Miami Heat's 5 Must-Win Games of the Early Season

John Friel@@JohnFtheheatgodAnalyst IOctober 21, 2013

Miami Heat's 5 Must-Win Games of the Early Season

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    Must-win games are usually reserved for the postseason, left for when a team is one game away from being sent home for good. For the Miami Heat, however, that situation could apply to any game in the regular season simply because of who they are. 

    There isn't any pressure to win in the regular season, even for a team like the Heat.

    Miami's proven in the past that they can win on the road, almost thriving off of the jeers they draw from the crowds, and a number one seed in the East isn't a necessity to them. They can coast their way through a large portion of the regular season and still emerge anywhere between a one and three seed.

    Still, any team wants to establish early on where they stand. Yes, the first few weeks of the regular season could be considered an extension of the preseason because of players still working their way back from the rest of the offseason, but there is still a need to begin establishing a chemistry and a presence early on.

    That goes double for the Heat. With every team gunning for their spot at the top of the NBA, they're going to have to be at their best from the onset. Even early on, opponents will treat a matchup with the Heat as one of their marquee games.

    After all, they're the team everyone wants to beat, and that means Miami has to always be at or near its best to pull through against every opponent.

    Even the opponents that could be classified in the lower-tier put up significant fights. They're still NBA players and they still could have the types of performances that brought them into the league.

    Miami will have a number of these key games early on in the season, two alone coming in the first three games and three within the first week-and-a-half.

    The road to a third consecutive NBA championship will be the Heat's most difficult by far and they'll need to be locked in from day one, starting with what is sure to be a heated battle with a Chicago Bulls team that never takes any game lightly. 

Opening Night: Vs Chicago Bulls

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    This Chicago Bulls team coached by Tom Thibodeau is not one to take any game lightly.

    So, naturally, you can expect this squad that has Derrick Rose returning and having to watch the Miami Heat put on their rings and raise their banner for a second consecutive season to treat this game as they do every other: very seriously. 

    That's why the Bulls are always such a threat, especially in the regular season, because effort is their calling card. This is a team that prides itself on the amount of work they put in to win games and they will treat every game, regular or postseason, in a similar manner.

    It's why, record-wise, they've been the top team in the East in two of the past three years.

    Even in the lockout-shortened season where Rose was hurt most of the year, the Bulls still secured a number one seed behind a 50-16 record. They get their kicks out of grind-out games that frustrate their opponent into taking poor shots because of the frantic defense that never seems to quit or wear out.

    That is, unless they're introduced to a seven-game series.

    That seemed to be the case in 2011 when a Bulls team with a healthy D-Rose and a far stronger bench than they have now ended up losing in five games to the Heat. The reason for losing seemed to be the same each game: The Bulls were worn out from playing defense on Miami's numerous superstars and, come fourth quarter, the energy wasn't there anymore at either end. 

    Come October 29, however, the Bulls will be treating the season-opener as if it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and they will have the energy to sustain for 48 minutes. They see themselves as rivals to the Heat, especially after Rose's comments, and that means they see them as their biggest obstacle in finally making the NBA Finals for the first time since 1998. 

    This Bulls franchise knows it has let chances slip through and it also knows how much of a role fate has played in deterring them from reaching the championship round. From the surprising loss to Miami in 2011 to the catastrophic injury of Rose in 2012 to the absence of Rose overall in 2013, this team feels like 2014 is its year to make that run they've been planning on making since 2010.

    There's no doubt to anyone that they'll be looking to make that run starting with the Heat, the team that has knocked them out of the playoffs twice in the past three years, including this past postseason where Miami upended Chicago in five games in the semifinals. 

November 1: At Brooklyn Nets

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    Leave it to the schedule-makers of the NBA to fill up the Heat schedule with plenty of challenges in the first week.

    Four nights after they play the Bulls at home in the season opener and three nights after a sleeper on the road in Philadelphia, the Heat get to take on the Brooklyn Nets in their home-opener. It'll be the second consecutive season Miami plays the role of visitor to a New York team's home-opener, as they faced-off with the New York Knicks in a doomed spectacle last season.

