(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two part series highlighting the best teams in the National Basketball Association. Next week: the Western Conference).
It’s been a long haul, this NBA regular season, but the playoffs are just around the corner. So who wins the title? We all know the favorites don’t waltz to the Finals.
Last year eventual champion Cleveland won its first 10 playoff games, but that’s not the norm. Golden State, the defending champ, had that record-setting regular season, then started 9-5 straight up in the playoffs, even falling behind Oklahoma City three-games-to-one.
Three years ago San Antonio had to go seven games with Dallas in the first round, then six with Oklahoma City. Four years ago Miami needed to go seven with Indiana to get there, then had to pull off a miracle in Game 6 to stun the Spurs.
Five years ago San Antonio was a No. 1 seed and up 2-0 on the young Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. Then, Oklahoma City won five in a row to take a 1-0 lead in the Finals. Miami went on to take four in a row to shell-shock young OKC.
It takes teamwork and lots of effort to hoist the crown at the end of a long season.
Cleveland exemplified teamwork a year ago on the way to winning the title and the Spurs have done it multiple times. The West has won 12 of the last 18 NBA titles.
Now for the best to challenge the West.
The defending champs excelled much of the season, but hit a rough patch down the stretch after losing Kevin Love, and his return hasn’t stabilized things. The biggest concern has been serious defensive lapses, ranking in the Bottom 12 in points allowed and in the middle of the pack in field goal shooting defense. Those are flaws that could be exposed in the postseason.
Still, any team is a threat with 32-year-old LeBron James (26 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 8.7 apg) and 25-year-old Kyrie Irving (25 ppg), a dynamic one-two offensive punch. Love at 28 (19 ppg, 10 rpg) is still a force and the Cavs have very good role players like Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith.
Have to give the nod to the champs in the Eastern Conference until someone can dethrone them before the NBA Finals.
General Manager Danny Ainge has already built one championship team in Boston (2008) and another that went to Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. He has been patiently building another strong team that does a lot of things well.
Guard Isaiah Thomas (29 ppg) is a sparkplug that runs the up-tempo attack, but they also play good defense for Coach Brad Stevens (No. 14 in points allowed, 10 in field goal defense).
The Celtics are also second to Golden State in three-point defense. It’s a guard-oriented lineup behind Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart, while newcomer Al Horford (14 ppg, 7 rpg) added some much-needed physical frontcourt muscle. They were 1-2 against the Cavs during the regular season.
If this team from the Windy City could ever get healthy… Even banged up they’ve been a force in the East. The offense has improved from a year ago but the heart and soul of this team remains defense and rebounding.
The defense is again Top 10 in field goal shooting allowed, a necessity in April. That defense helps on the road: The Bulls are 20-8 “under” the total on the road against a team with a winning home record.
Toronto is a fascinating team, hoping to get guard Kyle Lowry back for the playoffs. They’ve weathered his injury to stay in the thick of the East with great balance (top 10 in points scored and allowed). DeMar DeRozan (27 ppg) has shouldered the offensive load while 6-10 Serge Ibaka has added defensive prowess under the glass despite missing much of the season.
Young Washington is a tough matchup with a deadly offense, led by lightning-quick John Wall and sharp-shooting Bradley Beal. They can be a handful for teams that lack quality backcourt defense. However, Washington has several weak areas that can’t be overlooked come playoff time – youth, a below-average defense and struggles on the road. That last point can’t be overlooked for a team that is not the No. 1 seed.