A victory in Game 3 not only gave the Heat the advantage in the series, but also restored home-court advantage. It also marked its final victory of the season.
Anything short of the second championship in franchise history will be viewed as a colossal failure.
Orlando has to deal with the constant chatter about Dwight Howard asking to be traded during the final year of his contract. If the pre-season opener was any indication, the Magic are in for a long year.
The Hawks are trapped, talented enough to compete for home court advantage in the Eastern Conference, not successful enough to make a run to the Finals and unable to rebuild through the draft. There could be significant changes made in Atlanta.
Charlotte will have a difficult time avoiding the draft lottery, especially after trading their top two players last season.
Washington is hoping to send its first representative to the All-Star Game since 2008 and their sophomore point guard has the talent to earn a nomination.
Even with all of the raised expectations, every team in the league elevating their play and tons of media pressure, the Heat performed well.
Miami won 58 games, averaged 102.1 points, surrendered just 94.6 points per game and posted three separate winning streaks of at least eight games.
The Heat lost just one game in each of its first three playoff series, but couldn’t eliminate Dallas when it had the opportunity.
The rest of the series was marred by its inability to close out games in the fourth quarter and culminated in a Game 6 loss in Dallas.
The Heat spent it off-season retooling for another championship run. Shane Battier adds much needed depth to the bench, while the stars have refined their game.
Miami spent its summer trying to fulfill its championship destiny, the rest of the league will do everything it can to once again derail their path to the title.
Smart Move: By signing Battier, the Heat brought in a player capable of filling in for James or Wade, one of the toughest perimeter defenders in the game and stability to their clubhouse. With Battier on the floor, Miami will have someone to not panic when things start to fall apart.
Questionable Move: The Heat struggled at the center and made no effort to sign a free agent to play behind Joel Anthony. Both Eddy Curry and Dexter Pittman have struggled with their weight and can’t be counted on to make a significant contribution.
Watch Out For: A different fourth quarter dynamic. Bosh was the only player to hit a game winner for Miami last season in the Finals. Wade is the most effective player in crunch time and should command the ball.
The Hawks have made the leap from perennial lottery team to playoff contender.
Now, they need to take the next step.
Last season the team was able to avenge its playoff loss to Orlando by dropping the Magic in six games, but didn’t have the pieces to compete with Chicago.
The Eastern Conference has elite franchises at the top, with Atlanta a clear step below.
They are unable to land any premier free agents and are playing well enough to avoid the lottery.
Stuck in between rebuilding mode and championship contention, a roster shake up is necessary.
Smart Move: On the first day of free agency, Atlanta announced it signed Tracy McGrady for the league minimum. In need of a scoring impact off the bench, the Hawks added a former scoring champion for the league minimum.
Questionable Move: The signing of McGrady was necessary because the club didn’t do anything to retain Jamal Crawford. The Hawks let go the one player that picked up the scoring slack as Johnson struggled.
Watch Out For: After three years on the bench, point guard Jeff Teague was inserted into the lineup and produced three 21 point efforts against Chicago in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
Orlando is facing an impossible situation.
Its only star player and the most dominant center in the game has asked to be traded. The only problem is, there is no suitable deal that can be made for Dwight Howard.
The Nets are offering their center and a package of draft picks, but those selections will immediately lose value after the Howard turns New Jersey into a contender.
The Magic have already been spurned by the departure of a dominant center and didn’t fully recover until landing Howard with the first overall pick in 2004.
Facing a no-win situation, the Magic are going to struggle to find victories, even with Howard on the floor.
Smart Move: By retaining Jason Richardson, the Magic not only bolstered their back court, but prevented any contending team from getting stronger by signing the free agent shooting guard.
Questionable Move: A Brandon Bass for Glen Davis trade makes sense, the only question is why did the Magic wait so long. Davis was a restricted free agent last summer, could have bid on him and weakened Boston in the process.
Watch Out For: The big trade. The likelihood of Howard staying in Orlando beyond this season is slim and letting him just walk away would be a devastating blow to the franchise.
Perhaps no player was busier this extended off-season than Washington point guard John Wall.
In high demand for every summer league showcase, Wall spent the summer touring around the country, displaying his lightning quick speed and an improved jump shot.
The runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting, Washington basically turned its franchise over to him and expected him to develop quickly.
All Wall did was average 16.4 points, 8.3 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. While the basics look impressive, there is much room for improvement.
Wall averaged 3.8 turnovers per game, often rushing the offense, shot just 40.9% from the field and struggled from three-point range, connecting on 29.6% of his attempts from long range.
Washington needs Wall to play at an All-Star level if it hopes to end a three-year playoff drought.
Smart Move: By retaining the contract of Rashard Lewis, the second highest paid player in the league, Washington wasn’t forced to make up his $22.1 million with more bad contacts. Each team is required to spend at least $49 million each season and the Wizards would have been at $33 without him. The free agent class of 2012 is loaded and it was wise to retain his contract for one more year, hoping for any production.
Questionable Move: Flip Saunders has won just 49 games in two seasons at the helm in Washington. The Wizards have been undisciplined and experienced one of the craziest situations in league history under his guidance. If the Wizards continue to struggle, a coaching change may be necessary.
Watch Out For: One of the final players to agree to a contact, Nick Young returns to Washington. With eight games over 30 points last season, the team will count on him to finish passes from Wall.
With so much needed to improve the team, Charlotte had to start making moves.
Not one player on the roster has been selected to an All Star Game, every projected starter averaged less than 15 points per game a year ago and a lottery draft pick was used to select a player described on draft night as “The problem … he cannot score. You cannot run any plays for him.”
The question all season for Charlotte is where are the points going to come from?
Smart Move: Landing Kemba Walker with the ninth overall pick provides Charlotte with its point guard of the future. Not only did he lead his team to the NCAA title last season, he proved he was comfortable on the biggest stages.
Questionable Move: The addition of Corey Maggette was an attempt to recover some of the scoring punch it lost last season, but revamping the offense to make him the focal point is a mistake.
Watch Out For: The Bobcats need Gerald Henderson to have a breakout season. He has shown flashes, like his 32 point, five rebound, four assist effort against Orlando last season, but he has to score on a consistent basis.