With the All-Star break in the rearview mirror, the Miami Heat can now officially look to the playoffs. If the team gets there. It'll get there, right? Yeah, almost everyone expects it to, but once there, most expect the Heat to get sent home pretty quickly. Few, if any, are predicting a long playoff run for Miami. And almost no one — including most Heat fans — thinks Miami has a chance in hell of representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals in June.
Well, we're here to tell you something, people: You're probably right! But still, you might not be! If we keep typing sentences with an exclamation point at the end, it will seem like we're disagreeing with people that think the Heat can't make the NBA Finals! But in actuality, that's the safe bet!
Seriously though — the Heat probably isn't going to make the NBA Finals this year. But,
1. Hassan Whiteside has to play the best basketball of his career. We're talking Shaq stuff here, people. Maybe not Lakers-era Shaq, but at least Miami Heat Shaq. This would also mean Spoelstra has to figure out a way for Whiteside to be on the court not only in the fourth quarter but at the end of games. It's quite ridiculous that the Heat's highest paid player sits on the bench when games are on the line. That would likely need to change if the Heat is going to reach the NBA Finals.
Whiteside can drop 20 points and 20 rebounds on an opponent's ass whenever he wants. Sometimes he can do that in a single half. If the Heat is going to be an ass-kicking machine in the second half of the season, Hassan Whiteside has to eat.
2. Dwyane Wade has to play at least 75 percent of peak Wade. Can the Heat get 75 percent of the Wade that took the team to the brink of beating the Toronto Raptors in the semifinals two seasons ago? Hey, a fan can dream, right?
No one, not even Wade, is expecting him to take over games again. Those days are gone. What we can expect are flashes (get it?) of the Wade who has a knack for using his old-man strength and techniques to put the ball in the basket by any means necessary. The Heat is missing that. They've also been missing a veteran voice in the locker room. Wade can provide both those things. With a little timely Wade-ness, the Heat might be able to slip by some average teams.
3. Other teams need to have some issues. Here is where we get realistic: For the Miami Heat to go to the NBA Finals this season, they're going to have to catch some breaks. Yeah, that includes other teams dealing with some injuries. Sorry, not sorry. Shit happens.
The Heat has dealt with its own injuries all year. Nobody is out here wishing for knee trauma, but a couple of bumps in the road for other teams might be the opening the Heat needs to sneak past a more talented squad. The Heat would also benefit from the Cleveland Cavaliers' midseason remodel not going as smoothly as planned. Overall, the Heat just needs some crap to fall its way as it's playing its best basketball.
4. Goran Dragic needs to channel his inner "Dragon" and play at an All-Star level. Goran Dragic is an All-Star, but is he an All-Star? He'll have his chance to prove it over the next couple of months. Dragic has never been in a big NBA playoff game, but he's excelled in many big games in Europe. The Heat needs those performances. It needs more Euro-Dragic than the passive-Dragic we saw the last go-round with Dwyane Wade and who at times still shows up against better teams.
The Miami Heat likely goes as Goran goes, so the team needs his best to shock the world.
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5. The Heat needs to finish the season strong, get a good seed and hope for a good draw. If the playoffs began today, the Heat would face the top-seeded Toronto Raptors in the first round: Not great, Bob! If they somehow got past the Raptors, they'd likely run into the Celtics or Cavs.
That is not going to work. The Heat needs to make a move now, in February and March, to have the best shot at a run in May. The Heat stands no chance against two top teams in a seven-game series. One? Sure. The Heat can shock someone. Two mountains to climb? Those are Powerball odds. The Heat needs to be a top-four seed by the time the playoffs roll around if it plans on playing basketball into June.