MIAMI (AP) – As much as the rest of us are savoring these NBA playoffs, with all the buzzer beaters and Game 7s and overtime drama, the view is even better for LeBron James and his teammates.
The Miami Heat are looking at a clear path to a three-peat.
Let’s face it: There’s no one in the East that comes close to matching up with the two-time defending champs in a seven-game series. Top-seeded Indiana finds itself mired in a titanic struggle with the six-games-under-.500 Atlanta Hawks as that series heads to a deciding game Saturday, while the Brooklyn Nets will need to win a Game 7 on the road after staying alive against the Toronto Raptors with a victory Friday night.
With all those superb teams out West, well, by the time the carnage is done on that side of the bracket, it’ll be a wonder if anyone has the strength to put up much of a fight against mighty Miami.
So, enjoy this while you can.
There’s not going to be nearly as much suspense after the calendar flips to June.
For now, Miami is resting up for the conference semifinals after blowing out Charlotte in four straight games — by far the most ho-hum of the opening-round series. The Heat are saying all the right things, insisting there’s nothing on their minds except the next game, but they’ve surely taken stock of what’s going on in the rest of the playoffs.
Start with Indiana, a team that fought hard for home-court advantage with an eye on getting payback against the Heat after losing to them in a seven-game conference final a year ago. The way things are going for the Pacers, they’ll be fortunate to make it that far, despite finishing two games ahead of Miami during the regular season.
Sure, Indiana survived Game 6 in Atlanta, closing with a 16-4 run to pull out a series-tying 95-88 victory, but the Pacers are no lock to wrap things up on their home court, having lost there already not once, but twice in the series. The Pacers may play at a fieldhouse named after an insurance company, but you wouldn’t want to buy a policy from this bunch, not with their questionable toughness and enormous problems matching up with a team that likes to run and spread the court.
Even if they beat Atlanta, we can go ahead and scratch the Pacers off the list of potential challengers.
Brooklyn was the only other team in the mediocre East that could possibly present any hassles for the Heat. The Nets have two grizzled veterans from Boston’s last championship team (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) and a definite sense of how to beat Miami, having won all four of their meetings during the regular season — three of them by a single point. Just the sort of gutsy group that could present a serious challenge to LeBron & Co.
The Nets beat the Raptors 97-83 to even that series 3-3, but the old-timers will have to win the decisive game on the road Sunday to get a shot at the Heat in the next round. If Toronto advances, the Heat should breeze through to the conference finals; their last loss to the Raptors was sometime around the time when real raptors roamed the Earth (OK, not quite that long, but Miami has won 15 straight against Toronto, 14 of those since assembling the Big Three of James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade).
The other remaining team in the East is Washington, which knocked off Chicago in a five-game series and beat Miami two out of three times during the regular season. The playoffs are a different animal, or course, and the on-the-rise Wizards aren’t quite ready yet to match up with a team of the Heat’s caliber when it really matters.
The Western Conference, of course, has plenty of teams that stack up favorably with the Heat when judged simply on a head-to-head basis. Top-seeded San Antonio should’ve beaten Miami in the 2013 NBA Finals and put up the best record in the league this season. Right behind the Spurs were Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers, both of which also won more games than anyone in the East.
But the depth of quality in the West will likely be its undoing before the championship series. San Antonio and all its aging stars are heading to Game 7 against eighth-seeded Dallas after a 113-111 loss Friday night. OKC has been forced to overtime four times by Memphis and faces a deciding contest on Saturday — though the Grizzlies will be without suspended forward Zach Randolph in the series finale. The Clippers are going the distance against Golden State, though it’s certainly tempting to root for LA’s other team now that racist owner Donald Sterling has been banished from the league.
All of which provides some compelling story lines at the moment, but just makes things that much easier for the Heat down the road.
“I believe this is a great direction we’re going in right now,” James told reporters after the Heat’s sweep of the Bobcats. “In four games, we played championship-level basketball and we got tested … and the way we responded was a championship-type attitude.”
Just the right attitude for this bunch.
Go ahead and give ’em the three-peat.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press.
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