Bernucca: Injuries have cleared easy path for Heat’s return to NBA Finals

Notice a trend in the first round of the playoffs?

Teams are missing and losing their star players.

It is somewhat of an issue in the Western Conference, where the Los Angeles Lakers will be without suspended forward Metta World Peace for another four games and the Los Angeles Clippers will be without injured forward Caron Butler until perhaps the NBA Finals – if they get that far.

Over in the East, there is a veritable All-Star team of sidelined players. Dwight Howard. Derrick Rose. Amar’e Stoudemire. Ray Allen. Josh Smith.

And that has cleared a very wide, smooth easy path for the Miami Heat to return to the league’s biggest stage.

In Tuesday’s column, colleague Chris Perkins suggested that anything less than a first-round sweep of the New York Knicks would be a huge disappointment. Allow us to take that a couple of steps further.

Given the injury issues the Heat’s current and potential opponents are facing, anything less than a return trip to the Finals would be an abject failure worthy of considering a breakup of the “Big Three” and a coaching change.

Other than a major injury of their own, they have no legitimate excuse not to get back.

Overreaction? Hogwash.

With the possible exception of the Bulls and some biased wishful thinking by Celtics Nation, the Heat already had the upper hand on every East playoff team when the postseason began five days ago. What now can possibly stand in their way en route to redemption?

In their immediate path – and offering about as much resistance as a flashing yellow traffic light – are the Knicks, who weren’t exactly putting up much of a fight with Stoudemire in the lineup. (And, it should be noted, rookie guard Iman Shumpert, a solid defender who went down with a torn ACL.)

Stoudemire got just 16 shots in the two losses in Miami before his stunningly stupid decision to take out his frustrations on the glass case of a fire extinguisher. He cut his hand so badly that emergency personnel rushed to the locker room.

Stoudemire skipped college and went right to the NBA, so he probably wasn’t entirely clear on the instructions on the encasement. It says, “In case of emergency, break glass.” It does not say, “To create an emergency, break glass.”

The Knicks can give false hope to their fans by merely saying Stoudemire is out for Game 3 and doubtful for Game 4. If you have ever had a cut on your hand or finger that needed stitches – and Stoudemire’s injury required a trip to the Hospital for Special Surgery – you know that almost any amount of contact is painful and you should avoid using your hand at all costs.

That’s kind of hard when it comes to basketball. So Stoudemire is probably done for this series, which shouldn’t last more than two more games.

The Knicks already were force-feeding Carmelo Anthony, who is shooting just 36 percent and figures to be firing at will for the next two games. His obvious reluctance to pass marginalizes anything the Knicks could be getting from Tyson Chandler (11 total shots), Landry Fields (12) or Steve Novak (5).

Up next for Miami would be either Orlando or Indiana, both of whom have been underwhelming for very different reasons. The Magic’s problems are obvious; they are the postseason’s donut, trying to fill their huge hole in the middle created by Howard’s absence with undersized power forward Glen “Big Baby” Davis.

Davis deserves some props, posting 34 points, 23 rebounds and four blocks as Orlando somehow managed a split of the first two games in Indiana. But the Magic are averaging just 79.5 points and have been outrebounded by 6.5 per game, obvious signs of Howard’s absence.

The Pacers are one of the East’s few teams that does not have injury issues. But after a solid regular season, they have had extended stretches in each of their first two games where they seemed to be playing in the dark. And their only win over the Heat this season came during Miami’s late-season lapse in concentration, which the Heat appear to have put behind them.

It doesn’t matter which team survives that series, because neither has the weapons or the will to beat the Heat. In fact, right now it’s hard to imagine Orlando or Indiana even extending Miami to a long series of six or seven games.

So with minimal effort, Miami should be back in the conference finals, where the long-anticipated showdown with Chicago already has a serious buzzkill and may not happen at all.

We will be Christmas shopping the next time we see Rose in uniform. In hope of rallying the base, the Bulls had him make an on-court appearance before Game 2, hobbling out while wearing a full leg stabilizer to protect his torn ACL. He then retreated to the relative sanctity of a United Center luxury box, where he got a good look at how much his teammates figure to struggle without him.

After a 109-92 loss, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau tried to downplay Rose’s absence by maintaining that his team’s bigger issues were on the defensive end. To be sure, Chicago’s transition defense was awful, and its halfcourt defense wasn’t much better as Philadelphia shot a flaming 59 percent. But that wasn’t the primary problem.

Rose’s absence on offense allowed the 76ers to minimize their double-teams. They chased shooters derrick rose 300x160Rip Hamilton and Kyle Korver into the corners and around screens without worrying about leaving penetration lanes for Rose. They also were able to stay in front of C.J. Watson and John Lucas, turning them into ineffective jump-shooters who made poor decisions with the ball in halfcourt sets.

No one is sounding an immediate death knell for the Bulls, who went 18-9 without Rose this season. But they are no lock for the conference semifinals, either, and it sure looks like they are in for a long series with the Sixers rather than a short one.

Meanwhile, the Hawks-Celtics series is developing into a battle of attrition. It has all the excitement of a trip to the DMV, with the requisite long lulls of inactivity, a loud complaint falling on deaf ears and the general sense that you would rather be doing almost anything else.

The Celtics are averaging a spiffy 80.5 points while shooting under 41 percent. The Hawks are at 81.5 points and below 38 percent. Boston has received 20 points from its bench. Atlanta has scored 32 points total in a pair of fourth quarters at home.

In Tuesday’s Game 2 loss, the Hawks also lost Smith, who left with a sprained knee with 4:20 to go and allowed the Celtics to zero in on slumping Joe Johnson. Atlanta already is without centers Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia and cannot afford to lose Smith, their best two-way player.

The Celtics managed to survive the Game 2 absence of suspended point guard Rajon Rondo, who will be back for Game 3 after his one-game ban for bumping referee Marc Davis. But they are clearly struggling without Allen, missing their first 19 3-pointers of the series and shooting just 3-of-25 from the arc in the ATL.

Allen hasn’t played since April 10 due to swelling and bone spurs in his ankle that eventually will require surgery. We’re not a doctor and don’t even play one on TV, but we’re pretty sure a condition involving bone spurs doesn’t get appreciably better unless they are actually removed.

In last year’s conference semifinals, the Celtics were gasping for air trying to keep up with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. This year, they will have to push their way through perhaps two series without the benefit of homecourt advantage to simply get another shot at the Heat. Even with the championship-caliber grit they have shown since the All-Star break, the tank is inching toward E for the C’s.

The path back to the Finals has been cleared for the Heat. All they have to do is stroll along it, making sure they don’t trip and get hurt.

Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday. You can follow him on Twitter

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