With the season shortened by the lockout, this NBA regular showdown has flown by. We’ve seen Jeremy Lin overtake Tim Tebow as America’s hero, Kevin Love become the undisputed best caucasian American basketball player and Dwight Howard challenge LeBron’s title as the most villainous player with his ridiculous trade request saga.
Even more exciting is how the postseason is shaping up. There are legitimately at least eight teams who have realistic hopes of winning the championship — rarely do we have even five teams who are actual contenders. Let’s take a look at how the NBA playoff picture is shaping up and profile the contenders.
At the start of the year, the Heat were the overwhelming favorites to win its first title after getting a year to jell, getting Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller back healthy and adding veteran Shane Battier; in fact, 25 of 30 experts on ESPN predicted the Heat would win the championship. Then the season started. LeBron, Wade and Bosh seem no more comfortable together than last season, the team never developed a reliable supporting cast, and seemed to have forgotten how to play on the road (5-8 in the last 13). With all that said, the Heat is still one of the most talented teams. Last year, it looked even worse heading into the playoffs and made it to the finals. You cannot discount the Heat this season either.
Its biggest competitor in the East is the Bulls as long as it has a healthy Derrick Rose, it will be scary. As opposed to last season, when Rose was Options A through H, the supporting cast has developed confidence by playing so well with Rose injured (16-7). The team will still need him for the playoffs, but its experience without him should provide great confidence in the ability to win a championship.
Out in the West, the Thunder are the nation’s sweetheart; the cute, organically grown team led by the humble, likeable superstar in Kevin Durant. The media tried to tear apart this team by manufacturing storylines to create a rift between Russell Westbrook the shot-happy point guard, and Durant, but the team has stuck together and deflected any criticisms. Speaking of Westbrook, he is playing angry this year; there is no better word to describe it. His demeanor and scowl belong to a person who just had a drink splashed in his face — pure, focused anger. As long as Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden do what they do, the Thunder will be the favorites to come out of the West.
Unlike the Thunder, the Spurs were not supposed to succeed this season at all. Everyone believed that the age and injury concerns of Duncan and Ginobili combined with the shortened schedule would make them a fringe playoff team, much less a contender. Head coach Gregg Popovich fixed this problem by plugging in young, unwanted players around them and reducing his stars’ minutes, while never skipping a beat. The fact that players like Gary Neal (undrafted), Danny Green (previously best known for giving LeBron James great pregame handshakes) and Kawhi Leonard (rookie) are playing huge minutes attests to Popovich and the Spurs’ incredible ability to scout and develop young talent. Come playoff time, if Ginobili regains his form and the young guys play like they have, the Spurs will be one of the most dangerous teams in the West.
For the Lakers, after losing Lamar Odom to retirement (Wait he played this year? Can we confirm it was him on the Mavs and not an imposter?), the Lakers were not given much of a chance, especially with Kobe’s aging knees and Bynum’s history of injuries. Amazingly, Kobe leads the NBA in minutes played, while Bynum has somehow missed just one game due to injury in this shortened season. Bynum has also developed into the clear-cut second best center in the league. With bionic Kobe, a dominant big man, and Pau Gasol still playing near an All-Star level, the Lakers have a shot at another championship, as long as Kobe is actually willing to use the talent around him.
After knocking off the Spurs last year and pushing the Thunder to seven games, the Grizzlies announced its presence to the rest of the league. As recent as three years ago, the Grizzlies were the laughingstock of the NBA. Its transformation into respectable franchise has been completely unexpected, amazing and boy are they scary. They have the best perimeter defender in the league in Tony Allen, a do-it-all center in Marc Gasol, scorers Rudy Gay and OJ Mayo on the wing, and are working Zach Randolph — the second best player in the entire playoffs last year — back into shape. The Grizzlies are a complete team. It is scared of no one and everyone has good reason to be scared of it.
The Pacers have been the Grizzlies of the East; it had a sneaky-good season — it locked up the East’s 3-seed — and also have a very complete team. Danny Granger and Paul George are the athletic, talented wings, Roy Hibbert and David West provide post defense and scoring and Darren Collison leads the team at point. However, unlike the Grizzlies, the Pacers simply don’t have enough talent to compete with the Heat or Bulls, which really is a shame.
After being pronounced dead at the All-Star Break, the Celtics have pulled off a 21-8 record since. Rondo is playing absolutely amazing basketball, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have regained their form, and improbably, second-year player Avery Bradley has developed into one of the best perimeter defenders and a decent offensive weapon. The Celtics also have the most swagger in the league; it knows it belongs and believes it can win and that’s what makes the Celtics the biggest wild card in the entire league.
With all these great teams and so many injuries in play, picking a team to win it all at this point is throwing darts at a board, but I might as well make a prediction on the off chance I get it right: the Thunder will take it all. With playoff experience from the last two years, I believe its core is finally ready for the big stage. Durant will finally get his first championship and hopefully, the team will be able to shut up the critics of Westbrook, who I predict will be the clear-cut best point guard in the playoffs this year. Just don’t bring my predictions up if the Thunder gets kicked out in the first round.