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Classifying the NBA’s Playoff Contenders, Part 4

The NBA Playoffs are now just days away. While 16 teams have qualified for the playoffs, they’re not all equal combatants in the NBA’s marathon postseason. Here’s the fourth group of our playoff classifications.

“Tried and true”

San Antonio Spurs
It’s pretty amazing the Spurs recent tear through the NBA has gone mostly unnoticed. Sure, people like the Spurs as playoff contenders and some even have them ultimately winning the title, but could you imagine the attention the Thunder, Heat or Lakers would get if they won 36 of their last 43 games? It would lead Sportscenter, be featured on the front page of every website and magazine, and that team would undoubtedly be unanimous favorites to win the championship. But that’s life when you play in west Texas, and the Spurs wouldn’t have it any other way. (The Spurs forfeited two of those seven losses; so essentially, San Antonio went 36-5-2 in their final 43 contests. That’s insane.)

I could spend an inordinate amount of time detailing why I expect the Spurs to reach the NBA Finals, but I’ve already said it all here, here, and here. To recap:

1. The Spurs added some toughness in Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and Stephen Jackson, something that’s been sorely missed since Bruce Bowen was traded.

2. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are playing better than they have in years. In fact, Parker is having his best season. Manu Ginobili is also surging into the playoffs healthy and playing his best basketball of the season.

3. The Spurs are healthy, rested, and deeeeep. San Antonio has scoring, size, energy, and defense coming off the bench. In typical Spurs fashion, every player knows his role and accepts it. Role players always impact playoff outcomes (see JJ Barea, Trevor Ariza or the legendary Robert Horry).

4. Gregg Popovich. There are only a few coaches in the league that are near Pop’s level. Outside of Rick Carlisle, they all reside in the Eastern Conference. Players mostly rule the regular season while coaches simply steer them along. In a seven game series, coaches have a huge impact. They’re driving the machine. The Thunder lost to the Mavericks last year because Scotty Brooks couldn’t adjust. The same was true for Eric Spoelstra and the Heat in the 2011 Finals. As talented and deep as the Spurs are, Gregg Popovich may still be their greatest asset.

Boston Celtics
This five part series isn’t about grouping playoff teams according to where I believe they rank in the NBA. It’s about public perception. Naturally, the Spurs and Celtics are widely considered the “old dogs” in this year’s playoff race (not completely accurate regarding the Spurs). And to be honest, nothing would make me happier than to see Boston and San Antonio duke it out for an NBA title. It’d be basketball as it was meant to played; team orientated, the Celtics playing lockdown defense, the Spurs moving the ball on a string. It’d be perfect.

Unfortunately, the Celtics face a grueling road to the NBA Finals. Boston is likely to play each round without home court advantage. They’re also an aging team that could wear down as the postseason drags on. Even worse, Boston’s bench has been ravaged by injuries; even Ray Allen isn’t completely healthy. BUT, there is hope for the Celtics because A. they’ve been here before, and B. they play sensational defense.

I know it may be considered sacrilegious, but assuming my 76ers bail in the 1st round, I’m pulling for the Celtics in the East. I kinda/sorta/maybe like their chances, too. As I’ve said over and over, defense is key in the playoffs. The Celtics have proven they can contend with the Bulls and Heat simply by frustrating them on the defensive end of the floor and executing better on the offensive end. That offensive execution can be attributed almost completely to the best passing point guard (sorry, Steve Nash) in the NBA.

Rajon Rondo is the primary reason I think the Celtics can knock off the Heat. Unfortunately, Boston must first go through a deeper and equally talented defensive team in the Chicago Bulls to get there. Still, if Boston can stay healthy, they have a chance. At this time of year, that’s all you ask.

Los Angeles Lakers
Sunday’s thrilling victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder proved the Lakers are still a threat to win another title. Then again, Sunday’s events also proved the Lakers are equally capable of getting upset in the first round as they are to reach the Finals. You can bet both Dallas and Denver’s ears perked up a little once they learned Metta World Peace would miss just about all of the first round.

Obviously, World Peace’s absence is a huge blow defensively. However, World Peace has also been a huge offensive contributor over the final weeks of the regular season. He looks quicker and more agile than he has in years. More importantly, he’s playing with more confidence without Phil Jackson on the bench rolling his eyes at every shot or missed rotation. For better (World Peace’s recent play) or worse (Sunday’s People’s Elbow to Rich Harden’s head), Mike Brown freed Metta World Peace to be Ron Artest again. I think the Lakers are better for it, too. Artest is a key cog to the Lakers title hopes, assuming of course they get out of the first round and World Peace keeps his nose clean, which right now, are two very big ifs, but still.

Though World Peace is important, Andrew Bynum will have the biggest impact on how far the Lakers go. When focused and motivated, no single player in the West can contain Bynum. With Pau Gasol aging rapidly (or so it seems) and almost zero help coming off the bench, Bynum must pick up the slack after Kobe if the Lakers hope to knock off the talented and hungry Thunder.

When your playoff run depends on an unstable center and a crazy forward both capable of getting suspended for losing control, you can only hope Kobe’s knees have enough German magic in them to carry the load. Good luck, Los Angeles.

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