Four burning NBA questions with playoffs one month away: Can the Heat make a Finals run?

The long grind of the regular season is coming to an end, with another, more urgent, grind on the horizon. Here are a few burning questions with the NBA a month away from the start of the playoffs.

The officiating has gotten lighter, fouls are down and scores are off its blistering pace. Does this favor some teams more than others?

For sure it does. The New York Knicks, for one. They bludgeon teams regardless of the rules. But an intriguing squad to monitor is the Miami Heat. They already do a lot of defending without fouling, and because they’re not the biggest team, they’re used to playing with their hands more, doing a little more bumping on the cutters and underneath the basket. And they seem to like it — as they should.

“The last couple games, they’re really letting us play,” Heat center Bam Adebayo told Yahoo Sports recently. “It’s just prepping everybody for the playoffs. All these ticky-tack fouls is not gonna fly. It’s back to physical basketball. And I respect it.

“You gotta guard your yard, offensive guys gotta really score, they can’t look for a bailout when they get stuck. You have to really hoop.”

DENVER, COLORADO - FEBRUARY 29: Duncan Robinson #55, Nikola Jovic #5 and Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat double-team Aaron Gordon #50 of the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena on February 29, 2024 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)
Bam Adebayo and the Heat are good with the return of physical basketball, of course. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

Adebayo is one of the league’s best all-around centers while also being undersized. He’s often giving up a couple inches (listed at 6-foot-9) and sometimes 20-plus pounds. He depends on his strength, positioning and a little physicality, with the benefit of the doubt being earned due to his reputation.

Adebayo’s foul rate (2.4 per game) is already at its lowest since 2020-21 and, in March, Miami has averaged 15.7 fouls per game, by far the lowest number since Jimmy Butler arrived via free agency in 2019.

Miami is certainly more opportunistic than explosive on offense, and although Butler has manufactured great games from the foul line, it doesn’t seem like he or his teammates will have a difficult time adjusting to the new wave.

“Yeah. We’re good with it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Yahoo Sports. “As long as we know how it’s going to be. We will make the necessary adjustments. It’s a great time of year. It’s how it should be. It should be decided by the players, decided by quality play. Connected players. Not out there being tricky.”

Where does this leave Miami? Is the path wide open for them to get back to the Finals?

Bet against Miami, bet against Spoelstra, bet against Butler and Adebayo at your own peril. But every year has its own shape and relying on the past is a dangerous proposition. Miami barely escaped the Play-In last year, beat the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and advanced all the way to the Finals.

According to Spotrac, Miami is fourth in player games lost to injury (231), with Memphis lapping the field (428) with all its ailments. Miami hasn’t had a chance to develop much continuity, with Butler having played 48 games and Tyler Herro 36, not to mention Kevin Love being out and now Josh Richardson’s season being over following shoulder surgery.

If you’re betting on Miami, you’re looking at an Eastern Conference that doesn’t feel so formidable at the top aside from Boston, and we all know Miami doesn’t fear that matchup. Every other contender feels vulnerable, but then again, so does Miami, which has dropped all three games to the Celtics so far this season in noncompetitive fashion. Escaping the Play-In has been troublesome, as the Heat are clustered with the Joel Embiid-less 76ers and sputtering Pacers in the battle for sixth — which could be a matchup with the third-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round (Miami defeated Cleveland Wednesday night).

The Heat don’t take a lot of 3s (21st in attempts), but are 12th in efficiency, which could equally explain their inconsistencies but also their confidence in playoff scenarios. Adebayo compared it to football when the weather changes, “you ain’t trying flea-flickers,” he joked. But he pointed out it takes a lot of energy to keep putting up long-range shots in the postseason, especially when you factor in the added physicality.

“We play possession basketball,” Adebayo said. “The amount of error is shrunk. You can’t go out there shooting all those 3s. I feel like we’re built for the playoffs.”

