Time will tell if LeBron James stepped into a time machine this season and traveled back to Cleveland. That was where he spent seven years trying to resuscitate a corpse.
The Cavaliers were dead money in their chase for a championship, mostly because James was forced to carry a team of stiffs. It was a futile pursuit, so in the summer of 2010, he took his talents to South Beach.
James is about to lead Miami to its fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance and possibly its third straight championship. But something is not quite right with the Heat. It almost feels as if James is back in Cleveland, attempting to carry a team that is capable of winning a title only by riding his broad shoulders.
Is that common perception reality?
“If you go by metrics, Miami is definitely not as good of a team this season as compared to last,” said handicapper Jim Kruger of VegasSportsAuthority.com.
An obvious starting point is the win column. The Heat won 54 games during the regular season, 12 fewer than in 2012-13. That sharp decline can be attributed in part to a veteran team that was on cruise control.
“Last year, the Heat’s margin of victory in the regular season was 7.9 points per game, and this year their margin of victory fell to 4.8 points,” Kruger said. “Contrast that to San Antonio’s 7.8 points per game margin this season compared to 6.4 in 2012-13. Being in the Western Conference, the Spurs played a much more difficult overall schedule than did the Heat in the much weaker Eastern Conference.
“The prevailing thought this season to explain the fewer wins and suspect performances was Miami wasn’t motivated as much during the lengthy regular season. The mantra still being heard is Miami can turn it on when it wants. After a tough series against Brooklyn in which the Heat’s last two wins were more like coin flips than better play, I believe Miami does have shortcomings that were not as visible last season.”
The schizophrenic Indiana Pacers have a few more shortcomings. Still, the Pacers proved me, Charles Barkley and several other so-called experts wrong by dropping the Washington Wizards in six games in the second round of the playoffs.
It was a complete meltdown by the inexperienced Wizards, who failed all three times in the series in the home favorite’s role. Indiana, which played possum in a 23-point home loss in Game 5, rolled 93-80 on Thursday.
Chalk one up for the Pacers, the top-seeded team in the East but the underdog in the conference finals. Oddsmakers opened Miami around a minus-300 favorite in the series.
It’s difficult to envision guys searching for dates on FarmersOnly.com and more difficult to envision Indiana winning the East. But in the NBA, 20-point leads are blown with regularity, referees run a circus and anything can happen.
“Forget all the handicapping, forget all the stuff you know,” South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said. “If you have the winner, it means you just picked the winner. It’s no revelation.”
In other words, NBA betting is often as random as a coin flip.
The Heat have a better shot than that to win the East. No longer is James the guy who faded in the fourth quarter of big games. That trend was put to rest two years ago. But his cast of supporters seems to be fading fast.
Dwyane Wade is showing his age, which means mediocre play most of the time and flashes of brilliance. Chris Bosh still is a 6-foot-11-inch 3-point gunner. Ray Allen is not automatic anymore, but he hits the key 3s. Chris “Birdman” Andersen is covered in tattoos and looks intimidating, yet he can’t fill a gaping hole in the middle.
“The Heat’s offensive rebounding percentage fell all the way to the second-worst in the league, and they are lacking muscle inside,” Kruger said.
“I believe the Heat still have the best chance to win the East, but I don’t see how they can beat a team-oriented squad such as the Spurs, who are vastly superior in depth. Who knows what you’re going to get with the soap opera-like Pacers.”
Miami opened as a 1½-point favorite at Indiana in Game 1 on Sunday. While the Heat and Pacers fight it out, the San Antonio Spurs have been kicking back, waiting for Oklahoma City to finally oust the Los Angeles Clippers, which it did in Thursday’s late game.
If chalk prevails, Vaccaro said, “The Heat will be a ’dog against the Spurs” in the Finals, and he estimated the series line at minus-120.
The Spurs look best in the West, and most of the basketball played in the East is ugly. James’ play is the exception.
Is the party over on South Beach? Obviously, James could carry Miami to another championship, but the odds say he will come up short, as his teams did time after time in Cleveland.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.