With the release of the 2014-15 NBA regular season schedule, Miami Heat fans can finally mark their calendars for every highly anticipated matchup. While every single game within the 82-game regular season is important, let’s pinpoint the top five games you must see as the Heat embark on a new journey without LeBron James.
Here’s the first obvious must-see game on our list— the season opener! Aside from basketball being back, why should a Heat fan care about this game? Well, that’s an easy question to answer: It’s a possible Eastern Conference Finals preview. Don’t laugh; the Wizards have an upstart squad that features one of the most complete teams top to bottom in the NBA. John Wall is getting better and better each season, Bradley Beal continues to look more and more like a young Ray Allen, and their Nene-Marcin Gortat frontcourt is as fearsome as twin tower big men pairings can get. The Eastern Conference is always open, and while the Wizards are likely the fourth best team in the East, there’s nothing stopping them from exploiting their matchup advantages against some of the “on-paper favorites” that would otherwise be expected to steamroll them.
With favorable matchups in mind, the season opener is a game that will simultaneously raise and answer a lot of questions. We will see how Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh play together without LeBron, but we will continue to wonder whether or not the Heat’s philosophy of small-ball will compete against stronger frontcourts, especially against big men as skilled as Washington’s. Honestly, bias aside, Washington could easily steal a game on the road despite Miami’s success in recent years again them. No LeBron completely changes the dynamic of how the Heat can play around with weaker teams. It will make for an exciting basketball game, and frankly, casual fans will finally get a look at a Washington team seriously lacking in national television visibility.
It might not mean what it once did now that LeBron is gone, but the fact remains that the Heat and Spurs have traded salvos for the past few years in the battle for NBA supremacy. The Spurs mutant Princeton offense will go head-to-head with Miami’s small ball lineup, but things will obviously be different. No LeBron means, again, the onus for scoring lies flatly on the shoulders of Dwyane and Chris.
Will the two stars redeem themselves for an abysmal NBA Finals showing, or will the Spurs seemingly unstoppable offense remain too much for them to withstand? While many might cling to the latter, some of us with more optimistic outlooks like to think Miami will prove there’s some fight left in them. No homecourt advantage for Miami only enhances the mystique behind this matchup. Be wary, however, considering the Spurs love sitting their moneymakers to rest them in preparation for the playoffs. Watching a bunch of second unit guys isn’t exactly my idea of a must-see game, personally. Whether or not Coach Popovich opts to sit his starters, Heat fans have to check out how the Heat respond to an absolutely atrocious postseason performance; their pride is most certainly on the line for this contest.
No LeBron means Kevin Durant making the visit to the American Airlines Arena won’t have the same hype it used to have, but either way, Heat fans will get to see one of the game’s best pure scorers come to play. We can’t forget about Russell Westbrook either—he’s a one-man army in his own right, and when you pair him and KD together it’s easy to see why OKC has been consistently wrecking teams. Heat fans get a glimpse at what might be yet another NBA Finals preview, and we’ll see if Miami has the collective firepower to contend with an isolation dominant team like the Thunder.
OKC doesn’t have the strategic brilliance of the Spurs, but they have the greater individual scorers, and attacking them head-on requires a different approach than the one you’d use against San Antonio. In a battle against OKC, you need your best scorers to out-best their best scorers—sounds obvious, I know, but these are the games that come down to the wire. Neither Miami nor OKC loves to run complicated sets; it’s pretty much, “Give the ball to our best guy, and let him go to work.” It will be absolutely fascinating to see how Luol Deng can lockdown Durant, and it will give Dwyane a chance to outduel Westbrook—who’s essentially a shooting guard that plays at the point guard position.
One of the biggest disappointments of professional basketball has been Derrick Rose’s inability to stay healthy. Hopefully, for the game’s sake and Derrick’s sake, he can get back on track this season. Heat fans will get to see Derrick (hopefully) up close and personal along with the rest of the Chicago Bulls this upcoming winter as Chi-town makes its first trip to the 305. Derrick has looked incredible in his brief performances with Team USA in preparation for the FIBA World Cup, but aside from his possible resurgence, the rest of his team looks to be on the up-and-up as well.
The Bulls have shed Carlos Boozer and added younger pieces like Doug McDermott to generate a new sense of hope in the city of wind. Luol Deng will also face his former team for the first time in a Miami Heat uniform after a brief stint in Cleveland just this past season. Wade and Bosh are going to encounter one of the toughest teams in all of basketball—the Bulls are a bruising, gritty team that loves to impose its physical dominance. It might be a low-scoring affair, but it’s one you must watch as a Heat fan from the semi-rivalry standpoint alone.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers at Miami Heat, Christmas Day
Throughout the years, NBA Christmas Day games are always touted as the marquee matchups every fan—whether casual or diehard—wants to watch. This is one of those games; this is the must-see of must-see games. I don’t need to sell you on this: LeBron James makes his return to Miami to face former teammates Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade among others. All eyes will be on this game.
Will the Heat protect the home floor and spoil LeBron’s return? Will the fans shower him with boos, give resounding applause, or will it be a mixed response? So many questions, and we’ll only know the answers once gameday finally gets here. Now, I’ve overused the whole “Eastern Conference Finals” preview angle throughout this piece, but rest assured, a Heat vs. Cavs to win the Eastern Conference showdown has to be the favorite for a best of seven to win the east. The Heat, even without LeBron, is a proven commodity. The Cavs are unproven, and there’s no question the pressure for them to win immediately is much higher than it is on Miami. The implications that this Christmas Day game will have for the conference as a whole will be great, and on a micro level, the entertainment value will be very high as well. Save the date Heat fans, it’s going to be a battle for the ages.