The Philadelphia 76ers have not done well against the Miami Heat in recent years. As such, Sixers fans like myself know that even if they knocked off the Boston Celtics and faced the Heat in the conference finals, the odds would have been quite long to win. Miami could have coasted to victory in that series - although it is even expected to cruise over the Boston Celtics in any case.
Since the Celtics struggled so much against the Sixers and the Heat ultimately blew out the Indiana Pacers, Miami has become an even bigger favorite to cruise into the NBA finals going into Game 1 on May 28. However, that could actually work out in the Celtics' favor, given how the Heat only seem to dominate when they aren't expected to.
No team in modern NBA history has been expected to do more than Miami in the LeBron James/Big Three era. The Heat had the biggest bulls-eye of all time on their backs after the Big Three was formed, yet they stumbled out of the gate last season to a 9-8 start. They only recovered after they weren't expected to win 65-70 games anymore, and only then seemed ready to coast to the title after all.
But after the Heat were expected to blow past the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, they took their eyes off the ball once again. Miami was supposed to dominate after taking 1-0 and 2-1 series leads, yet it could not handle the pressure and ultimately collapsed.
As for this postseason, the Heat have again proved that they play better when they aren't expected to be so overwhelming. After falling behind by 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers without Chris Bosh, obituaries and speculation about a Big Three breakup were already in the works. But it was only when the Heat were counted out that they finally became the all-powerful team that they are supposed to be all the time.
Thanks to that late dominance of the Pacers, the Heat are expected to keep it up against the aging Celtics. However, since everyone now expects an easy conference final, it may be the opposite of what Miami winds up dealing with. Over the last two years, things have been much harder for the Heat when everyone expects them to blow out everyone all the time.
Given that James came to Miami by promising at least seven championships, this is a problem that will never ever go away for the Heat - perhaps even after they win their first title. To get a step closer to doing that this year, the Heat have to get away from the hype and high expectations/pressure and make this as easy as it is supposed to be.
But this has been easier said than done for Miami since summer 2010, so maybe Boston will have a window of opportunity after all - as long as the Heat don't expect it to be open.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident and 76ers fan - who has become quite familiar with the Celtics in that time.
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