It’s been a long haul, even in this abbreviated 66-game NBA regular season, but the playoffs are just around the corner. So who wins the NBA title? The most talented team? The luckiest? The favorites?
We all know the favorites don’t waltz to the NBA finals. We watched tiny Butler, a fifth seed in 2010 and a No. 8 seed in 2011, advance to the NCAA Championship game twice. A year ago the Dallas Mavericks were the No. 4 seed in the West, then knocked off everyone on the way to a surprising title.
There’s another factor that stands out, best summed up in a famous quote:
"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again.
"Because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
The speaker? Not a famous coach, but Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. The quote was from his speech "Citizenship in a Republic," but the hard work he was describing about the man "In the Arena" could apply to any NBA star pulling on sneakers and battling for the right to advance to the championship over the next two months.
It takes teamwork and effort, lots of effort, to hoist the crown at the end of a long season. In 2004 and 2008 the Lakers appeared to be the most talented team in the NBA Finals, favored each time, but were knocked around by the hard working Pistons and Celtics, both of whom really earned their rings.
Bulls: Chicago has been a workhorse behind a sparkplug guard in 23-year old Derrick Rose (22.8 ppg) who runs the offense. There is a lot of young talent for second-year coach Tom Thibodeau, who stresses defense. Combined with the best road record in the NBA, the Bulls have a shot at their first NBA Finals since 1998.
Chicago is No. 1 in the NBA in rebounds, led by Joakim Noah and hard working Carlos Boozer, plus No. 2 in the league in points allowed. The key for the stretch run is to get Rose and Richard Hamilton healthy.
Heat: Miami is dominant and the team to beat, although LeBron still carries the albatross around his neck after predicting winning six or seven titles, but they will be a playoff force again. The Heat is not lacking for star power with the 27-year-old James (26.5 ppg, 8 rpg, 6.5 apg), 30-year-old Dwyane Wade (22.8 ppg) and 28-year-old Chris Bosh (18 ppg, 7.8 rpg).
There are very good role players in Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers. After opening the season with an attacking offensive style we didn’t see last year (fourth in the NBA in points scored), Miami has focused on defense since the All-Star break and is seventh in the league in points allowed. Miami is 3-8 ATS in the last 11 against a team with a winning record, 17-4 UNDER on one day’s rest and 21-7 OVER in the last 28 games following a loss of more than 10 points.
Magic: Orlando flopped in the Finals in 2009 and in the 2010 playoffs despite home court against the Celtics. This year’s club has quietly made its way into the No. 3 slot in the East despite a tumultuous season of big flops against good teams and dealing with the Dwight Howard trade talk, which has finally been put to rest.
Orlando is a strong defensive team, fourth in the NBA in points allowed, 11th in rebounds. The 26-year-old Howard (21 ppg, 14.5 rpg) leads the way, with help from 23-year-old 6-10 Ryan Anderson (16 ppg, 7.5 rpg) up front, PG Jameer Nelson (11 ppg, 5.3 apg), Jason Richardson, veteran Hedo Turkoglu and newcomer Glen Davis. They are not a great road team, just 2-9 ATS in their last 11. They are the worst free throw shooting team in the NBA, which will hurt during close games.
Celtics: What to make of the aging Celtics? This team won the title four years ago and played Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 2010. Despite trade rumors, GM Danny Ainge couldn’t get comparable value so he stayed with the old warriors. The talent is there, with 34-year-old Paul Pierce (19 ppg), 36-year-old Ray Allen (14.6 ppg), 35-year-old Kevin Garnett (15.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Rajon Rondo (12.4 ppg, 11 apg).
The depth is thin and they are a soft rebounding team (30th) for the second year in a row. The Celtics are 17-7-1 ATS in the last 25 games playing on two days rest and on a 9-3-1 OVER run at home.
(Next week: The best of the West, the conference that has won 10 of the last 13 NBA titles.)