This isn’t the ideal situation for Spoelstra or the Heat. Spoelstra is stuck in the realism of it but doesn’t lack confidence things can come together at the right time.

“It’s certainly not a crutch,” Spoelstra told Yahoo Sports. “We didn’t approach the season like, yeah we can finish in seventh or eighth and still do our work. That’s a discredit to the teams that have beaten us. We’ve had to work through things this season. And things we’ve gone through this year, gives us opportunity for growth.

“The painful lessons, the harsh realities, during the season, I think it’s made us better.”

Of all the Play-In teams, there are paths for the teams with championship pedigrees, but it would require a Houdini job from the sidelines for it to happen. Spoelstra seems like the one who should inspire the most confidence.

Is there another Play-In team that could challenge in the first round?

Shockingly, it’s not the Los Angeles Lakers or Golden State Warriors, who feel like food if they make it out of the Play-In — there are too many bad losses, too much inconsistency, too much ignoring of what we see in 82 games to simply believe LeBron James and Stephen Curry can achieve the impossible.

However, the Dallas Mavericks present an interesting challenge. It’s hard to name their fourth-best player, but as evidenced by their recent nationally televised win over the champion Nuggets Sunday afternoon, they have something very few teams can counter: two perimeter players who are supreme late-game shot creators in Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving.

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, left, and Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving, right, celebrate their win over the San Antonio Spurs in an NBA basketball game in San Antonio, Tuesday, March 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving make Dallas a tough first-round opponent. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Even if you’d call Irving’s left-handed running 20-footer lucky, consider the fact he’s the one defenses have to be comfortable with having the ball in late possessions because Dončić is just as potent.

The numbers say that should be in reverse: Irving is 20-for-34 in the clutch, per and Dončić is 20-for-43, with both being 40 percent 3-point shooters in the same span. Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan are far and away the best clutch performers in the league by the stats, but neither has a teammate who produces equally, so it becomes a make-or-miss proposition. We’ve seen what Dončić and Irving have done in the playoffs previously, and they won’t be awed if they’ll have to walk into Oklahoma City or Minnesota to start a series.

Of course OKC and Minnesota are better clubs, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Anthony Edwards not being slouches in their own right late in games. But Dallas could feel mighty confident themselves in the last four minutes, with Jason Kidd likely telling his team “just keep it close for 40 minutes.”

And then the fun begins.

Other than the Celtics running away with the East, no playoff seeding is truly set, so we can’t really project a first-round series yet, right?

Maybe not, unless you look in the dead center of the Western Conference, with the surging New Orleans Pelicans and sputtering Los Angeles Clippers. For maybe a day, if that, the Clippers were atop the West. Kawhi Leonard signed his contract extension, more plans for the upcoming Intuit Dome were laid out and it seemed the sun was finally shining on this dog’s behind for just a little while.

They were right in the dogfight with Oklahoma City, Denver and Minnesota for the top spot, but have since gone 9-10 after Feb 5. Russell Westbrook’s injury has derailed the second unit — the player who changes tempo, helps out on the glass and just does things is no longer doing things. That, along with other factors and maybe March malaise, have put the Clippers in the tricky 4-5 hole against the Pelicans.

The last time we truly paid attention to the Pelicans was in December at the In-Season Tournament (remember that thing?), when they seemingly embarrassed themselves and all the talk began about Zion Williamson’s weight — yet again.

But in the quiet of the season, they’ve found their way. They’re 16-5 since Jan. 31, with two wins over the Clippers in that span. They’re energetic, springy (go watch Herb Jones’ leaping block of Paul George’s 3-pointer from last Friday as evidence) and Williamson looks, shall we say, spry?

Since the All-Star break, Williamson has averaged 24-7-6 and even took on the Leonard matchup late in the Clippers game.

Brandon Ingram is taking fewer shots but competing on the other end while still being a threat to score 40 on any given night.

Things can change, because they always do, but this feels like a collision course of young against old, desperate against determined — and those always make for compelling playoff series.