The Heat won the East by playing Eastern Conference basketball. Now they'll have to open things up.
The first three rounds of the playoffs put a lot of misgivings people had about the Heat to bed.
Yes, they can beat elite competition. No, they won't back down against a physical opponent. Yes, they can close out games -- and LeBron James can close out games like nobody's business. Yes, Chris Bosh is a legitimate third star, if not a superstar. And yes, the Heat have more than three players they can count on.
Those are the questions the Heat have answered through their first 15 playoff games. In order to take home a championship, they will have to answer one more.
The Heat got through the Eastern Conference by playing Eastern Conference basketball -- tough, low-scoring games that came down to the wire and demanded that each player on the floor give it his all.
In order to beat the Western Conference champs, the Heat will have to do something they didn't have to do when they dispatched the 76ers, Celtics and Bulls -- and this last thing is the first thing people assumed they would do when LeBron announced he was taking his talents to Miami nearly one full year ago:
In order to win the NBA Finals, the Heat will have to score a lot of points.
The Heat's offense has been good enough to get past some of the best defenses in the league this postseason. Philadelphia had the eighth-best defensive efficiency in the regular season, and the Celtics and Bulls were the No. 2 and No. 1 defensive units in the league, respectively. The latter two teams made things brutal on Miami. They overloaded the strong side, rotated hard back to shooters, clogged up the paint and the passing lanes and controlled the ball well enough to keep the Heat from enjoying a significant advantage in transition.
Still, the Heat found a way to do just enough on offense to squeak by. Against Boston, the keys were James' playmaking, Dwyane Wade's ability to split traps like the defenders were made of smoke and a key shooting display by James Jones in Game 1. Against Chicago, the Heat scraped by thanks to a steady diet of contested jumpers from LeBron, some great play by Bosh, some unexpected but welcome shooting contributions from Mike Miller and the occasional clutch 4-point play from Wade.
It wasn't pretty, but because the Heat played the swarming defense they've made a priority all season long and encountered a string of average offensive teams (the 76ers and Celtics tied for the 17th-highest offensive efficiency rating this season, and the Bulls ranked only 12th), it was good enough.
Against Dallas, odds are that "good enough" offensively won't be good enough. Dallas was a worse offensive team than Miami was in the regular season, and hasn't had to face the defenses the Heat have, but it's highly likely the Mavericks will be putting a lot more points on the board than the Heat's Eastern Conference opponents did.
Dallas leads the NBA in offensive efficiency this postseason, and it's not hard to see why. Dirk Nowitzki is a man on a mission whose fadeaway may be the most unstoppable go-to move since Kareem's skyhook. He's been torching opponents from all over the floor in a ruthlessly efficient manner, and his teammates have been helping him out by hitting shots from the perimeter and earning energy baskets inside.
Miami's athletic, swarming, physical defense might be able to slow the Mavericks down, but the reality is that if the Heat want to win this championship, the offense will have to hum, with the Big Three playing in sync and the role players ready to step up and make a play when needed.
That means no prolonged stretches in which the offense devolves into either James or Wade watching the other one work in isolation or try to run a screen-roll 28 feet from the basket. No corner sets that fizzle out and turn into Joel Anthony desperately handing the ball off to a perimeter player with eight seconds left on the shot clock. Bosh will have to be more than someone who waits for 18-foot jumpers and does his best on the boards. The 3-point shooters will have to make their 3-point shots.
The ball will have to move -- and players will have to move without the ball. Every possession must involve multiple options and multiple passes, while shooters will have to make and take shots. And Miami will have to push whenever the opportunity to do so presents itself.
The Heat have as much offensive talent as any team in the league, and their firepower in the regular season was more effective than it was credited for; the only two teams that finished with a higher offensive efficiency mark than the Heat in the regular season failed to make it out of the first round of the playoffs.
Still, the Heat did show some bad offensive habits all season long, and Boston's and Chicago's stifling defenses brought out some of those shortcomings in the conference semifinals and finals.
If the Heat are good enough to defeat their own temptation to revert back to predictable isolation or pick-and-roll basketball with either James or Wade watching from the corner and play the kind of offense we imagined they were capable of playing all year long in the Finals, there's an excellent chance we'll see them holding the trophy when the series is over.