When both Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose went down with injuries, it appeared that the Miami Heat would certainly return to the NBA Finals as Eastern Conference Champions. Howard had given the Heat fits all season with his ability to dominate the paint, and, along with the Orlando Magic's three point shooting proficiency, the Magic had the capacity to give the Heat a tough second round matchup. Rose and the Chicago Bulls, on the other hand, had been a thorn in the Heat's side not only because of their defensive strategy, but also because of Rose's dynamic scoring ability. Before Rose's injury, the Bulls appeared to be destined to meet the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals for a second year in a row.
Yet, without the two stars, both teams were eliminated in the first round. With the Heat's biggest challenges gone due to injuries, is there anyone left that can prevent the Heat from reaching the NBA Finals?
There were some pundits that thought the New York Knicks might give the Heat trouble in the first round. For this to happen, the Knicks would've had to shoot lights out from three point land, get major production from Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, and steal a game in Miami. While Anthony was a major producer at times in the series, it was basically Melo versus the Heat after Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis went down with injuries and Stoudemire was TKO'd by a fire extinguisher after Game 2. The Knicks never had a chance and were lucky just to steal a game at home.
With the Knicks dispatched, the Heat are set to face the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, May 13th. This series has already garnered some national attention due to Pacers head coach Frank Vogel calling the Heat flop artists. While Vogel's mind games won't have any affect on the series, the Pacers do present some matchup problems for the Heat. Roy Hibbert, the Pacers' All-Star center, will be a load to handle in the middle for whomever has to cover him. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra may have to look to start Ronny Turiaf against Hibbert, to keep Chris Bosh on the floor and out of foul trouble.
The biggest reason the Pacers have a chance against the Heat is because of their depth in the front court. Along with Hibbert, the Pacers can roll out David West, Tyler Hansbrough, and Lou Amundson to attack the Heat's biggest weakness, which is their lack of size up front. The player destined to give the Heat fits in this series, however, is West. The Pacers power forward is excellent in the pick-and-roll, something the Heat struggle to defend. West will be able to affect the Heat's entire defense through his post offense and passing ability, so Spoelstra will have to devise a scheme to limit him.
With all this said, the Pacers are no match for the Heat. Maybe the Heat will struggle defending West, but who on the Pacers can stop Lebron James, the newly crowned MVP, or Dwayne Wade? Yes, Chris Bosh will struggle to defend West, but West will have his hands full trying to guard Bosh. Sure, if the Pacers are able to play at their optimum level and the Heat play at their worst level, the Pacers will win the series. If that were the case, though, the Pacers would win the NBA championship, and that's not going to happen. Perhaps the Pacers will match the Knicks and steal a game from the Heat, but don't expect much else.
If the Heat play as expected, they will then move on to face either the Philadelphia 76ers or the Boston Celtics. The Heat faced both teams last year, easily dispatching the 76ers in five, and, while the Celtics series was harder fought, they met the same fate as Philadelphia did. If the 76ers advance, they will likely present less of a challenge than the Pacers. They don't matchup particularly well with the Heat and struggled to defeat a Rose-less Bulls team, stealing a Game 6 victory to claim the series after Omer Asik missed two crucial free throws.
However, the Celtics would prove to be a more formidable foe for the Heat. While the Celtics are equally small inside, they do still possess a talented group with Rajon Rondo, who is always a threat for a triple double, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett. The Celtics pose a threat because their core has been together for a significant time and they have the experience necessary to go deep in the playoffs.
So, yes, the Celtics would certainly be the Heat's biggest threat in the Eastern Conference, but they just don't have enough to beat Miami in a seven game series. The Celtics' stars are older than the Heat's and the Heat are stronger defensively. In addition, the shortened, condensed season hasn't helped the older Celtics at all. The Celtics could possibly push the Heat to six, but they struggled with the Atlanta Hawks at times and will have to play at their best just to get past the 76ers. The Heat will again prove to be too much for the aging team from Boston.
While some people are claiming the Heat's road to the Finals isn't as easy as it appears, it's likely they're only doing so just to offer a different perspective and to look like a genius if the Heat happened to slip up. If the Heat win as they're expected to, those people can just say, well, that's what they were supposed to do and avoid any criticism. After the injuries to Rose and Howard, Miami's path to another chance at a championship could hardly get any less challenging. It would be stunning if the Heat didn't repeat as Eastern Conference Champions.
While the Heat certainly won't look past the Pacers or the winner of the 76ers/ Celtics series, allow this columnist to do it for you. Pencil Miami into the NBA Finals. Once they get there, they'll likely meet the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs. That's where the real test will be waiting for this Heat team.