POSTED: Apr 17, 2014 10:21 AM ET
The Heat went 4-0 in the regular season against the Bobcats.
Sacrificing for the greater good is the staple of any championship team.
That's a trait Miami Heat swingman Ray Allen says you only learn after you've completed that quest and won that title. No one can explain it you.
Allen has been in the legitimate championship hunt (meaning on a team that actually had a chance to win it all) as long as any current player in the league. Since 2007-08 in Boston, he's been on a team in that mix and won it all in 2008 (with the Celtics) and last season (with the Heat).
Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview
"It's hard for a team that's never won a championship to imagine what it's like to win one, to say what you need to do to get there," Allen said. "You're in a situation where it's the hardest thing you've ever had to do in your life, in your career, and often you see athletes in all sports talking about wanting to win a championship, but do you really know what it takes? And are you willing to sacrifice?"
The Heat, no doubt worn from four straight years of attempting to work until the final day of the NBA (post)season, have been forced to look inward this season. The internal motivation remained. The goals were the same. But the corporate knowledge of what it takes to win your way to the cusp of the promised land again and again became much tougher.
The Heat this season were not the same sharp defensive team they were in seasons past. LeBron James was magnificent as always, but not as otherworldly as he was last season when he led the Heat on that history-chasing, 27-game win streak. Dwyane Wade's physical maintenance program included missing a whopping 29 regular season games as he tried to pace himself for the marathon. Forward Chris Bosh, with an opportunity to consistently occupy that No. 2 spot in the rotation, failed to do so on a regular basis.
For all that they've sacrificed individually to chase championships as a trio, the wear and tear of the journey seemed to catch up to the Big Three as the season wore on. The Heat didn't even bother trying to salvage the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference in the final days of the regular season. They rested James and Bosh, allowing the Indiana Pacers to claim the top spot instead of pushing that race to the final night of the season.
And yet, Miami's approach won't change one bit.
The Heat have the blueprints after back-to-back title-winning seasons. The path is the same, even though the specific challenges will be different.
"The teams that I've been on that have won championships, there has been true sacrifice," Allen said. "The teams that I've been on where we haven't won, where we haven't come close, you can see the difference. You know the difference because somebody wants more than their piece of the pie and you don't win on the team's terms. The teams that don't win it all, that's always their downfall."
The Heat have shown themselves to be a group that is more than willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in an effort to win it all. But do they have the energy to do it again, to reach The Finals for a fourth straight season?
We'll soon find out ...
1. How close to vintage D-Wade will Dwayne Wade be this postseason? It depends on how many minutes he plays and whether or not he plays ever night. Wade sat for nine straight games near the end of the regular season to rest a sore hamstring. It's an injury that could linger throughout the postseason. But the truth is, when he's been reasonably healthy and active, he's looked very much like the Wade of old (no pun intended).
2. How will the Heat deal with Al Jefferson down low? They'll suffer the same fate everyone else has trying to slow down the Bobcats' low-post anchor this season. They'll have to live with Jefferson getting what he wants in his sweet spots and make sure his supporting cast doesn't beat them.
3. Is there any realistic hope for the Bobcats to make this a series? If you ignore the Heat's 4-0 series sweep of the Bobcats and focus on the way both teams finished the regular season, yes. The playoffs are about matchups and the Bobcats have an inside presence the Heat lack.
4. Who has the edge at the point, Mario Chalmers or Kemba Walker? You already know what Chalmers thinks ... he always has the edge at the point. But Walker has been splendid this season for the Bobcats. If Chalmers can't keep up with him, this will be a Norris Cole series for the Heat.
5. Who is under the brightest light in this series? Chris Bosh has spent this entire season playing below his own standard. He needs a breakout series and the Heat need a breakout series from him ... sooner rather than later.
The Heat leave no mystery about what it is they're trying to do. Chalmers is their point guard, but James facilitates their offense. He probes the defense for an opportunity to attack and the Heat react off of his initial advance. With the attention focused on him, the rest of the floor opens up for an open shot for someone else, a path to the rim for LeBron or whatever else he can create off of that initial action.
Bobcats forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will have his hands full as the primary defender on LeBron. He had his trouble in that department during the regular season (MKG was the unwitting co-star on that night LeBron went off for 61), but at least he'll have that history to work from in terms of his preparation.
Coach Steve Clifford funnels everything through Jefferson, whose been splendid in his first season with the Bobcats. He's good for 25 and 10 a night since the All-Star break. When allowed to set up in his sweet spot off the left block, the Bobcats can run whatever they need to through Big Al, with Walker serving as the conductor. Jefferson has a deadly low-post arsenal to work with and will put pressure on the Heat frontcourt.
Walker's activity and creativity with the ball, not to mention his ability to break down his defender off the dribble, will be critical. Without a rim protector to cut the lane off on a consistent basis, Walker could be a series game-changer.
Jefferson shot 72 percent from the free throw line in the final 29 games of the season. That percentage allows the Bobcats to stay true to their bread-and-butter strategy: an inside-outside game through him. He'll get buckets or draw fouls consistently in a half-court game.
The Heat have as many or more options in the clutch than any team in the league. James, Wade, Bosh, Allen and even Chalmers are all willing, able and have history handling the pressure of delivering at the biggest moments on the biggest stage.
Michael Beasley's contributions during the regular season were under whelming, at best. But he can be an elite-level scorer when he's on his game. The Heat will need the added firepower from the start if they plan on another long postseason run.
Chris Douglas-Roberts is a human wild card. Don't let his slender frame and journeyman status fool you. He's a crafty scorer and a supreme competitor. He'll be ready for the spotlight that is the playoffs.
Conventional wisdom says the Heat should be able to handle whatever the Bobcats try and throw at them. And that very well could be the case. But the Heat have issues to find their mark in these playoffs since they couldn't do it down the stretch of the regular season. Jefferson could make things really interesting if he gets in a groove. Heat in 5.
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