By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NBA Editor
Miami Heat : 2nd Seed, East (54-28)
Charlotte Bobcats: 7th Seed, East (43-39)
(SportsNetwork.com) - Will there be a three-peat champion in the NBA?
The No .2 Miami Heat hope so when the two-time defending champions enter the playoffs for a sixth straight season with a first-round matchup against the Southeast Division-rival and seventh-seeded Charlotte Bobcats.
Miami has made the playoffs 10 times in the last 11 years and earned the second seed in the Eastern Conference with a 54-28 record. Miami has won four straight Southeast titles and is trying to become the first three-time champion since the Los Angeles Lakers from 1999-00 to 2001-02.
The Heat have won at least 14 games in each of their last three postseason appearances and look to make quick work of the Bobcats in the conference quarterfinals. The series tips off Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena, where the Heat went 32-9 this season with a 21-5 mark against teams from the East.
The Heat swept all four games against the Bobcats in the regular season and are undefeated in the past 16 games between the teams. Charlotte has lost nine straight and 12 of its last 13 trips to South Beach. Miami, which shot a franchise-best 50.1 percent from the field, has gone 27-5 in divisional games the last two seasons with a 16-0 record at home.
Miami is 29-10 all-time against Charlotte.
The end of the regular season was a rough one for the Heat, as they lost three straight and six of eight games. But that shouldn't matter because the Heat have plenty of postseason experience and arguably the best player in the game in LeBron James. James rested the last two games and averaged 27.1 points this season, good enough for third in the NBA. In four games against the Bobcats, James posted an average of 37.8 ppg.
James shot a career-best 56.7 percent this season and led the Heat in scoring 55 times. He is clearly the one to watch again this postseason and averaged 31.3 points in his last eight games.
Of course, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are Miami's other two superstars. Wade missed nine games with an injury and participated in Miami's last three games of the season to get some work in. He said he was getting better each game and needed the work with a lot of basketball left. Wade was glad he was able to get some action before the playoffs and talked about the upcoming series.
"It's always close games when we play them. The team competes very hard," Wade said of the Bobcats. "They're comfortable in their game. They have a great 1-2 punch with Kemba (Walker) and Big Al (Jefferson). They have a great system and all of them are involved. We gotta come with out hard hats on, We gotta stay focused throughout and Sunday will be an important game for us to try to get Game 1 on out home floor. It's going to be a challenge for both sides."
Charlotte is in the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history and was swept in four games by the Orlando Magic back 2009-10.
The Bobcats surprised the NBA world with just the second record .500 or better in team lore at 43-39, one season after going 21-61 and compiling only 28 wins in the previous two years. What was the difference this season? That would be the offseason addition of Jefferson.
Jefferson averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds for the Bobcats, who were 20-9 after the All-Star break and ended with 14 wins in the last 19 games of the regular season. Jefferson was the only player in the Eastern Conference and one of only five players in the NBA averaging at least 20.0 points and 10.0 rebounds on the season.
The other part of the 1-2 punch Wade was referring to is Walker. Wade said the two players will be a challenge to the Miami defense, especially the quick Walker, who can find the tightest hole to squeeze through and score. Walker scored 17.6 points and handed out 7.9 assists in his last 14 games and is confident with his team heading into the playoffs.
"It's great to have a winning season, especially because I don't think anybody expected us to be in the situation that we are," Walker said. "We just proved all the doubters wrong. We worked really hard to get to this point and I think we deserve it a lot. I'm excited with this group of guys."
Walker than shifted focus to the Southeast-rival Heat.
"It's going to be a challenge, of course, but it's the playoffs, anything can happen," Walker said. "We're going to give it our best shot and I'm looking forward to it. It's not going to be easy. We're going to give it all we got."
The Bobcats haven't been in this situation before as a playoff team, but Walker said the team will lock in and study the Heat. Being the underdog doesn't matter to Walker either.
"We usually do hang tough with those guys," Walker said. "I think as long as we hang tough with them we'll give ourselves a chance to win."
