Nail-biting dramas a fitting preview for Heat three-peat
Miami have clear path to history as they watch thrilling game-seven deciders and overtime theatrics in scramble to reach conference finals
As much as the rest of us are savouring these NBA play-offs, with all the buzzer-beaters and game sevens and overtime drama, the view is even better for LeBron James and his teammates.
The Miami Heat are looking at a clear path to a three-peat.
Let's face it: there is no one in the East that comes close to matching the two-time defending champions in a seven-game series. Top-seeded Indiana are mired in a titanic struggle with the six-games-under-.500 Atlanta Hawks as that series heads to a deciding game today, while the Brooklyn Nets will need to win a game seven on the road after staying alive against the Toronto Raptors.
With all those superb teams out West, by the time the carnage is done on that side of the bracket, it will be a wonder if anyone has the strength to put up much of a fight against Miami.
So, enjoy this while you can. There is not going to be nearly as much suspense after the calendar flips to June.
For now, Miami are resting up for the conference semi-finals after blowing out Charlotte in four straight games - but they have surely taken stock of what is going on in the rest of the play-off series.
Start with Indiana, a team that fought hard for home-court advantage with an eye on getting payback against the Heat after losing to them in a seven-game conference final a year ago. The way things are going for the Pacers, they will be fortunate to make it that far.
Sure, Indiana survived game six in Atlanta, closing with a 16-4 run to pull out a series-tying 95-88 victory, but the Pacers are no lock to wrap things up on their home court, having lost there twice in the series.
Brooklyn are the only other team in the mediocre East that may possibly present any hassles for the Heat. The Nets have two grizzled veterans from Boston's last championship team (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) and a definite sense of how to beat Miami, having won all four of their meetings during the regular season.
The Nets beat the Raptors 97-83 to even that series 3-3, but the old-timers will have to win the decisive game on the road to get a shot at the Heat in the next round. If Toronto advance, the Heat should breeze through to the conference finals; Miami have won 15 straight against Toronto.
The other remaining team in the East are Washington, who knocked off Chicago in a five-game series and beat Miami two out of three times during the regular season. The play-offs are a different animal, of course, and the on-the-rise Wizards are not quite ready to match a team of the Heat's calibre.
The Western Conference, of course, has plenty of teams who stack up favourably with the Heat. Top-seeded San Antonio should have beaten Miami in the 2013 NBA Finals and put up the best record in the league this season. Behind the Spurs are Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers, both of whom also won more games than anyone in the East.
But the depth of quality in the West is likely to be its undoing. San Antonio with ageing stars are heading to game seven against eighth-seeded Dallas after a 113-111 loss. Thunder have been forced to overtime four times by Memphis and face a deciding contest today. The Clippers are going the distance against Golden State, though it is certainly tempting to root for LA's other team now that racist owner Donald Sterling has been banished from the league.
All of this provides compelling story lines at the moment, but just makes matters that much easier for the Heat down the road.
"I believe this is a great direction we're going in right now," James said after the Heat's sweep of the Bobcats. "In four games, we played championship-level basketball and we got tested ... and the way we responded was a championship-type attitude."
Just the right attitude for this bunch.
Go ahead and give 'em the three-peat.