Does Anyone Other than the Big 3 Have a Shot?
The top three I’m referring to have been pretty obvious since about ten games into the season.
The Heat have the game’s best duo and a world’s worth of expectations behind them; the Bulls have the deepest roster with a superstar point-guard to lean on; and the Thunder have the league’s most well-rounded 5-man lineup that includes two of the league’s best scorers and arguably the best defensive frontcourt we’ve seen in quite some time.
This isn’t the NHL playoffs where you’re going to see 8-seeds taking out top seeds in just five games or superstars dropping like flies. No. The NBA playoffs may be the only professional sport where the true best team takes the title. Nothing against the other three major sports (I’m a huge proponent of variety and change) but were the Canucks not the best team in the NHL last season? Were the St. Louis Cardinals - who barely squeaked into the playoffs - even one of the league’s top 3 or 5 overall teams last year? And seriously, give the Packers another try to show up against the Giants and I think we may have seen a very different game – crappy secondary or not.
So after the big three, there are another six teams that I will give a “shot in the dark” chance of becoming the last team standing; if I were the odds-maker, none of them would see anything more favorable than 15/1 or maybe even 20/1 to go the distance (Vegas odds on Spurs and Lakers are currently 6/1 and 12/1 respectively somehow). But which of the six is most likely to shake things up and become the last team standing?
Four of the six teams in this second tier still have a fighting chance because of their veteran leadership and the past playoff success on their resume.
We’ve got the Spurs who just keep chugging along and have recently clinched the top seed in the West, the Celtics who have looked like the NBA’s most determined team during those rare games in which their solid foursome all really went at it, the Mavericks who have seemed a beat behind all season but still maintain arguably the game’s toughest scorer to stop in the clutch, and of course the Lakers, who have had a rollercoaster of a season and could be fueled by last year’s second round embarrassment and the always dangerous number 24.
I don’t see this year’s Mavericks team repeating last season’s success without the steady Chandler up front and the mischievous mismatch of JJ Barea off the bench, so we’ll consider them to be the team most blinded by the dark. Vegas goes 40/1; I’ll say that’s just about spot on.
The Lakers bring a different team to the postseason this year than they did last year; part for better, part for worse. Odom was a huge part of their back to back championships, as was the leadership of Fischer. Sessions was a big pick-up as a guy that can take a lot of pressure off Kobe with his quickness and his ability to break down a defense, but was the trade enough? I really don’t think so. Yes, Bynum has improved greatly this year and Gasol has silenced some of his ‘too soft’ critics – emphasis on some – but match them up against the Thunder when Durant and Westbrook don’t miss a combined 42 shots, and I just don’t see the World Peace/Barnes combo stopping Durant or Sessions stopping Westbrook for four games while Bynum and Gasol work their way around Perkins and Ibaka. Rather blind, but not Dallas blind.
The Celtics and Spurs I think have what it takes to knock out one of the big three, but taking out two – which is what will most likely be required in order to win it all – is still another question. Both teams are structured quite similarly, featuring veteran leaders alongside a collection of talented glue and hustle players. The biggest problem from the Spurs other than their age will be consistent scoring. They’re a team that relies heavily on the three-ball, and Duncan is no longer the dominant post presence he once was. For Boston, Garnett has played his best basketball since his first season in green, while Pierce has continued to show that he can be one of the best scorers in the game when he’s feeling it. Meanwhile both Rondo and Allen are dealing with injuries and Allen’s availability for the playoffs is unclear.
And the other two possible contenders, you ask?
Well they’ll be meeting up in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, but the Spurs should be nervous because they get to take on the winner if they can handle Utah, and both the Clippers and Grizzlies have a multitude of what the other four “shot in the dark” teams are lacking: athleticism and youth.
The CP3-Griffin combo is dangerous enough on its own, but the Clippers have an interesting supply of x-factors that could really shake things up with DeAndre Jordan, Nick Young, and Randy Foye along with the veteran leadership of Caron Butler.
Then there’s the team that has already proven it can give top teams all they can handle in the playoffs. Without Rudy Gay last season, the Grizzlies topped the Spurs in 6 games, then fell just short against the Thunder in a 7-game thriller. Granted, Durant and crew have come back even stronger this season, but so has Memphis. If there’s any 4-5 combination that rivals the toughness of Perkins and Ibaka, it’s Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and the Grizzlies duo is far better on the offensive end.
But as with any potential sleeper, there are still a variety of questions:
Court general Mike Conley has improved quite a bit this season, but can he carry the load of a deep playoff run or even handle the first round matchup of Paul? Gay is the longest tenured Grizzly of the crew and most likely the guy they’d like handling the ball in the clutch, but he’s never even seen the court in playoff action. And then there’s talented two-guards OJ Mayo and Tony Allen, the former being an electrifying scorer at times and an erratic, trigger happy liability at others, the latter a lockdown defender with limited offensive abilities.
So yes, despite the fact they’ll be going up against quite possibly the best professional coach in the past 15 years that didn’t have to use his halftime breaks to spy on opposing coaches’ gameplans as well as the veteran leadership of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, I think the winner of the Clippers/Grizzlies series will be the final ingredient to the NBA’s final four. And with a more diversified set of players and an already proven tenacity for the playoffs, you can mark down the Grizzlies as my pick for the “shot in the dark” team with the best chance to find the light.