My answer was different and it was simple - "neither."
As long as the Heat beat the teams they're supposed to beat, they can take care of their own business with Boston since they have two games left with the Celtics this season. The Heat don't need help from the children of lesser gods. To paraphrase a verse from the rapper Nas on "Rule" featuring singer Amerie:
In the NBA, the weapons are spherical.
To be the best, you challenge the best and the blessings are spiritual.
Top of the world for Three Kings, no less.
Popping any player's head off their shoulders, no contest.
I know the Most High hear me. So fly you can't get near me.
You're scared of a mirror. My theory is that knowledge is power.
For every Heat fan around the world, we gotta get ours.
Is Nas the only reason I think the Heat can handle their own business in the Eastern Conference without any help? No, he's not, and since Nas said, "knowledge is power", let's get some.
The fact of the matter is that the Heat have the highest efficiency differential in the NBA at +8.8. Efficiency differential is simply the number of points scored per possessions (offensive efficiency) minus the points surrendered per possession (defensive efficiency).
The team with the best efficiency differential is expected to win the most games. The team that wins the most games gets home-court advantage in the playoffs, and efficiency differential and home-court advantage have proven to be great predictors of post-season success.
The powerful thing about knowing a team's efficiency differential is that it enables calculation of how many games a team's expected to win for the rest of the season. Here's how the Eastern Conference playoffs would be seeded if each team maintained their performance-to-date for the rest of the season with their current rosters (efficiency differential and expected winning percentage in parentheses):
- Miami Heat (+8.8): 61-21 (0.763)
- Boston Celtics (+7.3): 59-23 (0.716)
- Chicago Bulls (+6.2): 56-26 (0.682)
- Orlando Magic (+5.7): 52-30 (0.667)
- Atlanta Hawks (+1.5): 49-33 (0.537)
- New York Knicks (+0.1): 41-41 (0.493)
- Philadelphia 76ers (+1.1): 40-42 (0.524)
- Indiana Pacers (-0.2): 38-44 (0.484)
Based on their performance-to-date, the Heat should be expected to finish two games ahead of the Celtics in the East with the #1 seed and home-court advantage until the Finals.
Now that the teams most likely to make the Eastern Conference playoffs have been identified, their best chances of beating the Heat in a seven-game series can be calculated using a tool created by Arturo Galletti, author of Arturo's Silly Stats, that provides the odds of winning an NBA playoff series based on each team's expected winning percentage.
- #8 Pacers: Less than 4.4% chance of beating Heat in 6 games in 1st round
- #5 Hawks: Less than 4.4% chance of beating Heat in 6 games in East Semifinals
- #4 Magic: 10.6% chance of beating Heat in 6 games in East Semifinals
- #6 Knicks: Less than 4.4% chance of beating Heat in 6 games in East Finals
- #7 Sixers: Less than 4.4% chance of beating Heat in 6 games in East Finals
- #3 Bulls: 12.1% chance of beating Heat in 6 games in East Finals
- #2 Celtics: 14.5% chance of beating Heat in 6 games in East Finals
As things stand now, the only thing standing between the Heat and their second trip to the NBA Finals is the Celtics' 14.5% chance of beating them in a Game Six at Boston, but the Heat have a 20% chance of winning the series in Game Five or Seven at the American Airlines Arena.
When it comes to the Celtics, there's very little to worry about as long as the Heat stay healthy.
So after advancing to the NBA Finals, what are the odds of the Heat losing to the Western Conference champion? Here's how the Western Conference playoffs would be seeded if each team maintained their performance-to-date for the rest of the season with their current rosters (efficiency differential and expected winning percentage in parentheses):
- San Antonio Spurs (+7.4): 65-17 (0.719)
- LA Lakers (+7.6): 58-24 (0.726)
- Dallas Mavericks (+3.3): 54-28 (0.592)
- Oklahoma City Thunder (+2.0): 50-32 (0.552)
- New Orleans Hornets (+2.8): 49-33 (0.577)
- Denver Nuggets (+3.1): 47-35 (0.586)
- Utah Jazz (-0.2): 44-38 (0.484)
- Memphis Grizzlies (+1.5): 43-39 (0.537)
Now that the teams most likely to make the Western Conference playoffs have been identified, here are their best chances of beating the Heat in a seven-game series:
- Spurs: 17.8% chance of beating Heat in 7 games
- Lakers: 11.8% chance of beating Heat in 5 games
- Mavericks: 4.9% chance of beating Heat in 7 games
- Thunder: Less than 3.6% chance of beating Heat in 7 games
- Hornets: 4% chance of beating Heat in 7 games
- Nuggets: 4.5% chance of beating Heat in 7 games
- Jazz: Less than 3.6% chance of beating Heat in 7 games
- Grizzlies: Less than 3.6% chance of beating Heat in 7 games
The biggest obstacle between the Heat raising the Larry O'Brien trophy for the second time in franchise history is the Spurs who would have home-court advantage and an 18% chance of winning the series in seven games. The Heat, however, would have a 19% chance of winning the series in five games.
The Spurs also have another problem - the Lakers. The Lakers have a slightly better efficiency differential and a 19.2% chance of defeating the Spurs in six games and a 19.1% chance of losing the series in seven games. It doesn't get much tighter than that.
If the Lakers advance to the Finals, then the Heat would likely have home-court advantage and a 21.4% chance of winning the championship in six games.
Of course, the first step towards the #1 seed begins today in Boston. It will be a hateful environment, but if the Heat take care of business, then they'll be the best and Amerie will be proven right - "all this hate can't last forever..."
Efficiency differential stats were taken from nbastuffer.com.