Courtesy of Jim Feist
It's been a long haul, this NBA regular season, but the playoffs are just around the corner. So who wins the NBA title? We all know the favorites don't waltz to the NBA Finals. Last year Miami needed to go seven games with up-and-coming Indiana to get there, then had to pull off a miracle in Game 6 to stun the Spurs. Two years ago San Antonio was a No. 1 seed and up 2-0 on the young Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. Then, WHAM, Oklahoma City won 5 in a row to take a 1-0 lead in the Finals. Then, WHAM, Miami won 4 in a row to shell-shock wide-eyed OKC.
Even in college we saw a slew of upsets and surprises, with three No. 1 seeds going down before the Final Four. And didn't Wichita State and tiny Butler make a deep runs I recent years? Butler was a fifth seed in 2010 and a No. 8 seed in 2011, advancing to the NCAA Championship game twice. Three years ago the Dallas Mavericks were the No. 4 seed in the West, then knocked off everyone on the way to a surprising title.
There's another factor that stands out, best summed up in a famous quote: "It is not the critic who counts. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
The speaker? Not a famous coach, but Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. The hard work he was describing about the man "In the Arena" could apply to any NBA star pulling on sneakers and battling for the right to advance to the championship over the next two months.
It takes teamwork and effort, lots of effort, to hoist the crown at the end of a long season. In 2004 and 2008 the Lakers appeared to be the most talented team in the NBA Finals, favored each time, but were knocked around by the hard working Pistons and Celtics, both of whom really earned their rings. Next week I'll take a look at the best of the West, the conference that has won 10 of the last 15 NBA titles. This week, it's the best of the East.
The defending champs look like the team to beat, but they've been in a battle all year for the top spot with Indiana. A year ago Miami was a powerhouse, ripping off 27 wins in a row, but not so this season. There appears to be age and some cracks in the armor, a team that has stumbled often and has not been impressive on the road.
The Heat is not lacking for star power with 29-year old Lebron James (26.6 ppg, 7 rpg, 6.5 apg), 32-year old Dwyane Wade (19 ppg) and 30-year old Chris Bosh (16.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg).
There are very good role players in Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen. Miami has exceptional balance, 11th in the NBA in scoring, 4th in points allowed. This is still not a good rebounding team and during a three game road trip last month they lost to the Spurs, Rockets and Bulls by 3, 25 and 7 points. Miami looks like the team to beat in the East, but has more vulnerabilities than at any time since LeBron arrived in South Beach.
Who are these guys? Dominant early, looking like the new power in the East, the erratic Pacers appear to have lost confidence in the second half of the season, blowing games and stumbling on offense. Indiana certainly has the talent to make a postseason run: great defense, rebounding and a big frontcourt. They are 7th in the NBA in rebounding and tops in points allowed. 6-9 David West (13.8 ppg), 6-8 Paul George (21.7 ppg) and 7-2 Roy Hibbert form a dominant front line, while 27-year old PG George Hill (10.6 ppg) runs the backcourt.
The addition of Evan Turner in mid-season seemed to be a huge coup, upgrading the depth, but this team got worse. The main culprit is offense, 24th in the NBA in scoring and prone to some awful scoring droughts. Indiana went on a recent 4-23-1 ATS run and is 6-19-1 ATS against the Eastern Conference. Will they wilt under the playoff spotlight? In 2012 they flamed out to Miami (blowing a 2-1 lead) and last year lost in seven games. Totals players note that the under is 29-11-1 when the Pacers play on one day's rest.
A year ago folks in the Windy City were all wondering if star guard Derek Rose will be able to return for the playoffs. It's clear they've moved on from the fragile Rose and despite injuries and personnel changes the Bulls have been very good. Like last year they can't score, 30th in the NBA in scoring, but they rely on slowing the pace down, rebounding and playing a physical defense, 2nd in the league in points allowed.
Chicago is No. 10 in the NBA in rebounds behind Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and hard-working Carlos Boozer. Newcomer Luol Deng provides the offense while Coach Tom Thibedeau demands powerhouse defense on every possession. The Bulls are 18-7-1 ATS against the Eastern Conference and on a 23-8 run under the total at home.
The new kids on the block! No offense, but Toronto took off like a rocket after trading Rudy Gay, who took a lot of shots and didn't hit many. The outstanding backcourt leads the way behind 24-year old 6-7 DeMar DeRozan (22.8 ppg) and 28-year old PG Kyle Lowry (17.4 ppg, 7.6 apg).
Toronto's calling card is defense, 7th in the NBA in points allowed, and top 10 in field goal shooting defense. 21-year old 6-11 Jonas Valanciunas and 26-year old 6-9 Amir Johnson handle the rebounding since the Gay trade. Undervalued Toronto has been on a 34-16-2 ATS run.
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