I like Goran Dragic’s nonchalant approach (at least the one for public consumption) as to which opponent his Miami Heat might draw in the first round of the upcoming NBA playoffs.
“I’m not a calculated guy of who we’re going to get,” he said this week. “I don’t mess with the basketball gods. If you make some noise, you need to win against the best teams, so it doesn’t matter if you get them in the first or second [round]. You need to go through everybody.”
With three games left in the regular season starting Friday at the Knicks, Miami still could finish as the sixth, seventh or eighth seed in the East — meaning their opening playoff foe could be near-certain No. 1 Toronto, likely No. 2 Boston, or Cleveland or Philadelphia, who are in a photo finish for third.
It’s good to say you prefer no particular opponent because it suggests a we-fear-no-one bravado. As James Johnson does when he says, “I like our chances with seven games against anybody.”
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But if we could listen in on Heat prayers to Dragic’s basketball gods, we would likely hear a team that wants anything but a No. 8 seed and the Raptors. Toronto’s point differential is better than Golden State’s and second only to Houston in the NBA. This would be the toughest first-round matchup for Miami. Not only because the Raptors are really good. Also because the three other teams the Heat might draw are susceptible for various reasons.
One year ago the Heat got unlucky. Despite a 30-11 record in the season’s second half, Miami missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker. Pat Riley to this day believes last season’s Heat could have done damage in the postseason.
Now, the Heat will enjoy some of the luck that escaped them last season if it can manage to draw anybody but Toronto.
Boston is without its best player (by far) in superstar and Flat Earth proponent Kyrie Irving, and valuable rotation guard Marcus Smart also is out injured. This won’t be the same team that earned that second seed. Miami would have a great shot.
Philadelphia? The Sixers are the surprise of the East and a young team on the ascent but could be without rising superstar Joel Embiid for the first round, or at least the start of it, after he fractured the orbital bone of his left eye. That would rob that series of Embiid versus Hassan Whiteside in the greatest, funniest, snarkiest social media-driven rivalry in the NBA. But it also would hugely increase the Heat’s chance of advancing.
On to Cleveland. The Cavaliers have endured injuries, house-cleaning trades, even the coach’s medical leave. They still have that guy LeBron James, of course. But a team fighting to hang onto home-court advantage in the first round, a team with the worst defensive rating of any playoff qualifier, is not the juggernaut of years past. Plus LeBron has struggled at times against his former team. His points (21.0) and field-goal percentage (.455) versus Miami this season are his worst of any opponent he has faced at least three times. This would be the first-round foe Heat fans would most prefer for the LeBron factor, but the Cavs have played like a diminished giant all season. When Dragic said, “So why not play Cleveland?” he might have been on to something.
No matter whom Miami draws, and even with all of the first-round possibilities except Toronto weakened in some way, the Heat still is the big underdog at least in perception. Miami’s betting odds of winning the NBA title are the longest of all eight East qualifiers. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index puts that likelihood at 0.1 percent.
Part of the reason is the star-shy, depth-reliant makeup of the Heat, the opposite of the Big 3 era at its peak. It is a testament to Riley and Erik Spoelstra’s ability to adapt and win with different styles. But it also is not the kid of sexy/exciting to make the public swoon.
The other seven East qualifiers all have a go-to star, a top 20 scorer. Miami’s top guy, Dragic, ranks 45th. The Heat’s biggest star remains Dwyane Wade 2.0, an emeritus star now off the bench. Miami counters with 11 guys averaging 20-plus minutes, and nine averaging double-figure scoring, both tops of all East playoff teams.
“We have versatilty,” notes Wayne Ellington, who should be among top vote-getters for the NBA Sixth Man award. “There is strength in numbers. Take away one thing, and we have something else for you.”
That, and a little luck with opponents’ injuries, will give Miami a real shot in the first round ... especially if Goran Dragic’s basketball gods are kind enough to make that opponent anybody but Toronto.