6 Factors That Will Decide Miami Heat's Three-Peat Bid

Tom SunnergrenContributor IApril 8, 2014

6 Factors That Will Decide Miami Heat's Three-Peat Bid

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    LeBron and the Heat operate with a very thin margin for error.
    LeBron and the Heat operate with a very thin margin for error.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Some dynasties make it look easy. The Miami Heat let you see them sweat.

    Erik Spoelstra’s Heat have won the last two NBA titles by margins so thin you’d need a telescope and some patience to see them.

    In 2012, Miami needed a W in the Boston Garden and a pair of world-historic performances from LeBron James to avoid a stunning defeat in the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Just last spring, the Heat won their second title in as many seasons only after squeezing by the Indiana Pacers in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals and coming back from a three-games-to-two deficit—and a 13-point disadvantage in Game 6—to eke by the San Antonio Spurs.

    With the difference between victory and defeat so small—and consequential—there’s a veritable panoply of factors that could tip the scales toward or away from the twice-defending champs. From Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, to defense and the sleeping giant in the Hoosier State, here’s a look at five particularly important areas to keep an eye on.

Dwyane Wade

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    Wade has spent a lot of time in (admittedly, really fashionable) street clothes for Miami in 2013-14, but when he's played of late, he's been tremendous.
    Wade has spent a lot of time in (admittedly, really fashionable) street clothes for Miami in 2013-14, but when he's played of late, he's been tremendous.Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Dwyane Wade’s 2013-14 season brings to mind the old fable about the group of blind men who, each touching a different part of an elephant—one pulling the tail, a second groping the trunk, a third on the tusks—were unable to reconcile their different accounts and get a sense of the true nature of the beast.

    Given his uneven campaign, what kind of contribution should the Heat expect from Wade in their quest for a three-peat? Sort of depends on what part of the elephant they’ve got their hands on.

    “He’s got a career-high true shooting percentage of 59!” you can imagine Micky Arison shouting.

    “But hold on a minute, he’s posting a win shares per 48 minutes of .156 on the season so far. That’s the second-lowest total since his rookie season and the third-straight season in which he’s regressed,” Pat Riley might add after checking Basketball-Reference.

    “No, no, no,” Spoelstra could interject. “He got off to a slow start, sure, but since Feb. 1 he’s averaging 20.5 points on 56 percent shooting, five assists and 4.5 rebounds. Wade is back.”

    “Yeah, but he’s only played in 19 games in that time,” LeBron might sigh. “Can we really count on him to be ready to go in June?”

    Who’s right? You get the sense that the meaning of Wade’s season, whatever it is, won’t come fully into view until the playoffs have ended. You also get the sense that his play will go a long way toward determining how precisely Miami’s season ends.

Defense

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    The Heat defense is finding its stride as the postseason approaches.
    The Heat defense is finding its stride as the postseason approaches.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    As a rule, clichés aren’t terribly helpful to serious-minded analysts. This one is: Defense wins championships.

    In a February post by Slam, Bryan Mears took a look at the past quarter century of NBA Finals results and found the picture they painted compelling and unequivocal.

    Over the past 25 years, there were a total of six times that a team with a non top-10 defense made the NBA Finals. To get even more specific, there have only been two teams—the ’98 Jazz and ’01 Lakers—that made the Finals despite having a defense in the bottom half of the League. Although the Jazz lost to the Bulls in their series, somehow the ’01 Lakers ramped up their defense in the Finals to take their series 4-1.

    I repeat: only two in the past 25 years.

    The Heat’s success in recent seasons reflects this trend. In the three regular seasons preceding 2013-14, during which Miami won a pair of titles and lost in the championship round playing for a third, the team finished fifth, fourth and seventh in the NBA in defensive efficiency. This season, however, the Heat have looked relatively stale on that end of the floor.

    Until recently, that is. Before losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves 122-121 on April 1, Miami cranked up the intensity defensively, holding its last five opponents to 84 points or fewer.

    "As far as the rhythm of our defense, we look like our old selves once again," LeBron told the Sun-Sentinel’s Ira Winderman during the hot streak (h/t Bleacher Report's Sam Richmond). "We got guys that are out there that know the system."

    With this kind of defensive heat, Miami has a good chance of a three-peat.

