This season has operated under the assumption that the Eastern Conference is Miami’s to lose, and though the Heat’s interest has waxed and waned through their first 38 games, there’s no reason to abandon that premise yet. They’ve experienced some setbacks, but a motivational downswing is not unusual for a highly talented team in a title-defending regular season. The prize has already been won, and though the Heat are clearly interested in a repeat, they’re certainly not above biding their time — in the spirit of title teams past — until the framework of a seven-game series instills the basis for effort and order.
For now, the Heat are viewed as a team lacking in defensive focus and rebounding efficacy that nonetheless boasts the best basketball player in the world and the overall profile of a championship contender. They may have entered Monday’s play leading the second-seeded Knicks by only one game, but the Heat ultimately have the least to prove; they’ve shown how overwhelming they can be when all of the core pieces are in the lineup and executing with an end goal in mind, while their East rivals are still out to prove that they can keep up with Miami’s extra gear.
So let’s check in with those other teams in hopes of understanding which ones might eventually have the best chance of testing Miami’s resolve.