BACKCOURT: Wade is the veteran of the backcourt matchup and was happy to ease himself back into the groove at the end of the regular season. He was able to get different looks from three different teams and also work on his repertoire of posting up, driving the lane and pulling up for jumpers. Wade said the training staff did a good job with his knee issues and hopes to play often during these playoffs. He may be a bit slower, but is still wise in his years. Walker is Charlotte's top guard and present problems for Erik Spoelstra's Miami defense. Walker comes into the series confident about himself and the Bobcats. He posted 17.7 ppg this season and averaged 15.5 ppg against Miami.
Mario Chalmers will team up with Wade and Walker's backcourt sidekick is Gerald Henderson, who was third on Charlotte with 14.0 ppg. The two are pretty much a wash when it comes to producing, but Chalmers has better options.
FRONTCOURT: Jefferson was a breath of fresh air for the Bobcats, who welcomed the veteran big man with open arms. He will get his against the Heat and averaged 25.3 points and 15.3 rebounds in three games against them this season. Jefferson matches up well with Heat center Chris Bosh and actually has the advantage with his back-to-the-basket approach. Look for Jefferson to post double-doubles in each game. Bosh is still talented and gives the Heat options from both inside and out. He has extraordinary range for a big man and made a single-season career-high 74 3-point field goals this season. Bosh won't have his way against Jefferson inside. Miami's Udonis Haslem and Josh McRoberts of the Bobcats will clash at the four spots.
James is a future Hall of Famer and will once again be under the NBA spotlight. Will he take the final shot or dish it off when the time comes? That's anybody's guess at this point, but James will surely do enough damage within 48 minutes of action. James had a brilliant season shooting the ball and strikes fear into any opposing coach. Don't feel too bad for Charlotte forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He will have the challenge of stopping James and not too many can anyway in the NBA. MKG isn't much of an offensive threat and averaged 7.2 points and 5.2 rebounds this season.
BENCH: Not too many teams have Hall of Famers coming off the bench and the Heat are fortunate Ray Allen is on theirs. Allen, of course, made a huge 3- pointer in Game 6 of last year's NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs and is one of the purest shooters to ever step on the hardwood. He scored in double digits 79 times off the bench this season. The Heat have big men Michael Beasley, Shane Battier, Greg Oden and Chris Andersen as reserves, while Norris Cole is the top guard off the bench.
Bobcats guard Gary Neal scored 10 or more points in 15 of his 22 games since joining the Bobcats in late February and averaged 11.2 points. Neal is a dangerous free throw shooter, too, and was fortunate to gain plenty of postseason experience having played three seasons with the Spurs. Cody Zeller and Chris Douglas-Roberts will spell the starters in the frontcourt.
COACHING: Bobcats first-year coach Steve Clifford is a candidate for the Coach of the Year after his turnaround of the franchise. He certainly made Michael Jordan a proud owner. Clifford brought over his defensive philosophy from years as an assistant with the Lakers, Rockets, Magic and Knicks, and it showed this season. The Bobcats allowed 97.1 ppg, one year after opposing teams scored 102.7 ppg. They gave up the fewest fast-break points (10.2) and the fourth-fewest points in the paint (38.9). Charlotte held 53 of its 82 opponents under 100 points, but the Heat averaged 102.2.
Spoelstra cracked the 300-win mark as Heat head coach in February and probably has the luckiest and easiest job in the NBA for how stacked Miami is. The team is getting older by the year and this could be the final season of its utter dominance of the league for teams such as Indiana, Toronto and Chicago are on the rise. Spoelstra's 314 wins are second behind Pat Riley's 454 victories. He currently has a .660 winning percentage in the regular season. It will take a while for Clifford to get there, but maybe some day. Miami is 179-59 at home since Spoelstra took over.
PREDICTION: The Heat were lucky to draw such a familiar foe for their first- round opponent and will make Charlotte's second postseason appearance in franchise history one to remember. The Heat should sweep the series, but it wouldn't be a shock if the Bobcats manage to take one at home. They did win 14 of the last 16 games at Time Warner Cable Arena thanks to the 1-2 punch of Walker and Jefferson. But this series will be another LeBron James show as Miami awaits its next opponent in the quest of a rare three-peat.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: HEAT in FOUR
04/18 13:38:20 ET