    As was the case in that game against the Knicks, the Nets are going to be fired up to be playing the Heat. 

    There's always a different feeling for opponents when they play the Heat.

    More effort is exerted, the focus is greater, the commitment to winning becomes magnified; It could essentially be considered the first game of that team's postseason when you consider how highly they treat these matchups with Miami. 

    Had this been a year ago, this game may have been an afterthought for the Heat since they have taken down the Nets for five consecutive seasons. That's right: the Nets franchise hasn't beaten the Heat franchise in five years. Even last year when they changed their locale to Brooklyn, Miami still utterly dominated them in every aspect.

    However, this isn't the same Nets.

    No, they might as well be the Boston Celtics now that they possess Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry. They might as well be the same Celtic teams the Heat have been battling with, even before the days of the 'Big Three'. Even with Ray Allen on their side and Rajon Rondo no longer on the other, the Heat know exactly what team they're looking at when they see those familiar faces.

    There is genuine on-court disdain between these sides. Dwyane Wade and Kevin Garnett have gone at it; LeBron James and Paul Pierce have had their problems; Wade and Pierce have had altercations; James and Garnett got into this hilarious exchange

    We don't need to get into the relationships James and Wade have with Terry. There is simmering hate there that has been traced back to 2006 when Dwyane beat Jason's Dallas Mavericks in surprising fashion. 

    Both teams are going to want to make a statement.

    The Nets want to prove that they're among the East's elite and the Heat want to prove that they're still the Nets' fathers and they're not allowed to sit at the grown-up table. 

    With the Nets adding Garnett, Pierce and Terry, however, that'll be a larger problem than ever before. 

November 7: Vs L.A. Clippers

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    As far as entertainment goes, there will be barrels of it when the Heat welcome in the Los Angeles Clippers on November 7. 

    This will be the third game where Miami faces a legitimate contender and it's only a week into the regular season. However, the all-knowing schedule-makers planned for this, which is why these three games are muddled in between road contests with the 76ers and Toronto Raptors, as well as a home game against the Washington Wizards

    Out of seven games, the Heat are going to get three real challenges, and there may be no team possibly more challengingI can't believe I'm saying thisthan the Clippers. 

    The Clippers could be the best the West has to offer this year, at least as far as the regular season goes.

    With the San Antonio Spurs likely to save their best until the postseason and the Oklahoma City Thunder set to adjust in the momentary absence of Russell Westbrook, the Western Conference has become the other team from Los Angeles to win. 

    They've only improved since last year's disappointing first-round exit at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, which featured four consecutive losses to end their year. Since then, they've added on two pure shooters in Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick, as well as solid role players in Antawn Jamison, Byron Mullens and Darren Collison. 

    The Heat and Clippers split their series last year, the Clippers winning big at home and then the Heat delivering a similar fate to L.A. in their second meeting at the American Airlines Arena. The meeting in Miami took place in the middle of LeBron's historic run of absurdly high-percentages while still scoring absurdly high point-totals. 

    This will be a prime test for the Heat in terms of just what team they could potentially be taking on in June. The Clippers are the best they've been since acquiring Chris Paul, and they'll be looking to gauge their early season performance on how well they stand up to what the best the Eastern Conference, and the NBA, has to offer. 

    Plus, with Chris Paul sure to make an MVP run and LeBron looking to capture a fifth trophy, it's going to be in the best interests of both team's superstars to carry out what they've been designed to do. 

November 27: At Cleveland Cavaliers

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    I really didn't want to buy into this.

    I refuse to buy into this idea that LeBron James is going to skip back to Cleveland, even though his name has been raked through the coals by his former fans and boss. 

    So I'm not going to convince myself this is a must-win for the Heat because this Cleveland Cavaliers team is still a low playoff seed at best. Why I put this game on this list of must-wins, however, is to convince others that LeBron is not going to saunter his way back to Cleveland, no matter how this season ends.

