At this point in the season, the Miami Heat must be considered as the odds-on favorites to walk away with the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.
|Photo by: Mike Ehrmann|
In the midst of their 24-game winning streak, Miami is beating teams by an impressive average of 10.9 points per contest. Still, in a 7-game series, I'm giving these clubs a fighter's chance to upset the Heat.
- Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder lead the NBA in scoring at 106.7 points per game, and despite losing James Harden in a trade back in November, they remain in the race for the No. 1 seed in the West. Against Miami, the Thunder will have to score more in the paint and take fewer jump shots, something they failed to do in last year's Finals. Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison are the keys in a series against the Heat. They have to rebound very effectively and they have to give OKC some scoring in order for them to have a chance. You know what you're going to get from Kevin Durant, but Russell Westbrook has to be better at balancing when to be patient and when to be aggressive. Westbrook shot just 35.4% from the floor in the 4 losses in last year's Finals. He has to improve on that if the two teams meet again.
- Indiana Pacers
The Pacers have given Miami fits this season (winning 2 of 3 games) in part because of their physical front line. When healthy, David West, Roy Hibbert and Danny Granger form one of the best frontcourts in the league. The problem is they have gotten uneven performances from Hibbert, and Granger has not stayed healthy. Hibbert will be the key in a series with the Heat. He has struggled this season, shooting only 42.8%, which is just absolutely inexcusable for a center. The Pacers have the experience of last year's playoff run in that they know they can hang with Miami. Indiana is currently in the second spot in the East, which could set up a showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pacers certainly have enough depth and size to challenge the Heat, but is it enough to win a series against them?
- San Antonio Spurs
The more things change, the more things stay the same for the Spurs, who are again on top in the West, despite not having Tony Parker for the last several weeks. The brilliance of Tim Duncan continues. He is averaging 17 and 10 with 3 assists a game and he is in the top 5 in the league in blocks. The continued emergence of Kawhi Leonard has also boosted San Antonio when they have had injuries to Parker or Duncan. Tiago Splitter would need to play a key role in a series with Miami because of his ability to rebound and challenge shots. Splitter has also been solid at finishing around the rim, currently ranking third in the NBA in field goal percentage (58.4%). The Spurs have the experience and talent, but will the athleticism of the Heat overwhelm them in a playoff series?
- Memphis Grizzlies
Probably the most far fetched of the teams I've named because of their difficult path through the West, but trust me, the Grizzlies match up very well with Miami. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol would create serious problems for the Heat, who are last in the league in rebounding. Defense is the name of the game for Memphis. They are tops in the league in scoring defense, tied for fourth in the league in steals, and are fifth overall in turnovers forced. Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince are above average defenders who can make LeBron James and Dwyane Wade work harder for their shots. The ultimate problem for the Grizzlies is getting enough easy points in transition to balance what Miami is getting. Memphis averages just 93.5 points per game. That number would have to improve significantly if they want to win a series against the Heat.