The NBA is different from other sports. Talent and playoff experience, not momentum, tend to produce winning results in these physical, grueling seven-game playoff series.
Only one true long shot, 6 seed Houston, has won a title in the last 30 years. The Rockets were the defending champs at the time; not a true longshot. When 3 seed Dallas won the title last year, it was considered a major shocker.
Bottom line: The best NBA teams in the regular season tend to be the same in the postseason, as long as they stay healthy.
Looking ahead to the 2012 NBA playoffs starting this weekend, there doesn’t appear to be a glut of legitimate title contenders. There are a handful of good teams theoretically capable of winning a playoff series or two – teams like the Grizzlies, Pacers and Clippers.
A couple of long shots with some potential to pull off a first round upset are the Knicks, Mavericks and Hawks. But the reality of the NBA tells us clearly that there are no more than six teams capable of winning four consecutive playoff series over the next two months.
Those six teams are easy to identify. The top three seeds (currently) in the West – San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the LA Lakers along with the 1, 2 and 4 in the East (Miami, Chicago and Boston).
Sorry, Indiana. The Pacers are a 3 seed, but winning titles is about superstars, playoff experience and clutch crunch-time scorers. They are on the short end of the stick in all three categories.
I’m sure they’ll be a handful of folks who consider Memphis, the LA Clippers and Dallas as live long shots in the West. Back in the East, only the Knicks appear to have enough talent to make an extended run into June. Still there are flaws in these longshots.
The Knicks don’t rebound and have precious little team chemistry, with their rebuilt roster still learning the nuances of playing with one another.
The Clippers don’t hit free throws (second to last in the NBA), and are probably the worst coached team of the bunch; unable to make effective in-game adjustments.
Dallas has struggled on the boards and with their low post defense all year without Tyson Chandler, and their offensive efficiency is a shell of what it was during their run to the title last Spring.
Memphis has struggled with consistency. A single playoff series upset win last year does not make them primed for a title run this year.
Now, let’s take a brief look at the six teams I think are live to win it all. The teams are listed in alphabetical order.
The Celtics have won a title and reached the Finals twice with their current core of veteran stars. Doc Rivers’ squad looked nothing short of old for the first half of the season, entering the All Star break with a 15-17 SU record. That record shouldn’t have been a major surprise.
This year’s regular season is a battle of endurance as much as anything else, and an aging team like the Celtics weren’t built for back-to-back-to-backs or brutal six games in eight nights stretches. But the playoffs are a very different animal compared to the regular season – not an endurance test.
Boston is playing championship caliber defense. Kevin Garnett seems revitalized in recent weeks. Rajon Rondo remains the most under-rated point guard in the league. Paul Pierce has proven capable of carrying the team’s offense for extended stretches.
With role players like Avery Bradley and Greg Stiemsma stepping up down the stretch, Doc Rivers has the depth to withstand some injury concerns as the postseason begins.
The Bulls have the best record in the league as I pen this column, winning games at a 75% clip for the full season, despite the extended absence of their lone superstar, point guard Derrick Rose. Rose has missed 26 games so far this season with a variety of issues: toe, ankle, groin and back injuries.
Rose has played only four games in the last five weeks and has not been the electric scorer and distributor that Chicago needs to win a title. That lack of playing time for Rose is a double edged sword. If he’s healthy for the postseason, he’ll certainly be fresher than his opponents, potentially giving Chicago a major edge. But if all of that missed playing time seriously affects the Bulls on court chemistry; Chicago could be looking at a relatively early playoff exit.
The frontcourt duo of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer pull a disappearing act in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. They’ll need to play better this time around for Chicago to win the title.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
After more than a decade running Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, there was a significant and sometimes ugly transition to Mike Brown’s more traditional offensive sets. No surprise, LA got off to a mediocre start, just 11-9 SU in their first 20 games.
LA also spent more than a month after the All Star break in a pointspread freefall, at one point failing to cover the spread in 16 of 17 games as a favorite.
Their frontcourt has the potential to be dominant when Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol both play up to their potential. Kobe Bryant took a much needed rest to recover from his ‘shin injury’, leaving him relatively fresh for the playoffs.
But the key to LA’s title chances may lie with point guard Ramon Sessions ability to defend other quick point guards; a consistent problem for this team in recent seasons.
There’s really only one question to ask about the Heat: Are they any better than last year? Miami has played mediocre basketball since the All Star break, just 13-10 SU in their next 23 games, blowing the homecourt advantage for the playoffs in the process.
Their roster heading into the playoffs is very similar to their roster last year, with the relatively minor additions of role players like Shane Battier, Norris Cole and Ronny Turiaf. The Heat are the team to beat in my opinion, but, frankly, they are just as vulnerable to a shocking upset as last year’s squad if their stars can’t execute with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
The Thunder look really good both on paper and on the floor. They’ve got a pair of superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, both of who have been nothing short of fantastic in the latter stages of tight games. The Thunder have two dominant interior defenders in Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
They’ve got the best scorer off the bench in the league, James Harden. OKC reached the Western Conference Finals last year – they’ve got playoff experience. OKC is a Top 5 team in three key categories: rebounding margin, offensive efficiency and defensive field goal percentage allowed.
But Durant and Westbrook rank 2 and 3 in the NBA in turnovers, behind only Washington’s John Wall, and Westbrook’s propensity for ball hogging and bad shots from last year’s playoff run could be an issue again in 2012.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Of all the elite level title contenders, the Spurs appear to be the most overlooked. Despite their dominating record, for a good portion of the season while the Heat, Bulls and Thunder were all in the 2-1 or 3-1 range to win the title, San Antonio was sitting out there in the 12-1 range for months!
Tim Duncan is no longer a superstar, but both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili still have plenty left in the tank. Head coach Greg Popovich has four titles under his belt, and his ability to coax consistent production out of numerous role players should earn him his first ‘NBA Coach of the Year’ award since 2003.
If Matt Bonner, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson can produce the way they did in the regular season, the Spurs have the potential to earn a fifth title in the Duncan/Popovich era.