    (*Groans*)

The Supporting Cast

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    The Miami supporting cast has underwhelmed in 2013-14.
    The Miami supporting cast has underwhelmed in 2013-14.Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Outside of the consistently excellent Chris Andersen, Miami’s supporting cast has been less than stellar in 2013-14. Shane Battier has all but disappeared as a contributor, Ray Allen hasn’t been quite the marksman he generally is, Michael Beasley is still Michael Beasley and Greg Oden still hasn’t demonstrated that he can be relied on night in, night out.

    This is a problem for Miami as throughout the team’s recent title runs, the squad was routinely lifted in big moments by supporting pieces. But while this group certainly has the talent, and the track record, to make a big impact in the playoffs, the lack of production in the regular season has to make Spoelstra and Pat Riley nervous.

    The NBA is a “what have you done for me lately” league. And, in the case of the Miami bench, the answer is “not a whole lot.” In the hothouse of the postseason, this might make all the difference.

Indiana Keeps Losing Pace

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    Paul George probably missed this shot.
    Paul George probably missed this shot.Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

    The Pacers have had a 2013-14 season that resembles M. Night Shyamalan’s film career. The young upstarts roared out of the gate and grabbed the attention and admiration of the industry, only to collapse in increasingly humiliating fashion once they reached the top of the mountain.

    Sunday’s pathetic, disjointed 107-88 loss to the Atlanta Hawks was their After Earth.

    ''I don't think it's acceptable for any of us in our organization to play the way we played tonight and we're just going to get back to work to fix it, to get back on track,'' coach Frank Vogel told Yahoo Sports after the defeat.

    Vogel has his work cut out for him: Something’s rotten in Indiana. Paul George has slumped badly since his, and his team’s, gangbusters start to the season. Roy Hibbert has been abominable, averaging just 9.4 points on 40.7 percent shooting and 4.2 rebounds since March 1, per NBA.com. Meanwhile, Lance Stephenson seems miscast in an expanding offensive role, and deadline-acquisition Evan Turner hasn’t helped.

    Overall, the Pacers have lost five of six and seven of nine. And now, for the first time in a long time, they sit a game behind the Heat in the race for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed.

    For much of the season, Indiana, which took Miami to seven games in last season’s surprisingly competitive conference finals, looked like a sure bet to meet the Heat for a rematch—a rematch the Pacers looked reasonably well-equipped to win.

    If Indiana can snap out of its slump and return to the form that gave it the best record in basketball for much of the season, the Heat will have their hands full in the conference playoffs. If not, say hello to the Miami Heat, your four-time-defending Eastern Conference champions.

The Spurs Rise, Again

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    Only three things are certain in life: Death, taxes and quiet domination from the Spurs.
    Only three things are certain in life: Death, taxes and quiet domination from the Spurs.D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

    Every year, pundits write off the Spurs for being too old, or ignore San Antonio for being too old, or write articles chastising other pundits for writing off/ignoring the Spurs.

    This is the third kind of article.

    San Antonio has been playing such blisteringly hot basketball lately that Gregg Popovich’s well-oiled machine has claimed the best record in the NBA by a 4.5-game margin, just polished off a 19-game winning streak and earned, according to oddsshark.com, 3-1 odds of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. Not a bad month.

    The Spurs, who nearly knocked off the Heat in the 2013 finals—a loss Popovich still hasn’t forgotten—have emerged as credible contenders, if not outright favorites, in 2014. This is important.

LeBron James

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    James looks ahead to what could be a third title in as many seasons.
    James looks ahead to what could be a third title in as many seasons.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    With apologies to Kevin Durant, LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet, and he’s at the absolute apex of his considerable powers.

    A player like LeBron—which is to say, “LeBron”: there simply isn’t anyone else like him—gives his team an enormous margin for error. Even during the hypercompetitive postseason.

    After his finals mini-collapse against the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, LeBron has owned the playoffs the way Micky Arison owns the Heat.

    In 2012, according to Basketball-Reference, LeBron averaged 30.3 points on a true shooting percentage of 57.6, added 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game for good measure and, overall, posted a win shares per 48 minutes of .284, the highest in the Association during those playoffs. In 2013, it was more of the same for LeBron, as he notched a triple-slash line of 25.9/8.4/6.6 to go along with a true shooting percentage of 58.5 and a .260 win shares per 48 minutes.

    When LeBron is at his best—think back to his beautiful 45-point, 15-rebound, five-assist destruction of the Celtics in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals—he can single-handedly swing entire series.

    LeBron’s greatness is a fact so bleedingly obvious that we sometimes forget to bring it up. Shame on us.