One year ago, the newly assembled Heat seemed destined to suffer a traumatic end: LeBron James's televised decision and in-arena lovefest with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were followed by a horrid start, an erratic regular season and a Finals collapse against the Mavericks. This year, though, after a season in which James reemerged as an MVP favorite, everything is breaking Miami's way. Eastern Conference rivals have seen an endless run of suffering and misfortune, making the second-seeded Heat's path back to the Finals far less arduous. After the misadventures of 2010--11, have the hoops gods taken pity? Consider who's fallen:
When playing well (and healthy), the Magic created all kinds of matchup headaches for LeBron & Co., who have no answer for Howard down low or for the three-point shooters who space the floor around him. When the three-time Defensive Player of the Year was shut down in April to undergo surgery to repair a herniated disk, Orlando's ability to protect the rim vanished—along with any hope of eventually upsetting its intrastate rival.
Sure, the Bulls went 18--9 without their injury-prone MVP during the regular season, but his left ACL tear in Game 1 against the 76ers leaves Chicago without the dynamic scorer and penetrator it needs to disrupt Miami's defense. Expectations for an intense conference finals rematch with the Heat all but evaporated when rim-guarding center Joakim Noah left Game 3 on crutches. He sat out Game 4, and the Sixers took a 3--1 lead.
The Celtics' guard is the NBA's most feared home run hitter; his deep shots in transition have won big games for Boston with frightening consistency over the last five seasons. A painful bone-spur injury to his ankle kept him out of the first two playoff games against the Hawks. Though Allen returned to provide 13 points off the bench in a Game 3 win, coach Doc Rivers couldn't guarantee his availability throughout the postseason. (Boston could meet Miami in the conference finals.) He wasn't Boston's only concern: Guard Avery Bradley and forward Paul Pierce played Game 4 with an injured shoulder and knee, respectively. Said Rivers of Bradley, "Every game right now is going to be a concern with him."
A strong Game 2 showing gave the Knicks hope of returning to New York to mount a challenge in Games 3 and 4 of their series against the Heat. But before Stoudemire even reached the visitors' locker room after Game 2, he gashed his left hand by punching a wall-mounted fire extinguisher. Without Stoudemire and guard Iman Shumpert in Game 3 (torn left ACL in Game 1), the Heat took a 3--0 lead. New York won Game 4 but lost Baron Davis to a dislocated knee cap.
All-Star center Al Horford suffered a torn left pectoral muscle in January, which kept him out of Atlanta's first three playoff games against Boston. In April his backup, Zaza Pachulia, joined him on the bench with a left ankle injury. Then Smith missed Game 3 against the Celtics with a sprained left knee ligament, leaving the Hawks without nearly 21 feet of talent across their front line. Their skilled length might have threatened Miami in the conference finals; instead the Hawks had to play small and fell behind 3--1 against Boston in the first round.
ILLUSTRATION BY GLUEKIT; BOB ROSATO (SMITH); HEINZ KLUETMEIER (ROSE); DAMIAN STROHMEYER (JAMES, ALLEN); JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (STOUDEMIRE); BILL FRAKES (HOWARD)