For just the second time in franchise history, the Miami Heat will begin the playoffs as defending champions.
The Heat held court in the regular season, finishing with the best record in the NBA, and set numerous franchise records on their way to home-court advantage throughout the postseason.
Miami, the No. 1 seed and Southeast Division champion, kicks off the playoffs with a first-round matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Heat won three of four against the Bucks in the regular season and are supreme favorites to sweep this series. Miami went 12-6 in the Eastern Conference playoffs a year ago before taking four of five matchups with Oklahoma City in the Finals.
It was a record season for coach Erik Spoelstra's club, which became the first defending champion to finish with the best NBA record the following season since the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. The 66 wins were the highest in team annals, surpassing the 61 wins by the 1996-97 squad.
Most importantly, the Heat, who had 40 double-digit wins this season, dominated at home to the tune of a 37-4 record and ran off 27 straight wins -- the second-best streak in NBA history behind a 33-game burst by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. Besides the obvious contributions from the Big Three, Miami received big boosts from its reserves. Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Norris Cole are just a few of Spoelstra's options off the bench.
Allen enjoyed a solid first season on the shores of Biscayne Bay and averaged more than 10 points per game. Allen and Battier were the most consistent from 3-point territory, too.
But let's move on to the biggest story in LeBron James. Set to possibly bring home his fourth MVP Award, James, who recorded more than 2,000 points for the eighth time in his career, set career-bests in shooting (56.5), 3-point percentage (40.6) and rebounds (8.0). He led the team in scoring (26.8 ppg) and finished fourth in the league in that category.
James averaged 27.5 ppg in four meetings against Milwaukee this season and has faced the Bucks plenty of times in his career from his Cleveland days. In 37 all-time contests against the Bucks, the one known as "King James" is posting averages of 29.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.0 assists.
Dwyane Wade was second on the Heat with 21.2 ppg and is Robin to James' Batman. However, Wade can take over a game when things aren't going right elsewhere and, remember, he led the Heat to the 2005-06 NBA title. Wade is having his best season shooting wise and made 52.1 percent of his shots. The other member of the Miami triumvirate is center Chris Bosh. Like Wade, Bosh established a career high shooting by making 53.5 percent from the field.
The Heat will rely on the Big Three more than ever and hope their strong end to the regular season carries over into the tournament.
Milwaukee is back in the playoffs for only the second time in seven years and barely made it to the big dance with the No. 8 seed. The last time the Bucks reached the playoffs was back in 2009-10, when they ended a three-year layoff.
For how poorly the Bucks played down the stretch, there wasn't much doubt they would make the postseason because of how poorly the rest of the East is. The Bucks had a shot at moving up to the No. 7 spot and avoid a first-round matchup with Miami, but Boston is seventh and will open with New York.
The Bucks can thank their backcourt duo of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings for carrying most of the load in the regular season, while improved play from big man Ersan Ilyasova and the acquisition of J.J. Redick helped the odds. Center and defensive stalwart Larry Sanders was another contributing factor.
Milwaukee had to make a move in the coaching ranks, firing Scott Skiles in favor of Jim Boylan back on Jan. 8. The team seemed to respond well to the coaching change, finishing in the top five of the NBA for offensive rebounds, blocks, most opponent turnovers and total rebounds per game.
Boylan's team allowed 100-plus points on defense and that does not bode well against a Miami offense averaging more than 100 ppg.
BACKCOURT: This area of the court the Bucks have a slight advantage with two of the speediest guards in Jennings and Ellis. Both are quick off the dribble and can create their own shot, while Jennings and Ellis are two of the best in steals. Stamina will be vital for Milwaukee's backcourt duo, which will be relied on to do the most scoring. Wade and Mario Chalmers have worked well since becoming teammates back in 2008-09. Wade, of course, is a superstar and can carry the scoring load when a certain MVP candidate is off his game. Wade is a slasher and can also shoot from any point on the floor. That will be a problem for the Bucks. Chalmers is a smooth distributor and average on defense. It's hard to pick against Wade, but Milwaukee has the backcourt edge.
FRONTCOURT: The frontcourt matchup is somewhat laughable because the Bucks, and any other team, will struggle in trying to slow down James, Bosh and Udonis Haslem. Unless you have lived under a rock the past decade, James is arguably the most potent player in the league with his ability to score, facilitate the basketball and display a defensive presence. His numbers don't lie either. James will be public enemy No. 1 for the Bucks, who must be cautious of his quick jumper from 3-point territory. Bucks small forward Ilyasova is in for a rough series. Bosh can be a nightmare inside and a mismatch for the much-improved Sanders. Sanders is a shot-blocking wizard, so at least he has that to fall back on. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Haslem cancel each other out, but the damage will be done by James and Bosh.
BENCH: Spoelstra was not afraid to rest his starters when it was needed or when they were coming up lame on the court. Luckily for Spo, he has Allen, Cole, Battier, Mike Miller and Chris Anderson to go to for a boost. Allen, Battier and Miller are nasty shooters from deep and Anderson provides an intimidating presence. Allen, though, can be a game changer and sealer when on his mark from 3-point range. Boylan's reserves aren't much to write home about, but Redick can provide a lift when he's feeling it. Redick is a sharpshooter and will be accompanied off the pine by relevant contributors Mike Dunleavy, Samuel Dalembert, Ekpe Udoh and John Henson. Still, the Miami bench could make a formidable starting five on its own.
COACHING: Spoelstra's resume is improving each year courtesy of having an owner who spends money on righteous talent. Spoelstra is currently tied for the franchise postseason record in victories (34), winning percentage (.607) and series won (7) and his 56 postseason games coached rank second on Miami's all-time list. He has learned from the best in Pat Riley and his experience outweighs that of Boylan. Boylan served as Skiles' top assistant for years and finally supplanted the latter when the calendar turned. Like Spo, Boylan began his coaching journey as a video coordinator, but has limited experience in the postseason. This series will test Boylan's mettle.
PREDICTION: If any pundit screams from the mountain top and believes the Bucks will give the Heat trouble in this series, they're insane. Stranger things have occurred (see Denver over Seattle in 1994) and the only peculiar aspect of this series is if Miami fails to pull off the sweep. Not even Tom Cruise could assist Milwaukee in this mission because James' eyes have the look of determination. James isn't the only Heat player out for back-to-back titles and this series will be a tuneup for the second round.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: HEAT in 4