By beating the Knicks this past Sunday, this year’s Heat squad proved one thing: that no one in the East will stop them from going to the NBA Finals.
Their 99-93 triumph over New York, in front of the always-surly Garden faithful, pushed their winning streak to fourteen straight games, matching the franchise-high in that regard. It was also a statement game for the Heat, with James, Wade and co. coming all the way back from a 14-point second-half deficit and signaling to the rest of the league that any championship hopeful in the Association will have to go through them in order to get it.
They also did it, for risk of sounding pompous, the “right way”. They forced New York into committing 18 turnovers, well above their league-best season average in that category by playing fundamentally sound and aggressive defense. They also baited the Knicks into hoisting up a plethora of long-distance attempts at the end of the shot clock, who finished the game a dismal 8-29 from three-point range. Most importantly, they displayed the key characteristic that all successful playoff teams have: tenacity. After getting torched for 37 points in the second quarter, Miami stormed back after halftime and outscored New York 54-34 in the final 24 minutes. Chris Bosh was a microcosm of the game as a whole, recovering from an abysmal first half to give the Heat a much-needed scoring boost and ended the game with 16 points.
James was his usual brilliant self, finishing with 29 points and 11 rebounds while also clamping down on Carmelo Anthony defensively, who made just 9-19 from the field at game’s end. Wade pitched in with 20 points and Shane Battier continued his stellar play as of late, putting in 12 points off the bench. In fact, the team stats were pretty similar by the time the final buzzer sounded at MSG, but the Heat’s key cogs showed that superstar intangibles still matter when wins are on the line.
Unfortunately for the Heat haters, it looks like more Miami dominance is just around the bend. Only four of their next ten games are against playoff teams and only one is against a division leader, the latter being the much-anticipated Pacers match-up on March 10. It looks like a clear path to another first-place finish in the East for the Heat, with New York and Indiana holding onto precarious division leads over Brooklyn and Chicago respectively. Even if Rose is able to return to the Bulls’ lineup, which is looking less and less likely with each passing nanosecond, it doesn’t look like any team in the East will pose much of a threat to the giants of South Beach.
The Western Conference favorites shouldn’t be taking Miami lightly either. In fact, the Heat have a chance to sweep all four games against San Antonio and Oklahoma City, with their second and final meeting with the Spurs likely to be Parker-less (Parker is likely out 4-5 weeks with a severe ankle sprain). Even the Clippers, who own the NBA season-high winning streak this year at 17 straight wins, are a distant third on the Western conference totem pole and seem the least likely to meet Miami in the NBA Finals. Finally, there’s also the fact that last year’s Miami-OKC Finals brouhaha wasn’t all that close, and roster-wise, Miami is reloaded and seemingly better-equipped to deal with the Thunder this year if it ends up being a rematch this year. LeBron is playing at an All-Universe level, Dwayne Wade’s game has come around after a sluggish start, and Chris Bosh still has one of the best strokes of any big man in the league. With the added depth of Ray Allen and an improving Norris Cole coming off the bench, the rest of the league’s elite would be wise to not sleep on the Heat.