The Miami Heat are in the midst of a historic win streak — just six wins shy of tying the all-time record of 33 set by the 1971-1972 Los Angeles Lakers. They are the odds-on favorite to repeat as NBA champions, and they’re likely to face a team they had no problem taking care of in the 2012 finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder. While the San Antonio Spurs currently hold the best record in the West, the Thunder are more youthful and better prepared for a grueling playoff schedule, whereas the aging Spurs are a better fit for the regular season.
It’s easy to forget that the Thunder had a lead in the series in the 2012 finals, but they did, an important game one victory had OKC optimistic for its first title. But the Heat — as they are wont to do — went on a streak. They won four straight games to win the best-of-seven series, giving Lebron James his first NBA ring. And the Heat vs. Thunder in the 2012 finals, statistically speaking, produced strikingly similar numbers to this year’s regular season matchup between the two powerhouses. The Thunder averaged 101.3 points per game last season but the Heat cooled them down to 98.0 PPG in the finals. The Thunder also collected fewer rebounds, dished fewer assists, shot less efficiently from both two-point and three-point range and took fewer free throws during the finals. Meanwhile, the Heat increased their regular season output of 96.5 PPG to 102 PPG in the finals.
And it doesn’t look like the Thunder will have better luck this year if they are to meet the Heat in the finals again. The Heat swept the regular-season series from the Thunder (2-0) and the numbers look like they did last year in the finals, only worse (for the Thunder). The Thunder average a whopping 105.8 PPG this season, but against the Heat they are down 7.3 PPG. Meanwhile, the Heat, who average 102.1 PPG this season, averaged 106.5 PPG against the Thunder this season. How are the Heat able to handle the Thunder? The same way they did last year: they out-rebound them, collect more assists and shoot at a higher rate from both mid-range and long distance.
While two games is too small a sample size to accurately predict the better team here, there is no secret that the Heat won’t have a target on their back in the playoffs. The Heat, for the way Lebron James handled signing with the team three seasons ago, became the most desired team to beat even before winning an NBA finals. Now, with ring in tow, James will have to defend his title for the first time — which could present its own set of difficulties for the King. The Heat could fall short of reaching the finals; after all, they’ve encountered Eastern Conference teams that have given them more trouble than the Thunder have.
The Indiana Pacers are the current #2 seed in the East and have won their regular season series against the Heat, 2-1. Still, the Heat struggle against the Pacers. The biggest reason comes down to defense: The Heat’s defense hasn’t changed a thing about the Pacer’s offense. The Pacers in the regular season score 93.1 PPG, against the Heat — 93.3. The Pacers control the offensive flow and maintain their efficiency — 43.5 FG% in the regular season; 43.8 against the Heat. But more importantly, it’s the Pacer’s D that contains the Heat’s offense. The Heat scored 12 PPG under their average against the Pacers this season, 90.3. And the numbers on the glass go hand-in-hand with this deficiency: the Pacers have out-rebounded the Heat 40.7 to 29.7, which makes second-chance points impossible for the champs.
There’s also the current #3 seeded New York Knicks. The Knicks, like the Pacers, are able to slow down the torrid Heat offense: they only allow the Heat 91.7 PPG. The Knicks earned two twenty-point victories over the Heat early in the season, but dropped a devastating loss to them in early March, also during the Heat’s current win streak. They play another game on April 2nd, and it should be a good sign of where the Knicks–currently dealing with a barrage of injuries–stand against contending with the Heat come playoff time.
It’s likely that the Heat will become back-to-back NBA Finals champs. They shouldn’t get overconfident, however: they will have three worthy opponents to get through before potentially facing the Thunder. And that will take some doing, as the numbers suggest.