The NBA season is drawing to a close, and very quickly the conversation is turning to whether any team can stop the Miami Heat from repeating as champions. Really, much of this season has felt like a slow parade to the Heat's inevitable re-coronation.
By the numbers, Miami is as close to a lock for a title as imaginable. The Heat have the league's best player (LeBron James), another top-five player (Dwyane Wade), a top-25 player (Chris Bosh), and a bench that, as opposed to last year's squad, isn't a total embarrassment.
Miami has lost two games in the last three months, had a 27-game winning streak in which they beat teams by an average of 12 points a game, and long ago locked up the first overall seed in the NBA, giving the team home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. All in all, it's hard seeing anyone giving the Heat a serious run for their money.
But imagining a universe in which Miami joylessly slaughters the rest of the league isn't much fun, and besides, there's no such thing as a sure thing. So let's take a look at the teams most capable of derailing LeBron's chase for a second title. In no particular order...
1. New York Knicks
Why they could beat the Heat: So far, the Knicks have been the only team to solve the Heat riddle, with three wins in four tries against Miami. That includes two blowouts: a 104-84 victory in the season's second game, and a 112-92 thrashing on Dec. 6. The Knicks have all the ingredients to make the Heat sweat, including a scorer who can go toe-to-toe with LeBron (Carmelo Anthony), and an almost suicidal inclination to attempt as many three-pointers as humanly possible (29 per game) while hitting a ton, too (37.7 percent made). And the defense isn't half-bad, either, ranked seventh in the league in points allowed at 95.6.
Why they probably won't: "Streaky" is a nice way of describing the Knicks. Long win streaks easily give way to horrendous stretches in which everyone on the team apparently forgets how to do things like dribble or shoot. Depth is a huge problem for New York — the list of injured players gets longer every day. It's been especially bad in the frontcourt, with Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler both sidelined. When your starting center is Chris Copeland, a guy who's spent the last five years bouncing around various European leagues, you're going to have a tough time.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
Why they could beat the Heat: The other best duo in basketball, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, took the Heat to five games in last year's NBA Finals. They return a year older and wiser, with a strong supporting cast including Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin. The Thunder is the second-best offensive team in the league, and Durant alone can take over a series.
Why they probably won't: Oklahoma City would have a stronger case if it had kept elite scorer James Harden instead of trading him for Martin just before this season began. The reliance on Durant and Westbrook to carry the team will be immense, and Westbrook is as streaky as it gets. Not to mention that the Thunder will likely have to battle past San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals, a probable seven-game series that will leave the winner battered and exhausted. It would also help if Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks didn't insist on giving large minutes to Derek Fisher's corpse.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Why they could beat the Heat: San Antonio possesses all the qualities that sportswriters love: Grit, determination, solid fundamentals, crisp bounce passes, and Tim Duncan. The Spurs are a good defensive team and an efficient offensive team featuring one of the greatest power forwards of all time, an All-Star point guard, and a coach who's a genius at both Xs and Os and at giving hilariously curt answers to stupid in-game interviews.
Why they probably won't: The thought of Duncan, a gimpy Tony Parker, and an always-hurt Manu Ginobili trying to chase LeBron and Wade up and down the court for seven games is cringe-worthy. Especially after the Spurs have had to beat Oklahoma City. And it's hard to imagine the Spurs getting enough off their bench to keep pace with Miami's relentless offensive attack.
4. Chicago Bulls
Why they could beat the Heat: The Bulls seem to have inherited the Boston Celtics' role as "Defensively-minded Eastern Conference team that grinds you down and is full of players you hate." Head coach Tom Thibodeau was the architect of those Celtics' defenses that so frustrated LeBron in the past, and the Bulls have shown they can throw punches with Miami, having ended the Heat's 27-game win streak earlier this season.
Why they probably won't: The Bulls can throw punches, but offensively, they don't always land them. Chicago is 25th in the NBA in field-goal percentage, 24th in three-point field-goal percentage, and dead last in points per game at 92.8. Without superstar point guard Derrick Rose, who's still recovering from a torn ACL, the offensive load falls to Luol Deng, an injury-wracked Joakim Noah, and hyperactive garden gnome Nate Robinson. That's not exactly a group you want trying to win a shootout with LeBron and Co.
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