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April 26, 2012
Playoff Sleepers

by Bradford Doolittle


Landing the top seed in the NBA playoffs assures you of homecourt advantage all the way through your conference bracket. It does not, however, mark you as the favorite to make the Finals. Strange as it seems, the consensus favorite in both conferences are the two-seeds.

In the East, the Heat topped Chicago as the most popular choice, and was tabbed as this year's favorite to win it all. The Bulls ultimately finished with the conference's best record and point differential, as they did last year. Nevertheless, not much has changed since the preseason. Miami is the consensus pick to repeat as Eastern Conference champions. With that in mind and with the help of the NBA Stats Cube, let's look at one player from each of Miami's potential three opponents who could demolish the sand castles on South Beach.

C: Omer Asik, Chicago Bulls
The Bulls' will need a little something from everyone in their frontcourt to beat Miami. They need Joakim Noah's energy on the offensive glass and ability to run the floor. They need Carlos Boozer to be a presence in the post and to be consistent with his face-up jumper. They need Taj Gibson's energy and defensive versatility. But perhaps more than any of these things, Chicago needs Omer Asik to play well enough offensively to stay on the court for 20 minutes or so per game. If he does that, the Heat's offensive efficiency is in serious trouble.

In four games against Chicago in the regular season, Miami outscored the Bulls by 9.8 points per 100 possessions with Asik on the bench. They scored 1.03 points per possession and put up a solid true shooting percentage of .540. However, during the 54 minutes Asik played against the Heat this season, Miami was outscored by a whopping 33.1 points per 100 possessions. That's not a misprint. The Heat scored just .82 points per possession on a woeful true shooting percentage of .411.

When Asik was on the court, Miami shot 29 percent in the restricted area, versus 61 percent when he was out of the game. That, my friends, is basket protection. Now, these numbers are a bit misleading in that Asik often plays with the Bulls' highly-effective second unit, and does so against Miami's shaky second unit. However, if you look at just four-quarter stats -- and remember, all those games were close -- the Heat were 15 for 29 in the paint with Asik on the bench; with him on the court, Miami was just 3 of 9.

C: Louis Amundson, Indiana Pacers
You can see the scenario already: The Heat roll past the Knicks in a first-round mismatch, while the Bulls are on the other side of the bracket struggling to dispatch the 76ers. Then the second round starts and while Chicago scrambles to get it's rusty rotation in perfect working order, Indiana is all but overlooked as Miami's second-round fodder. That would be a mistake. The Pacers have a deep, versatile roster, are well-coached, and in Amundson, have a secret weapon who can give Miami fits.

Amundson's effect against the Heat is similar to that of Chicago's Asik, except that whereas the Bulls were still solid defensive without Asik, that wasn't the case for the Pacers and Amundson, who only played about a third of the time against Miami in four regular season matchups. That number isn't likely to go up a great deal in the playoffs because Indiana desperately needs Roy Hibbert's post scoring. So it's essential that Amundson make an impact when he's on the floor. We've seen him have a significant effect on a playoff series before -- he was an essential part of the Phoenix bench mob that gave the Lakers fits in the 2010 Western Conference finals.

In the 151 minutes this season in which the Heat have gone against Indiana sans Amundson, they've been able to get to the basket pretty much unfettered. Over a third of their attempts have come in the restricted area, and they've converted 71 percent of those opportunities. In the 46 minutes that Amundson played, the Heat get just over a quarter of their shots at the rim, and convert only half. Overall, Miami's efficiency drops from 1.14 points per possessions with Amundson out to .86 points when he's in.

If the Pacers do their homework, and they always do, it's possible that Amundson could see key minutes down the stretch of close games, especially if Frank Vogel is able to leverage stoppages to toggle offensive and defensive configurations. If so, it would be a new wrinkle Indiana didn't show Miami during the regular season.

PF: Steve Novak, New York Knicks
The Heat handled the Knicks with relative ease in three regular season meetings, so it's tough to isolate even one New York player who had a significant positive net effect against Miami. When it comes to unearthing a Heat-killer, there is no magic bean for the Knicks. So instead, we can mine various lineup combinations to see what if, if anything, has worked. You have to assume that this mythical lineup will include Carmelo Anthony, whose strong play down the stretch have remolded the Knicks into a mono-star model similar to what he thrived in with Denver. Expect Anthony to play 40 minutes per game against Miami at a minimum.

Unfortunately, New York was abysmal against Miami with Anthony on the floor this season. The Heat outscored the Knicks by 26.5 points per 100 possessions with 'Melo on the floor, and held New York to just .74 points per possession. That said, there is one Anthony lineup that enjoyed a modicum of success, one that included Novak and J.R. Smith.

The sample is very small -- just 10 minutes -- but the configuration of Anthony, Novak, Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tyson Chandler gave the Knicks a pair of floor spacers to spread the floor and get the Miami defense scrambling. It also, presumably, gave Anthony space to work, and the Knicks posted a .597 true shooting percentage with that lineup. With Shumpert and Chandler on the floor, you're still keeping an inside-outside defensive foundation, though you're counting on Anthony to slow down LeBron James and Novak to stick with Chris Bosh.

Again, the sample is very small, so we're tilting at windmills a bit here. Still, a floor-spacing lineup at least has a hope of keeping the scoreboard turning. Against Miami, the Knicks have found few combinations that have been able to accomplish even that modest feat.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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