Publish date:

THE CASE FOR ... The Heat

The team that owns crunch time has cruised through the playoffs for a number of reasons, but there's only one that really matters

WHAT, JUST saying LeBron isn't enough? O.K., fine, though having the four-time MVP, the postseason's second-leading scorer and the best player in this series by a wide margin is a compelling argument for picking the Heat. And like Michael Jordan before him, James has shown he can deliver eye-popping numbers whenever a series hangs in the balance: Witness his 37-point, 12-rebound line in Game 7 of last year's Finals.

But Miami has other advantages too. A healthy Dwyane Wade is one. Shock wave treatment on both knees last summer and a smartly managed maintenance program during the season have restored the spring in the 32-year-old's step. Wade is averaging 18.7 points this playoffs (up from 15.9 last season) while shooting 51.9% from the floor (up from 45.7%). As a team the Heat are shooting a postseason-best 49.7%, and in the fourth quarter they are scoring a staggering 121.1 points per 100 possessions. Even though the Spurs have ditched their defense-only identity, they will struggle to match that kind of offensive firepower.

On the defensive end, 6'10" forward Rashard Lewis creates a dilemma. An afterthought in last season's Finals, Lewis emerged as a valued starter against the Pacers, rediscovering his three-point shooting stroke (40.9%) in the Eastern finals. (His hot hand has been contagious; Miami is shooting a playoff-best 39.5% from beyond the arc.) San Antonio is at its defensive best when Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter play together, but with Lewis, James and Shane Battier taking turns at power forward, the Spurs will likely have to pair Duncan with Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner, two shooters who can space the floor but don't offer as much as Splitter on D. With more room to operate, James and Wade will be even more effective.

While the Spurs have recovered mentally from last season's Finals failure, getting back to this point has exacted a physical toll. Miami cruised past the Bobcats and the Nets and dispatched Indiana in six games while San Antonio was slugging it out with the West's best. The Heat are younger, fresher and play a style that will put the Spurs' stamina to the test.

And Miami has LeBron. So there.



JOINT TASK FORCE Wade (3) took good care of his knees all season to remain a potent scoring threat in the playoffs.