Heat, Pistons collide while going in opposite directions

The Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons met in a memorable conference final a year ago, with the outcome not decided until the final minute of Game 7. This year, they're once again the class of the East, and the long-expected showdown between the two clubs has finally come to fruition.

Despite the differences in the two teams' records, this series should once again be a tooth-and-nail affair. You might not think that in looking at Detroit's 64-18 mark on the season and comparing it to Miami's relatively unimpressive 52-30 record. But break down each team's season and you'll see a very different pattern. The difference between the two clubs came in the first 41 games, when Detroit went 36-5 while Miami went 24-17.

But in the second half of the season, there was no difference -- each went 28-13. And in the postseason, Miami is a half-game better, with an 8-3 mark against Detroit's 8-4.

So the question is: What information is most important when evaluating the two teams?

The obvious answer is that the more recent the result, the heavier the weight we should give it.

This is especially true in the case of the Heat, because the team underwent so many changes in the offseason, and changed coaches a quarter of the way through the season. Miami's lineup had some well-chronicled difficulties in coming together as a unit, but in the second half and the postseason it seems to have finally jelled. Basically, the Heat's results from November are almost irrelevant, because that was a very different team than the one taking the floor tonight.

Meanwhile, Detroit seems to be moving in the opposite direction. The Pistons won 35 of their first 40 games behind one of the league's most improved offenses, but they haven't sustained that performance since midseason. In particular, Detroit's offense looked so tentative and unimaginative in its entirely too-close series against Cleveland that some wondered if Rick Carlisle had snuck into the locker room and reinstalled his playbook.

There's also the historical angle. Heat fans are quick to point out that they seemed well on their way to a series win last season before Dwyane Wade pulled a muscle in his rib cage late in Game 5. With Wade out for Game 6 and still very limited in the finale, Miami had trouble mustering any offense and fell short both times.

This time, both teams enter the series as close to full health as any club can reasonably expect at this time of year, so injuries aren't a factor … so far, at least. But some other areas look to be major issues, so before I get into the predictions business, we need to closely examine them. And this time, they're so big that I've expanded my normal "four questions" format to include six.

Let's take a closer look: