Miami is getting similar treatment as the Bulls did during their three-peat season. They were doubted, questioned about their age and how being the hunted again would be too much to match. At this point, a fresh Dwyane Wade is playing at a high level. Chris Bosh is still breaking the back of defenses with his mid-range jumper, and any three-ball he drains only spaces the floor even more. Ray Allen’s stroke is as good as yesterday. Mario Chalmers is picking up the pressure on opposing point guards with the season approaching playoff-intensity mode.
LeBron James looks poised to snatch the MVP award yet again, this time as an underdog to Kevin Durant of the Thunder. Simply put, “King James” continues to raise the ante after the All-Star break. That, and Russell Westbrook is back in the lineup, which could damper “Durantula’s” MVP campaign. Don’t get me wrong, you will not find a stronger believer in Westbrook being the catalyst for Oklahoma City. Durant’s always going to get his points, and he’s definitely picked up every aspect of his game this year. He wasn’t kidding with that interview, stating that he was tired of being second. The thing is, Westbrook currently brings the total package and still has unfulfilled potential that he is on pace to reach. He’s the more well-rounded player of the dynamic duo, career wise. Picture Derrick Rose and the Bulls taking Miami to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals, except he has an elite teammate that leads the league in scoring. Not exactly Rose the MVP, however Westbrook should be getting top-3 point guard credit.
Oklahoma City needs Surge Ibaka to hit outside shots in a 7-game series, we haven’t seen that before although he’s worked on it all season long. The champions seem to have too much firepower, besides, OKC has to face contenders like the Spurs and Clippers. The Western Conference will probably come down to those trio of teams. Indiana remains the biggest threat to Miami, I would suggest to see how they’ve been playing since the break. No other “superstar” gets held into single-digit points, maybe it’s just a matter of time for them to get over that Danny Granger trade. Nonetheless, they are the best defensive team in the league that rolls out an offense without a cemented identity. Why not improve at the point by offering Granger for Rondo in a trade?
The heart and soul of basketball fans, Tom Thibbodeau and the Chicago Bulls. They D up every play, making you work for every offensive action. They force you to dribble sideways instead of attacking the basket, by either trapping near halfcourt or collapsing in the paint. All five guys on the floor box out, bump you on cuts, the bigs crash the glass, guards push the ball for easy baskets, they move the ball and take smart shots. They believe the ball belongs to them, and Thibbodeau’s system continues to benefit guards that can shoot. Aside from Rose, we’ve witnessed success from John Lucas III, Nate Robinson, Marco Bellinelli, and now D.J. Augustin. When Rose returns they might want to bring Kirk Hinrich off the bench, because starting Augustin at the point to alleviates pressure on Rose since he can slide to the wing. As for this season, they’re probably the third best team after discovering some offense, the slow start is a thing of the past. Sure, they might be a notch under the Pacers overall, we would all be glued to that series if they collided. Joakim Noah is flourishing as the center piece, Taj Gibson has stepped his game up, and Jimmy Butler wants to grow overnight.
The Houston Rockets are an interesting group, but after giving them compliments they remind me about how far they really are. Holding onto Chandler Parsons is a mistake in my eyes. When the All-Star player you’re getting is Rajon Rondo, that gives you the top defensive point guard that averages double-digit dimes. This only makes the offense smoother, hooking up their version of Kobe/Shaq with more open shots and alley-oops. Houston is already anchored by the big man protecting the lane, imagine Rondo disturbing the best ball-handler and decision maker you’re playing against too. Damn, that still could come to fruition though in the offseason.
“Lob City” has more swag, more polish, that belief instilled by head coach Doc Rivers. He has taken Blake Griffin to the next level already in 3/4 of a season, even meriting some MVP consideration. No, he won’t win it but he’s thrusted his name into the top 5 by breaking out a somewhat consistent jumper and adding some toughness. Eh, what’s up Doc? Allocating players, putting shooters on the wings and corners. They won a playoff series with Chris Paul doing what he does, DeAndre Jordan being one-dimensional offensively, and Griffin basically being effective in the paint only. Insert Griffin’s improved perimeter shot, Jordan being put in position to aid the offense, then insert shooters J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, and Danny Granger. Oh yeah, Jamaal Crawford can set the table, knock down shots from anywhere, and glide up the floor on the break. Hard to bet against this team in crunch time, they will have an exciting run.
The same old Spurs are to be reckoned with. Greg Popovich is monitoring the veterans’ minutes with ease, resulting in some surprise victories. Tim Duncan is still notching double-doubles, and Kawhi Leonard might be the “Matrix” Shawn Marion, with more offense. The guards play their roles like they’ve been there before, partly because they have but also from coach “Pop” changing the gameplan to feature different players so they’re all ready when called upon. Anything that can be said about San Antonio, is basically the offensive version of what Chicago brings to the table. They are so fundamental with how they use screens, set up their defenders to go back door, they play chess in a league full of checker players. Most team cannot match wits, the basketball I.Q. of this team clinches wins on a daily basis alone.
Then you talk about the teams that can make their presence felt, the Warriors are like that idea you forgot but it’s on the tip of your tongue. Transforming from a finesse team to playing more physical, with the mindset of playing in a playoff series. They won’t always bring it, they do go down shooting though don’t they? Andre Iguodala is the guy that has to take the reigns, as the veteran, the top defender, the swingman that can penetrate and dish. The rotation is as strong as any team, but they go as “Iggy” goes.
Portland is looming, they are young and on the rise. I just don’t see “it,” not this season anyways. They have talent, are good enough on both ends, but experience is huge so just making the tournament will be a success for them. They can accelerate the process if they win a series. Dallas is the veteran savvy team lurking in the shadows. After a down season they find themselves in the thick of things, and probably playing for their playoff hopes until the last week. Memphis, they fell off a bit, they force you to play at their tempo. The Grizzlies are tough, play East-Coast ball, not enough offense to make real noise. The Suns are right there, currently outside looking in but will compete to the finish line. Exciting team, overachieved for half the season, gaining any playoff experience will serve as definite success for Phoenix.
And then there’s the rest of the East. It’s good to see Toronto find their stride after trading Rudy Gay. Shooting Guard DeMarr DeRozen is hooping, best season of his young career. He’s the man now for the Raptors, and Kyle Lowry is healthy so the public can watch this guy post near triple-double lines while poking the ball away for a few steals. Lowry isn’t well-known, he plays every aspect of the game well though. Similar to Rondo, performs a notch below with a better shot. Would like to see more consistency out of him.
The Wizards when you think about it, are playing exactly how you would imagine a young team. They’re not on a bad track at all, mid-seed at the moment that will be ecstatic playing in a series. The young guards are fiery and won’t be happy just making it, but it’ll be good for them. Some of the same can be said for Charlotte, they have some key pieces to reach the second round, led by stud Al Jefferson. The Nets and Hawks are experienced teams, been there and might get out the first round, but that’s the limit for expectations there. New York is creeping, if they do make it, winning in the first round would be a stretch. Especially being slated against the favorites, Heat or Pacers.
It’s Miami’s league, like it or not, with a trio of Western Conference teams that will battle each other to face the champs. Even at their peak performance, I would be surprised if Indiana actually pulled off the upset in a series. The Heat are still hungry, the world is not enough. I might even like the Bulls against the Pacers, whoever can muster up consistent offense has a crack at dethroning them, it’ll probably take seven games to do it.