Not many people saw this coming. Not when the Heat lost Chris Bosh for the season. Not when Dwyane Wade was ruled out of a pair of games after the All-Star break. Not when Hassan Whiteside seemed to be regressing after another suspension. Not when Luol Deng looked washed.
But here the Miami Heat is, in prime position to make a run at the NBA Finals. The team is a real factor in the Eastern Conference playoffs conversation.
It's possible the Heat could turn a rebuilding-in-between-free-agency season into yet another NBA Finals appearance. While the Heat may be building a contender on the fly, it's safe to say at this point it's built, and someone will have to deal with it in a seven-game series.
Here is why the Miami Heat is fully capable of winning 12 games in the East portion of the playoffs to send the team to the NBA Finals for the sixth time in franchise history.
5. Nobody is doing it with a Hassan Whiteside.
Miami has a player who can blow an entire seven-game series the hell up: Hassan Whiteside. A motivated, well-behaved, thriving Hassan Whiteside, if he continues in that mold, is someone no opponent wants to see in the playoffs. You can't throw Tristan Thompson on him and think that will negate him. You can't hack him and send him to the line anymore in hopes the Heat has to send him to the bench. You can't force him to take jumpers, because he will nail them or decide to dunk on your stupid face. You have to hope he beats himself. Whiteside is capable of changing the game on the defensive and offensive ends when he's on his game, providing the Heat with a rare breed of player for which most teams have no answer.
4. LeBron James and the Cavs are a mess, and they hate each other.
It seems ridiculous to say this, but the first seed in the East is a mess. Something odd is going on in Cleveland, and it's beginning to trickle onto the court. It's clear LeBron isn't a fan of some of his teammates — and it seems to flip every month which teammate he hates more. The Cavs are breaking apart like a disinterested post-championship team, but the problem is they haven't won anything. The Cavs are weak and ripe for an ass-whooping. They are almost asking to be put to sleep. LeBron James is a broken man, and nightmares will follow if he has to see that Heat jersey flashing in front of his face throughout a seven-game series.
3. Dwyane Wade has fit perfectly into the Heat's new space-and-pace offense.
Having Dwyane Wade alone is a reason the Heat can win the East this season, because his experience is priceless when the games get longer and the tension gets tighter. But lately, Wade is showing he's more than capable of running a style of offense that requires him to put more pressure on his knees than he might have liked in the past. Wade looks healthy, and the Heat look like a completely different team since Wade has returned and literally hit the ground running in their new offense. In this offense, every single damn player has looked better, even the seven-foot center. Wade adapted to the style, and the Heat is a dangerous team because of it.
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2. The Heat will have a huge coaching advantage in the playoffs.
The Cavs will have Tyronn Lue, a coach without a full year of coaching experience under his belt. The Celtics will have Brad Stevens has next-to-no playoff coaching experience. The Raptors' Dwane Casey has coached in the playoffs but has had little success. Erik Spoelstra's playoff experiences are freely available on Google. The image search will include parades and backward championship hats. Coach Spoelstra is the biggest advantage any team in the East has in these upcoming playoffs. If the Heat finds itself in a Game 7 in Cleveland, it's comforting to know the moment won't be bigger than Coach Spoelstra. Can you say the same about Lue?
1. The Heat is capable of being elite on offense and defense now.
Not many teams in the East are as balanced as the Heat. Some rely more on their offense, some more so on their defense, but the Heat has been able to rely on each of those things at some point during this season. The new space-and-pace offense has made reaching 100 points on a consistent basis possible for the Heat, but the team also has the sort of elite defensive personnel that will be able to lock down other teams in a seven-game series. Need to protect the paint? Hassan Whiteside is number one in the NBA at that. Need to stick a team's best shooter? Luol Deng and Justise Winslow are some of the best wing defenders in the East. Dwyane Wade — even as he's aging — is still an above-average defender. The Heat is versatile enough that matching up with any team in the East for a chess-match seven-game series won't seem like such a difficult task.