To a man, the Heat’s players refer to last year’s first round against the Milwaukee Bucks as one of the easiest postseason series of their careers. The Heat swept the Bucks in four games, and Dwyane Wade could barely walk.
Wade is ambulatory this time around, and the Heat is playing a team it hasn’t lost to in more than four seasons, but somehow this first-round series is supposed to be a more difficult test. The Heat, which has won back-to-back NBA championships and appeared in three consecutive NBA Finals, begins its first-round playoff series against the Charlotte Bobcats at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena. The Bobcats, owned by Michael Jordan, improved by 22 wins this season and are playing in their first playoff series since 2010.
“No offense to the Bucks last year, but we feel like this is better competition,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said.
Said Wade: “This is not the Charlotte Bobcats that everyone thinks of when you hear the name. This is a team that has confidence now and is very comfortable in their system.”
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Center Al Jefferson, point guard Kemba Walker and new coach Steve Clifford have transformed the Bobcats into a respectable team after a 21-win season in 2012-13. At the very least, the Heat expects the Bobcats to serve as a better tuneup than last year’s first-round opponent.
“Last year was tough,” Wade said. “Milwaukee was a pretty easy series for us, and then in the Bulls series we got smacked in the mouth. We were coming off a series where it didn’t feel like the playoffs. It felt like four regular-season games, and I feel like this is going to be a great challenge from the get go.”
The second game of the series is at 7 p.m. Wednesday, and the series shifts to Charlotte, N.C., for Games 3 and 4. Game 3 is Saturday at Time Warner Cable Arena, and the Heat potentially could close out the series with a four-game sweep April 28.
Whether the Heat sweeps might depend on how quickly the team rediscovers its on-court chemistry. The team’s projected starting lineup has only played together once in the last month, and before that Bosh, Wade, LeBron James, Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers last played together in early November.
For that reason, the Heat’s practices Friday and Saturday felt more like training-camp sessions than postseason preparation.
“We felt like a team [Friday], so it was a good day,” Wade said.
Said Haslem: “I think everyone is where they need to be mentally and physically. We’re healthy, so everything is looking pretty good.”
Haslem injured his back in November, but time out of the lineup — plus maybe a little acupuncture — helped him recover during the season. In years past, Haslem most likely would have played injured throughout the season, but then perhaps been less effective in the postseason.
“That’s the thing that I’m happiest about with how the regular season ended,” Wade said. “[Haslem] found his way back into the starting lineup. You’re a lot more confident going into a game knowing what that guy is going to bring, especially in matchups like this when you’ve got a guy like Al Jefferson.
“You know that U.D. is going to scrap and fight and do everything not to let him go off.”
Across the board, the Heat chose health this season over multiple regular-season options in the hopes that everyone would be completely healthy entering the postseason. It appears that strategy has paid off.
For the first time since preseason training camp, all 15 players on the Heat’s roster practiced together Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena in preparation for Sunday’s playoff opener.
“It was like old times,” Bosh said. “It was awesome.”
Wade entered the 2013 playoffs with a knee injury, but prescribed rest this season and a procedure last summer have helped control his chronic tendinitis. He missed 28 games this season, including nine in a row in April, but it will all be worth it if he makes it through the postseason in every game’s starting lineup.
“Obviously we understand the impact that he brings to the game when he’s healthy, so you want a healthy Dwyane Wade in the playoffs when it counts the most,” Haslem said.
Said Wade: “That’s why they pay us the big bucks — for this time of year.”