With the defending NBA champion Miami Heat about to become the fourth team to reel off a winning streak of 20 games or more, it’s starting to look like there might not be a lot of drama in the upcoming NBA Playoffs.
With LeBron James playing at a level we haven’t seen since Michael Jordan dominated the league in the 90s, it’s hard to imagine any team being able to beat the Heat in a best-of-seven series.
Part of the reason is injuries. The Bulls still don’t have Derrick Rose back in the lineup, and they have been playing recently without Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson and Rip Hamilton.
The Knicks won’t have Amare Stoudemire for the rest of the regular season because of yet another knee injury, and Carmelo Anthony just came back from a knee strain.
Boston lost its leader, All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, plus rookie power forward Jared Sullinger.
And the Pacers have been playing without their leading scorer, Danny Granger, most of the season.
Meanwhile, the defending champs are healthy and determined to start chipping away at the seven or eight titles James promised back on that ill-fated introductory celebration in July of 2010. Dwyane Wade is once again playing like a superstar instead of a guy who looked like he might be slowing down due to a heavy load of minutes and injuries before his 30th birthday.
The addition of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis gives the Heat two more long-range shooters to punish opposing defenses when they try to double team James and Wade. And Miami is even getting productive minutes out of unwanted big man, Chris “Birdman” Andersen.
The Heat are playing free and easy right now, not burdened by the pressure of trying to prove they can win a title after landing James, Wade and Chris Bosh in free agency. Head Coach Erik Spoelstra has a much better feel for his roster, and has become adept at utilizing a small lineup to maximum advantage.
Role players such as Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier and Norris Cole are coming through with regular contributions and even the team’s one weakness, rebounding, hasn’t been enough of a problem to cost them many games this season.
So getting out of the East really shouldn’t be much of a problem for James and company. The one team that might give them a battle is Indiana. Pacers head coach Frank Vogel took a page out of Tom Thibodeau’s playbook, emphasizing rebounding and defense, and his team now ranks among the league leaders in both categories. They also have the size up front with Roy Hibbert and David West to take advantage of Miami’s undersized frontline. But with all that said, I still think the Heat will be able to beat Indiana in five or six games.
Looking to the West, I’ve been disappointed by the play of Oklahoma City over the last few weeks. Super talented but erratic point guard Russell Westbrook seems more out of control than ever, jacking up bad shots at the expense of three-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant. I understand why management decided to trade James Harden to Houston, but Kevin Martin isn’t going to scare the Heat like Harden did. Granted, Harden had a terrible Finals against Miami last season, but he gave the Thunder a threat off the bench that no other team possesses. Martin is a solid pro, but he will be easily defended by the Miami duo of Wade and James.
San Antonio is a great regular season team, but the Spurs don’t have the athleticism or depth to beat Miami.
The Clippers are a nice story, but the game slows down in the playoffs, and I don’t think we’ll see the fast-breaking, rim-rattling “Lob City” show when the games matter most.
On paper, the Lakers look like they have the best mix of players to challenge Miami, but they have underachieved all season long and still have to find a way to work Pau Gasol back into the lineup.
Denver will be an interesting team to watch in the playoffs with their deep, high-scoring team, but stars win in the playoffs, and the Nuggets didn’t have a single member on the Western Conference All-star team.
Bottom line, barring an injury to James or Wade, Miami is likely to be celebrating NBA Championship No. 2 in June. Then it will be up to the rest of the league’s general managers to come up with the right moves to close the gap during the offseason.