I don’t wanna talk about the winning streak. Yes, it’s incredible. Yes, the Miami Heat are incredible. Yes, LeBron James is incredible. Yes, it’s incredible that a Jeff Green game that redefined what we think of as being a “career night” wasn’t good enough to end it. Yes, it’s incredible that late in the game against the Cavs, I went to get my laundry with Cleveland up 27, and when I got back they were only up nine, and a channel-flip-and-back later LeBron was shooting a three to tie it up. It’s incredible how nostalgic I am now for those months where LeBron actually went under-the-radar with his casual brilliance.
All those nice things that people are saying about how incredible this streak is are true, and then some. It’s incredible.
But all that said, it’s still just the regular season. As discouraging a regular season as this has been for a LeBron Hater, it’s not too late for him to turn it all back around in the postseason, for him to come up short when everyone assumes he’s just gonna cruise to the title. Of course, there’s a reason that everyone now assumes that, and that’s because it seems really, really likely that cruising to the title is exactly what LeBron and the Heat are gonna do. It’s borderline-impossible to beat this team once right now, how the hell could any team possibly be expected to steal four of seven?
At this point, the only thing that concerns me in the Good Fight is finding some shred of hope to latch on to with a team, a player, a cosmic force whose intervention could possibly result in LeBron James not repeating as champion this season. I’ve come up with 10 possibilities, presented from least to most likely to actually get in the way of LeBron getting that second ring.
Win out for the rest of the regular season, LeBron, see if I care. (I will, of course, but not so much, hopefully.) I’ll just be biding my time, hoping one of these 10 opponents (internal or external) results in your eventual downfall.
10. Chicago Bulls (with everyone healthy). Pretty bad bet here, since the Bulls haven’t exactly been playing like contenders lately, it’s not looking super-likely that Derrick Rose will be back in time, and the Heat dispatched them fairly easily a few seasons back when they were basically at full strength. Still, a healthy Bulls team would be about as tough an out as the Heat would be likely to face in the East, and it’s not totally impossible that the return of D-Rose could lift the Bulls (on the court and in the locker room) enough to give them a real series. At this point with LeBron, anything “not totally impossible” is worth discussing.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder. Gotta include them since they faced the Heat in the Finals last year and looked like the better team for about a game and a half. I just don’t see it really happening with the Thunder this year.
8. Jeff Green. He certainly seems to get up for the games against LeBron, playing his best two games of the season (one on each side of the ball) in the Celtics’ last two matchups against the Heat, proving something of a worthy adversary for LBJ. Hard to say if he could keep it up for six or seven games, but the Celtics have always been trouble for LeBron to begin with, and Green’s emergence is a fascinating, fun new wrinkle in the two teams’ rivalry. Real shame about Rondo though.
7. San Antonio Spurs. Still so damn good as a team that you can’t totally rule out them beating anyone four times, and in retrospect, it really does seem like Miami lucked out drawing OKC in the Finals last year rather than San Antone. And hell, the Spurs nearly beat Miami in Miami earlier this year with their JV squad, in their only matchup this year. The assumption is that because the Spurs came up short in the postseason the last two years, they will this year too, but I think this roster is the best — the deepest and most talented — of the three. At the very least, I bet Miami would rather see OKC again than have to face this wrecking crew.
6. Indiana Pacers. They took the Heat to six games last year, and looked like the better team in two out of three matchups this year. Still, the ease with which the Heat brushed them off in that third game, Win 18 of the current streak, leads me to believe that when push comes to shove, despite all their advantages inside, the Pacers don’t really have the talent to hang with Miami. Still, with an effective Danny Granger, a couple big Roy Hibbert games, a postseason breakout for Paul George … another six or seven-game series isn’t impossible, and who knows? Maybe Lance Stephenson baits a couple Heat players into a suspension-sanctioned kerfuffle, and the Pacers steal the series.
5. Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Ray Allen. It’s mostly forgotten now, but a big part of those unexpected LeBron playoff exits when he was in Cleveland — especially that first one in ’09 — was the failure of his teammates to knock down shots, with players like Mo Williams and Wally Szczerbiak coming up short in big moments in big games. Chalmers, Battier and Allen are all excellent outside shooters, but none of them — not even Allen — are slump-proof. In fact, Battier spent most of the second half of last season in such a funk, before coming to life late in the playoffs. If two or three of those guys all go cold at once, and opponents double on LeBron, it could be trouble for Miami.
Of course, Rashard Lewis, Mike Miller and James Jones are all waiting in the wings as backup in case of such a contingency. But Spoelstra has often showed reluctance to make big lineup adjustments, so maybe he doesn’t spot and attempt to remedy the problem until it’s too late. Maybe.
4. Memphis Grizzlies. Of anyone out West, I still think the Grizzlies have the biggest chance of taking out the Heat in the Finals. In the two matchups between the teams this year, the Grizzlies blew Miami out once and played them tough to the buzzer (in Miami) the second time, even holding LeBron to 4-14 shooting (though he still had a near-triple-double anyway, natch). They have just about the only defense solid and balanced enough to keep Miami from ever running away with a game, and Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen can do real damage on LeBron on the perimeter. Of course, stringing together enough points to beat even a hamstrung Miami four times out of seven will be tough for the Grizz. But Memphis has risen to the occasion against a mighty opponent in the playoffs before, and perhaps they could pull the upset again.
3. New York Knicks. The Knicks have been so mediocre lately, and fell to the Heat in that big Sunday game (Win 14) a couple weeks ago, that you forget how dominant the Knicks were in the first two games against Miami this year. Those were legit wins — hot-shooting-enhanced onces, no doubt, but legit ones nonetheless, with the Knicks taking each by 20, and holding the Heat to an average of 88 points. Throw in the history that Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler have against LeBron in the postseason, and of any of the Heat’s potential post-season opponents, you can see that logic might dictate that the Knicks could be the one to upset them.
All that said, the Knicks still have lost 10 of their last 18, and might still have half their team on IR at postseason’s beginning. But if everything broken right for them, an upset is nearly plausible. And “nearly plausible” is even better than “not totally impossible.”
2. Injuries. I wouldn’t root for this, mind you — it’s bad form to ever root for injuries to anyone for any reason in sports, and even my extreme hate of LeBron wouldn’t cause me to celebrate an injury of his. Of course, it’s a moot point with LeBron since the guy is impervious to injury, and only seems to even act injured occasionally to prove a point of some sort. But Dwyane Wade has something of an injury history, and when Chris Bosh left the Pacers series with an abdominal strain last year, the Heat looked seriously vulnerable in that series. With the Heat humming the way they are right now, injuries could very realistically be the only thing that gets in the way of them repeating this year.
1. Whatever weird stuff happened with LeBron during his handful of prior playoff meltdowns. That guy can’t be completely dead and gone, can he? Sure, LeBron seems like he’s “clutch” now, and he’s figured out when to “take over” and all that other nonsense. But there must be a little bit of 2010 LeBron remaining, right? Something that can be triggered, and cause him to act weirdly passive and inert during big games and big moments as his team and the world crumples around him? This, needless to say, is the real reason the Knicks — and any other team with an open roster spot — should have pursued signing Delonte West.
Are any of these 10 factors enough to keep me warm at night, content that there’s still a ton of trials LeBron and his Heatles will have to go through before emerging victorious for the second time in two years? Eh. I’ll throw all my positive energy into nine out of 10 of them this postseason, but at best I figure they give me a combined 1 in 4 chance. I do kinda hate you, LeBron.
Hate Index: 9/10