Despite some recent slip-ups, four teams have separated themselves in the NBA standings. There’s a considerable gap between the Bulls, Heat, and everyone else in the East, and between the Thunder, Spurs, and everyone else in the West. Though these teams haven’t been the model of consistency, compared to the other 26 teams, they’ve been a pretty sure bet this regular season. Most people expect that, come playoff time, these four will continue their hot form, setting up a pair of predictable conference finals. For example, until the Celtics came on a week ago, had you heard of ANYONE who wasn’t picking Bulls-Heat to meet in the Eastern finals?
Well I have a message for the NBA’s top four—be ready for anything. The last time there was a lockout, an 8-seed, the Knicks, advanced all the way to the NBA Finals. It doesn’t mean that I’m calling the Knicks to upset the Bulls in round one this year, but I’m also here to say that any team can go down in the first round with the wrong matchup. And what would those matchups be? Glad you asked.
45-14, 1st in East
Who they want to avoid: Philadelphia 76ers (31-28, T-7th in East)
Why: You could make the case that they should be afraid of the Knicks because NY has one of the NBA’s top scorers (Carmelo Anthony), top defenders (Tyson Chandler) and someone to guard Derrick Rose (Iman Shumpert), who, though he is proving to mean less and less to the Bulls by the day, is still the team’s go-to scorer in crunch time. The problem is, Carmelo-led teams have been to the playoffs nine times and lost in the first round on eight occasions. He’s not really the best bet to engineer an upset, especially when it’s unclear how, exactly, the Knicks plan to score when their second unit is in the game.
If you’re looking for a team that Chicago should fear, it’s Philly. The Sixers have cooled off recently after their 20-9 start and have struggled to beat good teams as of late, but Philadelphia represents the closest version of Chicago the league has to offer: a deep, well-coached, defensive-oriented unit that can win without interior scoring. They have a great defender to throw at Luol Deng (the secret key to the Bulls) in Andre Iguodala, and they have enough production off the bench to keep things honest when defensive menaces Taj Gibson and Omer Asik are in the game (two of their top three scorers, Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young, come off the bench). The Sixers have played the Bulls decently so far this season (a 98-82 win, 96-91 loss and 89-80 loss)—Chicago would be a lot better off hoping Milwaukee leapfrogs the Sixers (they’re currently two games back), since Chicago is 4-0 against the Bucks this season, including a pair of blowout wins.
41-17, 2nd in East
Who they want to avoid: Orlando Magic (34-25, 6th in East)
Why: Remember when Orlando made the Finals in 2009 on the strength of Dwight Howard and a bunch of three-point shooting forwards who could spread the floor? Well allow me to be the hundredth person to say that this year’s Magic squad is a pretty good facsimile of the team that toppled the defending-champion Celtics and 66-win Cavaliers in consecutive rounds three years ago. Yeah, Rashard Lewis is gone, though he’s averaging 8 points per game and shooting 24% from three-point range this season (and he hasn’t played since February 22). Actually, maybe that’s not that big a loss. They also have two weapons they didn’t have in ’09: Ryan Anderson (16 ppg, 41% 3FG) and J.J. Redick (who’s improved a bunch since 2009). So why can this team take down the Heat? Well, as we saw in last year’s Finals, one way to combat the Heat’s tough man-to-man defense is to knock it down from outside, and the Magic are more than capable of that (Orlando ranks third in the league in 3FG% and they attempt way more threes per game than any other team).
The other reason why the Magic are a bad matchup for the Heat is a guy by the name of Dwight Howard. You may have heard of him. Dwight hasn’t had the smoothest of seasons—as soon as the trade rumors died down, he got in a bitterly public feud with his coach, and, adding injury to insult, he’s missed five of the Magic’s last seven games with a herniated disc. If he can put this behind him AND get over his back injury in the playoffs (a big if, but he has still put up remarkable numbers despite all the distractions), he would be a matchup nightmare for the Heat down low because they have nobody to guard him (I don’t think Ronny Turiaf’s going to cut it). A dominating center plus a bunch of bombers could spell doom for the Heat if the Magic don’t sink themselves this spring,
Oklahoma City Thunder
43-16, 1st in West
Who they want to avoid: Memphis Grizzlies (34-24, 5th in West)
Why: For pretty much the same reasons that Memphis almost beat OKC in last year’s playoffs. The Thunder beat the Grizzlies in seven games in last year’s conference semis, a series that featured the best game of the 2011 playoffs (the ridiculous triple-OT Game 4), and it’s not hard to imagine Memphis closing OKC out if that game goes the other way (it would have put the Grizzlies up 3-1 in the series). The Grizzlies have one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders in Tony Allen, and if he can neutralize Russell Westbrook by himself, the Thunder’s potent attack suddenly becomes a lot more manageable. Memphis is also a lot better at scoring at the rim than the Thunder (especially if Allen’s got Westbrook on lockdown), and having two potential inside monsters in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph is extremely beneficial when the pace slows down in the playoffs and it becomes harder for teams to grab easy points on breakaways. Memphis has enough scoring depth to survive if one of their guys has an off night—OKC doesn’t have this luxury, and while I don’t worry about Durant, I do have some concerns about Westbrook, whose four shooting lines against Memphis this season read as follows: 0-for-13, 12-for-20, 6-for-18, 5-for-16.
San Antonio Spurs
41-16, 2nd in West
Who they want to avoid: Houston Rockets (32-27, 8th in West)
Why: Houston has several consistent scoring threats that can ring up points in a variety of different ways. They’ve got a frontcourt that has the potential to impose its will on the Spurs just like the Grizzlies did in last year’s upset, and when Kyle Lowry comes back, they’ll have a two-headed monster at the point guard position that could potentially wreak havoc on the older, slower Spurs. Houston also defends the three well (opponents shoot just 32% from deep, fourth-best in the NBA), which is one of San Antonio’s biggest strengths (the Spurs shoot 39% on threes, second in the NBA). If Marcus Camby and Sam Dalembert can disrupt Duncan on offense (easier said than done), Houston has the makings of an upset in the first round. Working against the Rockets is the coaching matchup (Gregg Popovich vs. Kevin McHale isn’t fair) and the fact that they don’t really have a go-to scorer, which can become a problem in the playoffs. Still, they have the best chance of anyone in that 6-8 range to knock off the Spurs, as they’re one of the few teams in the West that’s smart and consistent enough to beat San Antonio in a seven-game series.