There are four teams in the NBA with a genuine shot at winning the Larry O’Brien trophy this year: Miami, OKC, San Antonio, and despite what Charles Barkley thinks, the L.A. Clippers—I can’t ignore that team if they have a healthy Chris Paul on the floor. Those four make up the elite of the Association. Within that grouping some are more elite than others, of course—the Heat are a cut above the other three—but there’s a big gap between them and the second echelon of playoff contenders.
But there are a number of teams in that second tier that could make some noise come playoff time—dark horses that could cause an upset or two and really shake the proverbial apple cart. Two years ago the Memphis Grizzlies were one of those teams. They beat the 60-win Spurs in a grueling six game series, and took an extremely talented Thunder team to seven games. And last season we had the 8th seed Philadelphia 76ers beating, albeit with the help of an ACL tear, the Chicago Bulls, and giving the Celtics all they could handle in the second round.
It’s a safe bet that the following 5 teams won’t be hoisting any hardware come June, but they have the tools to give the NBA’s elite a real run for their money.
Last week on this site I asserted that no Eastern Conference team is beating the Miami Heat—and I still believe that to be the case—but if any team is going to give them real trouble, it’ll be the tough and gritty Indiana Pacers. The Pacers still feel as though they gave away last year’s second round playoff series against the Heat, where they led 2-1, only to fall in 6 games. Personally I don’t think they gave anything away. Wade and LeBron went berserk and they were beaten by the better team, but having a chip on your shoulder and some irrational confidence isn’t a bad thing.
The Pacers have given the Heat major problems in their two regular season match-ups this year—besting the champs by double-digits in both games. Vogel’s men have the NBA stingiest defense and are gradually becoming a better offensive team too. The Heat’s one weakness is their lack of interior size and the Pacers possess that in abundance—David West and Roy Hibbert could give Chris Bosh fits. In Paul George Indiana has a go-to guy on the perimeter and someone who has the length and athleticism to disrupt Wade or LeBron.
I still can’t see the Pacers winning 4 games against Miami, but they’re the only Eastern Conference team with even the slightest chance.
At this moment in time the Rockets are 7th in the West, and as things stand that would mean a match-up with the Thunder. If that stays the same the Rockets have zero chance of causing an upset—the Thunder would nullify their biggest strengths—but if San Antonio drops into 2nd place, there’s a chance the Rockets could cause an upset. Their relentless run-and-gun style might put a lot of pressure on the likes of Duncan, Ginobli, and if he isn’t 100% healthy, Tony Parker.
The Rockets are currently tied with the Thunder for points scored per game, at 107, and are just behind the Knicks in most 3-pointers made per game. Defensively they’re limited, but they make up for it with a basketball philosophy centered on simply outrunning and outscoring the opposition. Having the youngest team in the NBA certainly helps with the implementation of that philosophy. Of course, in the post-season the game slows down, teams take care of the ball better, and scoring in the half-court becomes vital. But that’s where James Harden is so effective.
Few NBA players can create shots out of nothing and consistently get to the line quite like The Beard. As witnessed in his 46-point destruction of the Thunder a few weeks ago, Harden can win a game on his own. He’s not going to win a championship for the Rockets this year, but his scoring and the team’s ability to hit from downtown, makes Houston a dangerous proposition.
The Nuggets don’t have a player who can score in isolation like James Harden—and that may be their undoing—but overall they’re a better version of those dangerous Rockets. Offensively they’re an absolute juggernaut; averaging 105 points a night and playing a ferociously up-tempo style led by Ty Lawson, the quickest player in the NBA. With Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee crashing the boards, and the likes of Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer, and Wilson Chandler providing copious amounts of speed and athleticism on the wings, the Nuggets are able to run any team off the floor on a given night.
At the Pepsi Center this season they’ve been practically unbeatable—tied with the Heat for the best home record in the NBA, at 26-3. Teams coming to Denver struggle to cope with the dreaded combination of high altitude and a team that just wants to run, run, run. No team scores more points in the paint than Denver—and we’re not talking back to the basket scoring, but dunks and lay-ups in transition. If the Nuggets are going to make some noise in the post-season, however, they’ll need to secure home-court advantage. Under .500 on the road, they’re just not the same team away from Colorado.
On defense there’s been an undoubted improvement from last year—Iguodala has definitely helped break up plays on that end—but there’s still the issue of scoring in the half-court. Danilo Galinari has tried to be that much-needed ‘closer’, but with mixed results, and the Nuggets will need to execute better in the half-court if they are to go deep in this year’s playoffs.
When Rudy Gay was traded to the Raptors most people believed that the Grizzlies had essentially traded away their chances of winning a championship. They’d traded a shot at glory for the much less glamorous desire to be financially stable. And at first it looked as though the Grizzlies were really suffering without their premiere perimeter scorer. Over the last 10 games, however, the Grizzlies have turned things around. They’ve gone 9-1 with their only loss being on the road to the Heat—a narrow loss at that. Could it be that the Grizzlies are getting ready to make a run similar to that which they went on in 2011?
The Grizzlies certainly have the tools to cause an upset or two. The core of the team that beat the Spurs and ran the Thunder so close is still intact. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are once again the focal points on offense—as they were when Gay was injured in 2011. The Gasol-Randolph 1-2 punch will give any team fits in the paint. They’ve played the Heat twice this season; losing narrowly last week, but destroying them in their first meeting. Because of their interior size, Memphis is the team that might have the best chance of beating Miami. Ironically they probably won’t get the chance to do so because they match up poorly with the Thunder.
Although Mike Conley is improving all the time, the Grizzlies lack the perimeter scoring necessary to put points on the board when their first option fails. It’s a lot easier to score off the dribble than it is to feed to ball down low and score in the post. Ultimately the Thunder just have too much offensive firepower for the Grizzlies to deal with, but don’t rule out Memphis stealing a round or two in this year’s post-season.
Okay, I’ll admit, given that the Lakers aren’t even in a playoff spot right now, anointing them playoff dark horses seems a little crazy. But bear with me here. As bad as the Lakers have been this season in general, they have been playing better basketball over the last few weeks. Given that Kobe Bryant is a competitive freak of nature, I’m going to agree with his guarantee of making the playoffs. I think that the Lakers will catch the Jazz for the final spot in the West.
So where does that leave us? Well, let’s get one thing straight: there is NO WAY that the Lakers are going to go on a miracle run to win the title, or even get out of the Western Conference. They’re not beating the Heat and they’re certainly not beating the Thunder—see Tuesday night’s evidence for details. But, if I’m the Spurs and I’m still the number one seed in April, I don’t want to see the Lakers in 8th. The Spurs are the better team, of course, but the Lakers are the type of first-round match-up that no team wants.
To even make the post-season they would have to have a little momentum on their side to begin with, and a Kobe-stoked ‘no one believes in us’ attitude. Despite a poor season by his standards, Dwight is still more than a handful in the paint (he still leads the league in rebounds!) and perhaps Pau can come back rejuvenated (that might be a stretch, I’ll admit). And then there’s Mr. Bryant. Possessing a player who can take over a game and drop 40 can make you a pretty dangerous proposition. Who’s to say that Kobe couldn’t steal a game or two against San Antonio?
The Lakers won’t make it out of the West, but I’ll guarantee that most NBA teams are hoping that they don’t make the postseason.