It's hard to believe that seven months have passed since the Spurs and Heat met in the Finals for an unforgettable seven-game series. At the start of this season, fans of both teams had circled this Sunday's game in Miami as a must-watch return to the American Airlines Arena, but with Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Tiago Splitter not suiting up, the game isn't likely to live up to our lofty preseason expectations. Still, there's a game to play and a whole lot to talk about, so I caught up with Matt Pineda (@pinedaHEAT) of SBN's Hot Hot Hoops to discuss the coasting conundrum, the MVP race, postseason predictions, and of course, Sunday's game.
And be sure to head over to Hot Hot Hoops, where I did my best to answer Matt's questions without crying.
Caleb Saenz: I'm assuming you've read Zach Lowe's recent piece on the Heat at Grantland. I've got to ask: What about the Heat right now — their age, their inconsistency, their likely Eastern Conference Finals opponent — has you worried about their chances at another championship run? Or are these all just signs of a coasting team?
Mike Pineda: I am worried to a degree because the team has some weaknesses. The Heat are still trying to find their rhythm as a team, and if they play like they are now in the playoffs, I wouldn't expect them to win. But we've also learned that January is not the time to judge this team. As much as I hate it as a fan, the Heat just care less about the regular season than I do. I wouldn't say they are coasting. I would just say that they know what is the most important time of year, and that has manifested itself to the court in regards to their effort.
CS: Kevin Durant has gone on a crazy tear this week and seems to have stolen the momentum in the MVP race. I think most people can acknowledge that LeBron James is a better player overall, but is there any merit to Durant deserving the trophy this year?
MP: Absolutely. I think the MVP is Durant's to lose right now. The way he is keeping the Thunder at the top of the West without Russell Westbrook, all while scoring and doing everything else he can, he is looking good. Remember, the MVP is not about who is the best player, but about who is the most valuable in the eyes of the media. Right now LeBron, although playing well and shooting 58%, hasn't been making the headlines Durant has. That plays a role. It's not over yet. Durant and James have two head-to-head meetings that can change the conversation.
CS: It still hurts for me to even think about it, but last year's Finals was undoubtedly the most competitive and entertaining matchup in a long time. If you had to guess, what's the likeliest opponent the Heat would face if they made the Finals? And could it possibly live up to last season's seven game finale?
MP: If I had to guess, I would give the edge to the Thunder returning again. I think Durant is entering that stage where if he has Westbrook by his side, they will win some playoff games just off their brilliance. It will be hard to surpass games 1, 6, and 7 of last year's Finals. Those were great games. The star duo of Durant and LeBron can make up for it, but I wouldn't bet on it. I do think the Spurs have a great shot because they are consistent, and they will make you beat them. They won't lose on their own.
CS: Greg Oden and Michael Beasley have been surprise contributors this season for the Heat. Do you see this as a long term thing, or are these contributions a product of Heat guys resting and the team playing games against Eastern Conference cupcakes?
MP: I think they will use both of them in playoffs. I believe Beasley will be a rotation player in the playoffs. His ability to score and now rebound (something he didn't always do) are vital to replacing Mike Miller. Beasley has been exactly what we need him to be and hasn't been any trouble. Miami needs him to be on the floor when LeBron sits. Greg Oden will probably be a spot player, with his most important time coming probably for about fifteen minutes per game against the Pacers. The Heat don't need him to be dominant. He just needs to contribute on the defensive end and on the glass.
CS: Concerning Sunday's game: Kawhi Leonard isn't playing, and Boris Diaw doesn't have the stamina to guard LeBron all game. (Not exactly the Finals rematch we were waiting for.) Is a 50-point night within James' reach? Seems like a great opportunity to affect the MVP debate...
MP: No. LeBron simply doesn't play like that 90% of the time. He shares the ball too much and plays what the defense gives him. Right now, James' only chance of getting to 50 is if he is ungodly hot from the perimeter and just buries the Spurs. He will have his way, but I'd guess he'd score more around 30. I don't think LeBron begins to change the MVP talk until around the All-Star break. Regardless, it should be a fun game.