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5 Things to Watch for During Miami Heat's Final Games

Wes GoldbergContributor IIMarch 6, 2014

5 Things to Watch for During Miami Heat's Final Games

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Something interesting is developing in the distance for the Miami Heat. It's a decision that has nothing to do with free agency or opt-out clauses, but could influence the future of the organization.

    With just a handful of games left in the regular season, Miami is still in the mix for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

    Do they go for it?

    Some thought the Heat would relinquish the first seed to the Indiana Pacers and play their hand to enter the playoffs healthy.

    But they haven't.

    Instead, the team is doubling down. It isn't showing signs of coasting but also maintains that health is the top priority.

    Erik Spoelstra is giving Dwyane Wade and Greg Oden competitive playing time, the rotation is tightening up, rather than getting looser to spread the minutes around and LeBron James just went off for a personal and franchise-record 61 points.

    The team is competing like it's the playoffs already. Don't believe me? Watch the fourth quarter of that loss to the Houston Rockets again.

    Or if you still need convincing:

    @IraHeatBeat Heat, Pacers tied in the loss column. Wade on Tuesday "We can't worry about, 'Oh they lost; we need to win.' We need to win every night."

    This team wants to win every game. Maybe we will see the Heat cool down some as we approach the post-season, or maybe they think it's a good time to catch steam.

    Either way, fans should be paying attention to more than just the win-loss column as we get closer to the tournament to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.

Greg Oden's Playing Time

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    Oden played in 70 percent of the Heat's games in February and missed his first game in March against the Rockets. A regular spot in the rotation is teasing him like a Kate Upton photo shoot.

    His impact is immediate on the court. Visually, he stands out. Competitively, teams have to account for that size that is usually absent from Miami's lineup.

    Oden is protecting the rim better than any other Heat player this season while averaging fewer blocks per game than Shane Battier, according to NBA.com statistics. As for rebounding, his per game averages are low because of a lack of playing time, but he is grabbing contested rebounds at a rate comparable to Chris Andersen.

    When gasbags say "his impact can't be seen in the box score," well, they would be right about Oden.

    However, Oden is still rehabbing. He's yet to record even 15 minutes in a game, fouls a little too much and is pretty much limited to standing in the way of scorers and dunking.

    Oden should continue to get a little more run as we approach the playoffs and he continues to get healthier. When looking at the box score, I would keep a close eye on his minutes more than his averages. 

    That's the most important stat when it comes to Oden.

Michael Beasley's Role

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    Michael Beasley's erratic performances have led to an erratic amount of playing time.

    Check out his month of February.

    Beasley's up-and-down season can be attributed to his struggle to play within the context of the team. Until this season, he's been asked to be a go-to scorer at every NBA stop. Now he has to defer to not one, not two, not three... well, yeah, actually three other guys (see what I did there?).

    Sometimes he is too passive. Sometimes he is too aggressive and ruins the flow of the offense.

    Spoelstra told the Sun Sentinel that his season-high 24 points in a recent game against the Rockets was a boost to the team.

    And it wasn't as if we were just throwing him the ball and clearing out, either. It was within the context of what we do. That's something that he could certainly build on.

    Reading in between the lines, it sounds like Spo is saying "If Beasley buys in like that every night, he will get more consistent playing time."

    Still, when your minutes are linked almost directly to those of James, it can be hard to find minutes elsewhere. But if Beasley can make the most of his minutes when he gets his opportunities, that will go a long way in the playoffs.

    His role may be limited in the playoffs, when James will play as many minutes as he can. He could find himself in the Mike Miller role—a "break in case of emergency" option when the team needs scoring. Unlike Miller, Beasley can create his own shot and defend his position better when he is engaged.

    The Heat needed Miller's heroics the past two seasons and, should he get called up, Beasley may be asked to do the same. Until then, let's keep an eye on his minutes and who he plays with.

Shane Battier's Temperature

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    You can often judge how dominant the Heat are in a game based on one player's line alone. It isn't James' or Wade's. It's not even Chris Bosh's.

    It's Shane Battier's.

    Battier can be as important to stretching the floor as Bosh. Bosh stretches vertically, forcing bigs to play him high in the key. Then, Battier stretches the floor horizontally, pulling defenders to the corners of the floor.

    Only when he's hot, though.

    Anything other than cold, really. Unfortunately, Battier has been just that for most of this season.

    His shot chart suggests lukewarm, especially from the corners. At nearly 34 percent, he's shooting nearly 10 percent worse from three than last season, according to NBA.com statistics.

    Part of the reason that Miami goes small is to stretch the floor. If opponents start playing off a shivering Battier, the Heat may have to consider playing a more traditional lineup with either Andersen or Oden getting a start.

    So far, opponents still respect Battier's shot, but it's worth keeping an eye on.

Win-Loss Column

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    As of publication, the Heat are 1.5 games behind the Pacers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Home-court advantage is important, and Miami may be pushing its luck if it decides to go after it or, rather, not concede it.

    Either way, it's a decision they have to make.

    Door No. 1: They rest their players and get ready for another playoff run.

    Door No. 2: They go after the No. 1 seed in full force.

    Door No. 3: They decide not to make a decision and just compete on a game-to-game basis.

    Referring back to Wade's quote from the first slide, it seems as if they have chosen either the second or third door.

    What they haven't chosen is old man's rest—the bedroom behind door No. 1 .

    There's still time for them to change their tune, but judging by that quote and recent play, I don't expect that to be the case. I suspect the team will continue to rest Wade as they have, but I do not expect them to take it easy as we get closer to the playoffs.

    Keep watching the win-loss column, because the battle with the Pacers has already started.

Indiana Pacers Offense

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    LeBron James and Paul George are on a crash-course for the Eastern Conference Finals.
    LeBron James and Paul George are on a crash-course for the Eastern Conference Finals.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Speaking of the Pacers, Heat fans should be watching more than their own team. How the Pacers are playing is just as important as how Miami is.

    The question facing the Pacers is their offense. Paul George just scored two points against a Charlotte Bobcats defense that got slapped silly by 61 points from LeBron James.

    In 2014, Roy Hibbert has been borderline-Charles Hayes bad at offense, shooting worse than 45 percent from the field as a 7-foot-2 center.

    Since the first February, the Pacers offense has ranked 23rd in the NBA while Miami's has been ranked first, scoring nearly 13 more points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com statistics

    The Heat are outscoring teams by a league-best 11.4 points per 100 possessions during that time, while the Pacers are outscoring teams by just 4.6 points per 100 possessions despite having the league's stingiest defense.

    As Bill Simmons said in a recent podcast, Indiana is good for one or two offensive stinkers in a series. If the Pacers leave a steaming bag of poo on the doorstep of any match against the Heat, they will be down a game in the series.

    Watching how the Pacers' offense progresses from now going into the playoffs should give Heat fans an idea of what to expect. Sure, Hibbert always looks closer to Wilt than Chuck Hayes when he plays Miami. Yes, the Pacers kicked it up a notch in the Finals last season.

    But now Miami knows what to expect, and Oden is getting healthy and should help against Hibbert.

    So keep watching, because things are getting interesting.

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