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Classifying the NBA’s Playoff Contenders, Part 5

The NBA Playoffs are now only one day away. Although 16 teams qualified for the playoffs, they’re not all equal combatants in the NBA’s marathon postseason. Here’s the final (and sexiest) group of our playoff classifications.

“We’re sexy and we know it”

Miami Heat
While I would love to jump on the “Miami is too thin and soft” bandwagon, it’s hard to imagine them not in the NBA Finals again, mostly because the Heat has a relatively smooth road to the conference finals and more importantly, they avoid the Boston Celtics, a team that’s given the Heat fits since the All-Star break. I understand the Bulls are a very, very good team, but beating a team with two of the league’s top five players is a tall task. Combine that with the uncertain health of Derrick Rose, and it appears the Heat will battle their way to another Eastern Conference title.

Is it a sure thing? No, mainly because Miami has absolutely no depth. Outside of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat’s lineup reads; Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier (past his prime), Mike Miller (moving past his prime), Ronny Turiaf (well past his prime), Norris Cole (may never have a prime), and Joel Anthony (never had a prime). Fortunately for the Heat, only the Celtics have both the inside scoring and point guard play to exploit Miami’s two biggest weaknesses. A matchup between Boston and Miami would require Boston getting through an equally tough and deeper Chicago team. Even if the Celtics meet Miami in the conference finals, they’re likely to be gassed. While I don’t necessarily believe the Heat is the best team in the East, they have favorable matchups until the conference finals, and once there, Miami will likely face a team that just emerged from a brutal back-alley brawl.

Also, I understand the argument that the Knicks and Pacers could push Miami to a six or seven game series, but unless Roy Hibbert miraculously turns into The Dream or the Knicks stay red hot from beyond the arc for an entire series, I just don’t see an upset or even a scare happening.

Oklahoma City Thunder
Heading into the 2012 season, Oklahoma City was the hands-down favorite to win the West. Now, many consider the Spurs, Grizzlies, and Lakers just as likely to reach the NBA Finals. I actually think this benefits the young Thunder. The weight of those preseason expectations has now been lightened after OKC stumbled down the stretch. Instead of trying to live up to the status of “favorites,” the Thunder can focus on being the “forgotten” team or even the underdogs to a certain degree.

While not being the prohibitive favorites in the West helps the Thunder, I think losing the top seed was a severe blow to their confidence and playoff swagger. Last season, the Spurs dominated the league up until the final weeks of the season. They didn’t fall apart down the stretch but they didn’t exactly finish strong, either. Although San Antonio held on to that top seed in 2011, they weren’t in rhythm heading into the playoffs. I see the Thunder in a similar position.

For a young team, the confidence that comes along with that top seed is important. Losing it was bad enough, but losing it in the final month of the season after having a three game lead took a toll on the Thunder. You could see it in their play over the final weeks of the regular season. In Los Angeles last Sunday, it looked as if the Thunder recaptured that swagger. But then James Harden went down and the Lakers pulled off an improbable comeback en route to an overtime win as the Thunder struggled offensively. All of sudden, the “Westbrook is shooting too much” whispers started again. It’s just a bad time of year for a team to deal with such issues.

However, despite OKC’s recent struggles and how popular it is to talk about Dallas having a fighter’s chance of upsetting the Thunder, I assure you OKC will not lose in the 1st round. The Thunder has too many weapons to throw at Dallas’ mediocre defense. The combination of Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi does not equal one half of Tyson Chandler. With both Dirk and Jason Terry having down years (by their standards), it’s even hard to imagine the Mavericks keeping pace offensively. OKC was probably thrilled to avoid a young, hungry Denver team that could have challenged the Thunder athletically and offensively. Instead, the Thunder lucked into the older, slower, and more docile defending champs.

Chicago Bulls
With a healthy Derrick Rose, the Bulls are probably the favorites in the East. Unfortunately, Rose’s health could vary from 100% to “he’s going to be touch and go throughout the entirety of the playoffs.” If it’s the latter, the feisty Bulls could find themselves going home in the 2nd round to the equally feisty and more experienced Celtics.

Let’s just assume for a moment that Rose is indeed completely healthy and ready to carry the load for Chicago. Chicago’s crunch time offense still worries me. Last year, it was the Heat who executed better down the stretch in close games. Yes, the same Heat that choked away the NBA Finals out-performed the Bulls in pressure situations. This year, Rose may have another year of experience and be a better shooter, but Rose wasn’t the problem in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. His teammates were. Carlos Boozer was MIA, Luol Deng came and went in spurts, and the bench was hit or miss. Nothing has changed to make me feel any differently about the Bulls in those final minutes of a close game. No one trusts Boozer to come through anymore. I personally don’t have much faith in Deng putting the team on his back in a huge game, and Chicago’s struggles from the free throw line in close games scare me. That leaves a mysteriously injury plagued Rose to once again do all the heavy lifting.

Those who disagree with the above criticisms would point to Chicago’s success this season without Rose. They’d point out that C.J. Watson, Deng, and Kyle Korver all came up huge in defining moments. And they’d be right… but the Bulls were without Rose. Players function differently when their star teammate is on the floor. Here’s an illustration:

Imagine a guy who’s not a great dancer. If you put him with a girl that knows what she’s doing, he’s going to be all right. He won’t steal anyone’s attention or wow those nearby, but he won’t make a fool of himself, either. He’ll simply let her lead the way. Now, if you take the girl away and the guy has to dance alone, he’s going to say, “screw it” and let if fly because he knows it’s just him in that moment, no one is there to bail him out or hold his hand. While he may look like an idiot, he may just bring down the house, too.

With Derrick Rose on the floor, Chicago’s role players will neither fall on their face nor bring down the house. They’ll simply let Rose lead the way. The Heat has LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The Celtics have Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The Bulls have Derrick Rose and …

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