The sweepstakes to see who loses the NBA Finals, a.k.a. the East, is looking, in the very early going, like someone other than LeBron James could emerge for the first time since 2010. The Pistons gave No. 1 seed Cleveland all it could handle in the matinee, making 15-of-29 threes and playing the Cavs tight until Detroit’s best scorer, Reggie Jackson, lost his hinges, hand-wrote a letter to Santa asking for a technical, and let LeBron camp out in his head for the game’s final four minutes.
Cleveland is a different team for this year’s playoffs, with a healthy Kevin Love forcing opposing defenders to commute to the perimeter to guard him. Interior space means LeBron gets to slash his way into the paint, and when LeBron does that no one knows what’ll happen. Tonight it meant LeBron registered 11 assists and took only 17 shots. And it meant Love and Kyrie Irving could stand back and chip in three-pointers.
But the Cavs, at home, still struggled to put away a team that needed till the last week of the season to clinch a playoff spot. Minutes later, the Miami Heat were looking really damn strong against the Hornets, blasting them with 41 first-quarter points and cruising ever after to a 123-91 win. You wouldn’t mistake them for the South Beach superfriends anymore; James scuttled back to Cleveland, obviously, and Chris Bosh struggled with blood clots this year before tapping out midway through the season. He’s officially out for the playoffs, which sucks for him, but maybe ain’t such a bad thing for the Heat. The team played .530 ball until Bosh was gone for good; since then, they were 19-10.
Here’s how Ken Berger at CBS breaks down the change:
With Bosh on the floor this season, the Heat posted a 102.0 offensive rating and a 100.3 defensive rating, good for a plus-1.7 net. Without Bosh, Miami has a 105.9 offensive rating — scoring nearly four points more per 100 possessions — and a 102.6 defensive rating. Overall, they’re plus-3.3 without Bosh. That’s a difference of 1.6 points per 100 possessions, which could reasonably be the difference in a playoff game.
He’s not bullish on any perceived defensive advantage lasting through the playoffs. But he was also presuming Toronto would advance past Indiana, and that’s a dicey bet now that the Raps have dug their customary 0-1 hole to start the playoffs. Plus: for as respectable as Wade was today (16 points, 4 boards, 7 dimes), Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside were frickin’ monsters. Deng scored 31 points on 11 shots. Whiteside scored 21 (on nine shots) and added 11 boards. He had five dunks on the day, none of which looked like it required any more effort than getting a box of Chex off the top of the fridge.
Then you have the late-aughts All-Stars in Joe Johnson and Amare Stoudamire who still do their thing, the balding dudes in the Y pickup games who sweat through their shirts. Together they add up to almost a full circa-2009 Paul Pierce. And you’ve got a rookie who actually plays sticky defense in Justise Winslow, and a coach in Erik Spoelstra who’s been to the Finals four times. This is a weird team right now, the Heat, as they patch together a mix of youngs and olds. But you have to like any squad where Dwyane Wade is your third offensive option, and in a seven-game series against the Cavs, let’s say, if that’s where the East is heading, you also gotta give Spoelstra the play-calling edge over LeBron.