobcats couldn't defend the perimeter enough to give themselves a chance, allowing the Heat to shoot 57 percent from downtown. Charlotte also had trouble keeping up with Miami's quickness.
Another factor tipping the odds in the Heat's favor is the fact that they'll have Dwyane Wade back at full strength, though we may see his minutes limited in the first round. But even with possible restrictions on Wade, the rest of the Big Three will be rested and should be able to flip the switch like they have in the past.
The Case For The Bobcats
The Bobcats are in a groove. Since their last game against the Heat, Charlotte has won 16 of 22 games, clinched a spot in the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history and finished third in the Southeast Division for the first time. It's safe to say they're heading into the playoffs with some momentum. Since that loss, the Bobcats have also beaten the Pacers, Wizards, Blazers, Nets and Bulls.
In the last 10 games, Al Jefferson is averaging 26 points and 13 rebounds, well above his season marks. And if Kemba Walker can exploit Mario Chalmers, the Heat will have their hands full, maybe even enough for the Bobcats to sneak out a win in the first two games, setting them up to capitalize when they return home.
When Charlotte lost by a point in their first matchup this season, it outscored the Heat 25-14 in the third quarter and Walker and Gerald Henderson combined for 44 points. If the Bobcats can replicate that effort, they'll have a chance.
Dwyane Wade. Jefferson carried the Bobcats into the playoffs and will give the Heat fits in the post. But the man to watch in this series is Wade. After coming off a hamstring injury and resting for the latter part of the season, Wade will need to be in peak condition and a consistent contributor for Miami to pull off its three-peat quest. When a player of Wade's age and injury history returns, there's always a question about his ability to play at full strength. Miami is likely to ease its All-Star shooting guard back into form.
Miami in five. The Heat have been less than stellar down the stretch, but that doesn't matter in the playoffs. Miami has plenty of history to convince us that it'll be able to flip the switch in the postseason. The Heat might suffer an early loss due to fatigue or underestimation of the Bobcats, but they'll bounce back and close out the series without much trouble.