Point/Counterpoint: Who will win the NBA's Eastern Conference?
Mike: Everybody and their mom has the Heat on a cake walk to the NBA Finals for a third straight year. For me, there are just too many obstacles in the way for another return trip for Miami. Last season, the biggest challenge the team faced was against an old, thin Boston Celtics team. But this year, every Eastern playoff team is better than last year. The Knicks are starting to use their talent properly, the Pacers are a year older and more mature, and there are just too many teams (see Chicago, Brooklyn) that have enough firepower to make a run and end Miami's Finals appearance streak.
It is admittedly a lazy argument, but frankly it's the only one that matters: LeBron James is the best basketball player we have seen since Jordan at his apex. He has tasted his first championship, learned to finish teams off in crunch time like Hannibal Lector in basketball shorts, and now the league is at his mercy, just as they were Jordan. The only Eastern team that can stand up to Miami is Boston. Yet, they still need lots and lots of things to swing in their favor to win a seven-game series. If you bet against Miami, you also essentially bet on LeBron having a major injury. (Good luck.)
Mike: It's going to be tough to stop LeBron James, there is no doubt about that. He's arguably the hottest player in the world right now after his 2012 Finals and London Olympic performances. I admit that there is no team looking forward to seeing James on their upcoming schedules. That being said, LeBron still isn't perfect. He's inconsistent. We've seen it in the 2011 Finals, and we've seen it in the fourth quarter so many times last season. There's been a lot of talk that LeBron is still improving, that he's only getting better and better. But until he starts to prove that game in and game out there is no guarantee that he won't flake out again come crunch time.
Matt: I will let the numbers speak for themselves. From Game 4 of the second round series vs. Indiana (when Miami seemingly turned into a different team) until the end of the Finals, LeBron averaged 31.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. Read those stats again. He passed every test thrown at him with flying colors. When his team needed him to take over offensively, he gave them one of the greatest post-season performances in NBA history (45 points in game 6 vs. Boston). When his team needed him to crash the boards and mask their lack of a true center, he grabbed an average of more than 10 rebounds and guarded the other team's best low-post scorer. When his team needed him to distribute the ball and get other guys involved, he channeled his Magic Johnson 2.0. And the "LeBron isn't clutch" argument doesn't work anymore because, according to ESPN Stats & Info, LeBron scored 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting in "clutch time" situations (last five minutes of fourth quarter and overtime, score within five points) during the 2012 Finals.
Mike: Taking nothing away from LeBron's Finals performance, it doesn't mean anything this year. Just because he played well in last year's playoffs, there's no guarantee that we're going to get the 2011-2012 LeBron again this year. And especially defensively, the Heat are going to need that LeBron again this year to contend. Although it's hard to take away too much from the first four games of the season, being second to last in points allowed isn't a good sign for any championship contender at any point. But that's the reality right now for the Heat, who have so far given up more than 106 points per game going into their Wednesday night match-up with the Nets (who just put up 107 against Minnesota). Putting up impressive numbers is important, as it can't be ignored that Miami is also leading the league in points scored with more than 111 per match-up so far. But that's a bad combination of stats than can quickly catch up to teams, especially with the firepower the Heat would be facing in the later rounds of the playoffs.
Matt: If this Heat team has one glaring weakness, it's the inability to defend the post with their "small-ball" lineup of Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron. Fortunately for Miami, there isn't an offensive force at center in the Eastern Conference that they'll have to face, other than possibly Philadelphia's Andrew Bynum, but Philadelphia lacks the talent at other positions to keep up with Miami in a seven game series. The only team in the league that will be able to truly exploit Miami's lack of size is the Lakers, who Miami would not meet until the Finals. As with any title defense, I'm sure Miami will run into unforeseen roadblocks, but barring LeBron having a major injury in the post-season, I think that the Eastern Conference and title is Miami's to lose. (I would like finish by noting that writing the last three paragraphs killed me as a life-long Lakers fan, but it is all undeniably true.)
Mike: The Heat is going to be great again this year, but there are just too many more obstacles in the way. Indiana took a big hit with the loss of Danny Granger for three months, but with a comeback from him, the Pacers could be the easy No. 2 seed in the East that, as we saw in last year's near upset, matches up pretty well with Miami. If Derrick Rose can return sooner rather than later, then the Bulls will develop into arguably one of the most well rounded teams in the entire league. And the team with the biggest upside (albeit biggest downside as well) has got to be the Knicks. With their dominant win over the Heat last week, the Knicks have shown that they are one of the strongest teams with one of the most potent offenses in the league when they can play up to their potential.
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