Four months ago, if you thought anyone but the Miami Heat was favored to win the NBA Championship, you were an idiot. The team had the most transcendent player of the generation playing at his absolute apex, an MVP-level sidekick shooting the highest percentage of his career, and an all-star third piece who had gleefully embraced his role and adjusted his game to fit his surroundings. Maybe even more important, this team had an identity: by redefining conventional NBA lineups, playing insanely aggressive trapping defense, and operating in an uber-efficient, uptempo, three-point-centric offensive attack, the Heat were innovating basketball while destroying opponents at the same time.
What a difference four months makes, eh? In that time, I’ve gained approximately seven pounds, went into a horrendous non-writing slump on my blog, scuffed my “Military Blue Jordan 4’s,” been on local radio for stopping traffic because my car broke down, and called a guy by the wrong name during a job interview. And the crazy thing is, compared to the Miami Heat, I feel pretty good right now.
In a span of six games against Indiana, this team has gone from “borderline unbeatable” to “will this group ever contend for a finals run again?” In all my years of playing/watching basketball (and YouTubing the famous games I wasn’t yet alive for), I’ve never seen anything like it.
So what’s happened to Miami? It’s pretty simple really, but for complicated reasons. Let’s start with the obvious, easy-to-notice observations and try to explain why they’re happening:
- Dwyane Wade is playing miserably – Not exactly a bold statement here, and Wade’s epic decline is directly correlated with Miami’s overall struggles. If Wade were playing at a high level right now, this blog post wouldn’t exist. But why is Wade suddenly unable to do anything on the court? Is this completely due to his continuing injury issues, or is there something scarier at work? Is Wade just getting old? Even if Wade is still a great player when entirely healthy, at his age/mileage he might not be able to stay fresh enough to be 100% for the playoffs ever again, which is a troubling prospect for Miami’s future.
- Chris Bosh is no longer a power forward – Bosh has proven in his career that he is capable of being a 20/10 guy, but at this stage with Miami he’s a stretch 3/4 who makes his living from 12-20 feet. This would be fine, except that he’s Miami’s only interior scorer and needs to anchor their small lineups. Even worse, Bosh isn’t making any of his shots from his pet areas, rendering him effectively useless. What’s causing this? The obvious answer is the size of Roy Hibbert and David West, but I think the issue runs deeper than that. Bosh has become such a minor part of the offensive strategy that he doesn’t have the patience to wait for the ball on the block. Instead, he’s floating around the perimeter to try to make himself immediately available. What’s more, Bosh’s outside drifting has left him dreadfully out of position on the glass, exacerbating Miami’s rebounding woes. When your starting center is averaging 6.5 rebounds per playoff game, you’re in trouble.
- The rest of the supporting cast has disappeared – Miami’s greatest strength offensively was that they could punish teams for doubling their stars. The reason the Heat have been unstoppable for the entire season is because their Big Three could not be guarded one-on-one. Whenever LeBron, Wade, or Bosh had the ball, teams were forced to double, allowing wide open looks for players like Battier, Allen, Chalmers, Cole, Miller, Lewis (holy shooters, Batman) or even Haslem or Birdman at spots. But against Indy, Miami’s gotten essentially nothing out of their spot up guys, and Haslem’s only had two flukey games (Birdman has been largely excellent, however). Why have the Miami shooters been so bad? It could be simply playoff nerves, fatigue, or regression in shooting percentage, but I think the real reason lies with the Big Three. Since Wade and Bosh aren’t putting the same pressure on Indy’s defense that they normally do, the supporting cast isn’t getting the same quality of looks that they’re typically used to, and the results have been disastrous.
Can Miami get back to “The Streak” form in Game 7? Not entirely, but that doesn’t mean they can’t win. Nothing is stopping Bosh from trying to reestablish himself as a viable option or the shooters to find a rhythm (although I don’t think Wade is getting healthy anytime soon), and having Andersen back tonight is a big help. Or if all else fails, I’m not ruling out a “LeBron in Game 6 Against Boston” performance tonight either.
And Miami better hope they win, because tonight’s game is about more than just getting to this year’s finals. Depending on what happens a few hours from now, the entire landscape of the NBA may be permanently changed. Much like the multiverses in Fringe (my new favorite Netflix show – it puts the “inge” in “binge”), there are a few very possible futures that might happen to the Heat. Based off the results, the narrative changes drastically. For instance:
The Red Wedding
Basically Miami’s worst case scenario. What happens if all of the Heat’s problems continue, causing them to lose to Indy on their home floor and make one of the best regular seasons in history irrelevant? The questions about Wade’s future only become more intense, and all of a sudden he becomes an overpriced declining star (remember he makes nearly $60 million over the next three years). Bosh starts to slide into nothing more than a role player, Battier and Allen seem old, and basically all of the burden shifts onto LeBron’s shoulders.
Faced with having to carry a franchise all over again, what will LeBron do? We already saw him leave Cleveland (regardless of how you felt about The Decision, it proved that LeBron wants to play with stars, which is understandable), so the thought of him bolting from Miami is certainly possible.
What if the Lakers amnesty Kobe, let Dwight walk, sign Al Jefferson at a discount because he wants to play for a contender, and then go after LeBron in 2014? Doesn’t a group of Pau, Jefferson, Metta, LeBron, and Nash seem slightly more appealing than Miami in two years?
What if Houston doesn’t go after Howard this offseason, clears slightly more cap space, and offers LeBron a tax-free contract with Lin, Harden, Asik, and perhaps a re-signed Chandler Parsons?
All I’m saying is that if the Heat lose tonight, LeBron’s status in Miami becomes a little (A LOT) more shaky.
If the Heat get to the finals and lose to the Spurs, things still look pretty grim. Is it really acceptable to Miami fans for their super-team to lose against a bunch of 30-somethings and (extremely well coached and handpicked) role players?
Losing this year’s finals would be a massive missed opportunity. Miami got to play against a Rose/Deng/Hinrich-less Bulls team, skipped past possible Boston and New York series, lucked out with the Westbrook injury, and avoided the Clippers and Grizz. Next year might be much more difficult, especially with the rise of the Rockets/Warriors, and more importantly, the fact that Indiana looks like a team that’s just getting started. This might be the best chance LeBron has to get his second ring with the current squad.
(With this said, at this point I think I favor San Antonio in a possible Heat/Spurs final. Allowing Popp over a week to prep for Miami when the Heat are at their absolute worst? Giving rest to the Spurs’ stars? Miami’s psyche which must be damaged at this point? Yikes.)
A Sigh of Relief
Let’s say that Miami cruises tonight against Indy, regains its old form and beats the Spurs. Then, the future continues to look bright, LeBron continues on his path to become the G.O.A.T., Wade gets a summer of rest for his knee, Miami’s small-ball strategy is further validated, and the season of The Streak is capped off with a ring.
The Spurs are a year older, Westbrook’s/Rose’s knees are untested, the Pacers might regress, New York is old and handicapped with money, Boston gets blown up, Memphis can’t afford any shooters, Curry/Bogut can’t stay healthy, and CP3 is angry with the Clippers. With these sort of prospects, the idea of leaving Miami seems ludicrous, and the Heatles are the favorite to three-peat.
There’s only one way to figure out what happens…
And that process starts tonight around 8:30 on TNT. I know I’ll be watching.
Miami 93, Indiana 81 – LeBron goes into Cleveland mode and gets the win, but plenty of questions remain for a series against the Spurs.