    This first visit back to Cleveland should offer the Heat a chance to keep critics quiet for a few weeks. They need this win to showcase how large of a gap in talent there is between the Cavs and Heat that is still largely significant.

    They need to show how this Cleveland team is still closer to the one that blew a 27-point lead to Miami and lost to a Heat team playing without its 'Big Three', both times at home, last year. 

    Mainly, however, it's to show that this Heat team is clearly better than this Cavaliers team and that there's no reason for LeBron to make some sort of triumphant return to right past wrongs.

    With speculators attempting to convince themselves that Cleveland presents a better situation for LeBron in the future, the Heat need to prove that a supporting cast of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh exceeds a supporting cast of Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao.

    Another reason? Needless attention being paid towards Miami if they end up falling to this Cleveland team. As it has been every year when the Heat are in some sort of turmoil, the media will latch onto any sort of news that could drive up ratings. What better way to attract those ratings than LeBron-to-Cleveland rumors, especially after the Heat lose to the Cavaliers.

    It'll be yet another '"the sky is falling" moment for the Heat if they end up dropping this contest. Because the Heat lost to the Cavs, LeBron will suddenly see the error of his ways and plan his return back to Cleveland with the second free agency upon us. 

    Or not. We can be mature and gain some perspective out of this, but we won't, and that's exactly why the Heat need to defeat this Cavs team as many times as they can in the regular season, and possibly in a first-round postseason matchup. 

December 10: At Indiana Pacers

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    The Miami Heat know who the biggest threats are to their crown, and it's why they decided to take a stab at an oft-injured 7-footer who may or may not ever be ready to begin his NBA comeback.

    The Heat picked up Greg Oden solely because of teams like the Pacers.

    Oh, they will have their hands full with Brook Lopez and the Nets and Joakim Noah and the Bulls, but Roy Hibbert and the Pacers are a different kind of beast; mainly because the Pacers have pierced the Heat's formerly impenetrable armor.

    Miami nearly ended up not making the NBA Finals last year simply because the Pacers had someone who was 7'2" and the Heat didn't. Roy Hibbert dropped 22 points and 11 rebounds per game on nearly 60 percent shooting in seven games against the Heat in last season's Conference Finals.

    While that happened, all Miami could do was watch and hope for the best.

    It was really all they could do. Chris Bosh, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem were all too small to combat the rangy arms of Hibbert, who got his hands all over the glass on both ends of the court. Roy made it a headache for the Heat when they had to deal with him, as well as David West rendering Shane Battier useless and Paul George, George Hill and Lance Stephenson doing their things. 

    They've only gotten better, too. A lot better. George and Hibbert improve with experience, while the team also welcomes back Danny Granger and free agents in Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson to the bench.

    With Granger back, it means he will replace George, who will move to the two, at the three, while Stephenson is sent to the bench.

    The Pacers bench suddenly becomes one of the most formidable in the league after holding back the team all of last year.

    Guys like D.J. Augustin, Sam Young and Tyler Hansbrough find themselves replaced with legitimate NBA talent in Watson, Copeland and Stephenson. The bench that forced Indiana to play its starters heavy minutes in the playoffs can now actually provide some support and give its starters some rest. 

    There are positives to this, however.

    For one, they're in arguably the toughest division in basketball. They'll be looking to prove to the Bulls that they're legit, especially after Rose's comments of rivalries, and they'll also have to take on improved squads in Detroit and Cleveland. 

    However, they are the biggest threat to Miami.

    The Heat have solutions for the likes of the Bulls and Nets. They don't have one for Indiana, and the Pacers recognized that after they lost in six games to the Heat in the 2012 semis. 

    Indiana has a size advantage and they'll be looking to exploit it every time they play the Heat. However, it's going to be interesting to see how the Heat play the Pacers now that Oden's on the roster. What will be even more intriguing, however, is if the Heat have to end up playing Indiana without Oden.

    There's nothing set-in-stone with Oden. That means the Heat should be treating these contests with Indiana as a potential future matchup with the worst-case scenario that has Miami playing this team for seven games without a true big man.