The Miami Heat handily dispensed with the Brooklyn Nets last night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, which should end the haphazard speculation that has led some to point to the Nets as the top contenders against the defending champions. This is based largely on the Nets having won all four matchups against the Heat this season. After the teams' final regular season contest last month, LeBron James told you just what he thought of that logic: "Get out of here," he said. "Next question."
Thankfully, we can at last put to bed the issue of whether a regular season match-up has significant playoff implications (it doesn't) as well as the tired debate over whether too much rest between games helps or hurts a team -- at least until both of these arguments resurface in the next round. I expect the rest of this series to be far more competitive than last night's lopsided contest, but I'm not deluding myself into thinking the Nets are a lock to win four games in May just because they won four games before the second week of April.
That said, there are teams equipped to beat the Heat, though most of them reside in the West. Even (or especially?) with the top-seeded Indiana Pacers reeling, however, there is a team in the East that could realistically challenge the Heat: the Washington Wizards. Don't be surprised if the fifth-seeded Wiz dispatch the lackluster Pacers; Washington won the opening game of their conference semifinal as Roy Hibbert forgot to show up for Indiana.
The Wizards are giving Lebron and Co. and the rest of us reason to take notice. John Wall has become one of the most athletic point guards in the game, and is proving that he can translate his regular season prowess to the playoffs with his electric mix of speed and play-making ability. He's leading the East averaging 7.2 assists per game (he led the conference in the regular season as well, with an average of 8.8). Bradley Beal is also living up to the hype: His 20.7 points per game is good for sixth thus far in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and coupled with Trevor Ariza he gives the Wizards a formidable outside shooting presence. Beal and Ariza combined for 9-11 shooting from beyond the arc in Game 1 against the Pacers.
Washington has shown it has the athleticism to match up with a Heat team that has trouble defending off the dribble, as evidenced by Mario Chalmers's inability to contain Kemba Walker in the final game of Miami's first-round victory over the Charlotte Bobcats. Double-teaming Wall still leaves Washington with outside threats in Beal and Ariza. And in Nene, they have the weapon to exploit Miami's biggest weakness: neither Chris Bosh nor Chris "Birdman" Andersen are any match for the brawny Brazilian, who averaged 18.5 points on 51.9 percent shooting against the Heat this season, and made a great defender in Joakim Noah look foolish in the first round, averaging 17.8 points on 54.8 percent shooting in five games against the Chicago Bulls.
With Nene mastering his mid-range jumper and Marcin Gortat setting screens to create perimeter shots for the gunslinging backcourt, Washington's frontcourt is the key to the Wizard's chances of defeating the Heat. Back in December, I wrote about the similar characteristics that made the Pacers a good candidate to challenge Miami, but emphasized that it was too early in the season to make any definitive statements about the playoffs. With Indiana's spectacular drop-off, Washington is now primed to assume the role of spoiler. The Wizards are beating the Pacers at their own game, a game that could give the Heat a world of trouble in the Eastern Conference Finals.
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