The second stage of the Heat's title defense is now complete, as a dicey 94-91 Game 5 victory will advance Miami to the Eastern Conference finals and formally end Chicago's season. With nine playoff games -- and two downed opponents -- in the books, it's a worthy time as any to reflect back on what we've learned from the Heat's postseason thus far.
Dwyane Wade isn't physically right, and that hasn't yet mattered.
While Miami's second-round series was fun and physical, an overmatched Chicago team offered precious little opportunity for drama. The Bulls were expected to put up as much a fight as they could muster -- and they did. Injuries to Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich simply put the Bulls way out of their league, particularly once Nate Robinson's once-brilliant offense extinguished as result of overuse.
With the outcome of this series all but assumed, the attention of the basketball world naturally turned elsewhere -- to the extracurricular fouls on the court, Rose's potential return and Wade's achy right knee. The latter is obviously the most pertinent at this point. Wade's injury has been officially diagnosed as a bone bruise, and the severity of it was mild enough for him to return to the floor in Game 4 after sustaining a knee-to-knee bump from Chicago's Jimmy Butler. But Wade hasn't looked himself through most of this playoff run, and seemed particularly idle in taking jumper after jumper against the Bulls' defense in the bulk of this second-round series. His explosion off the dribble is muted, but the bigger deficit seems to be in Wade's willingness to attack. This made him a more limited offensive player overall, though Wade did make a few nice drives into traffic in the final minutes of Game 5 to give some reason for optimism.
If Wade is able to create off the dribble at that level and connect on those floaters in the lane (in lieu of getting all the way to the basket), the overall impact of his injury will be relatively negligible. But if Wade's knee becomes any more problematic than it currently is, that could make things trickier against a Pacers defense (supposing Indy closes out a series it currently leads 3-1 against New York) that forces opponents to earn every point through pressure and contact. Either way, a limited Wade isn't yet enough to unseat the Heat as championship favorites, and Wade is still producing enough to ward off any serious concern.
The threat of Miami's shooters is more important than their actual shooting.
The formula for upsetting the Heat almost always begins with an outlier. Even the Heat aren't immune to the unfortunate turns of random chance, and a committed defense could, in theory, limit Miami's shooters to the point of clogging up the rest of its vaunted offense. Actually achieving an upset would still require pristine execution in most every other phase of the game, but the window would open on the basis of loading up on the drives of LeBron James while putting the game in the hands of cold shooters.
Yet in these playoffs, even that strategy hasn't worked very well. Against Chicago, Ray Allen converted just 23.5 percent of his three-pointers, Shane Battier just 28.6 percent and Mario Chalmers only 23.1 percent. Those are rough percentages from three of Miami's more accurate perimeter options, and yet the Heat put away the Bulls in five games and have yet to be pushed to their offensive limits. Shooting matters a great deal to any team working against an elite defense, but actually making those shots seems to stand secondary. Even when Allen is shooting a miserable percentage, just having him in the corner makes a help defender hesitate before rotating or draws attention in transition so that James might run unimpeded to the rim.
LeBron James won't settle.
This -- along with Norris Cole's inconceivable hot streak -- is the primary reason why Wade's injury and the Heat's shooting struggles haven't played a bigger role to date. James has been a bit sloppy with his passing at times, but overall has remained as aggressive and potent as he was in the regular season. Chicago's defense is designed specifically to counter strong drivers like James, but against the Bulls he actually attempted a greater percentage of his field goals at the rim (44 percent for the series) than he did in the regular season (41 percent), while also drawing 8.2 personal fouls per game. That last mark led all players in the second round, and served as a step up from James' regular season average (6.6).
His drives still come with an amazing foresight of the opponent's backline rotations, as we've seen James carve through the Bulls' defense at times despite the well-placed help of Noah and Taj Gibson. That's simply the value that James provides, and as long as he remains so determined to get to the basket, no defense in the league will likely have the tools to stop him.
Miami has the ability to completely lock up limited offenses with ball pressure.
The Heat have yet to encounter a high-powered offense in the postseason, but their two opponents to date set up an interesting precedent for a potential matchup with the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals. Indiana has struggled when opponents deny post position and apply defensive pressure on the perimeter, and it just so happens that Miami typically wears down opponents through just such means. When that kind of pressure has been applied in the past (as was the case in Game 2 against New York), Indiana tends to seize up -- thus forcing Paul George and George Hill into an uncomfortable amount of perimeter shot creation.
Neither the Bucks nor the Bulls are quite on the Pacers' level on either side of the ball, but against those two opponents the Heat have allowed just 93 points per 100 possessions on the basis of that very strategy. For reference, that mark is the best in the postseason, and has made opponents nearly five points worse than the NBA's worst regular-season offense (Washington). Indiana's size should create some leverage against Miami, but thus far the Heat have shown the capability to capitalize on the weakest elements of the Pacers' offense. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.