Ranking Western Conference Teams With Best Chance To Shock The Miami Heat

It’s not a foregone conclusion, but we’re going to assume the Miami Heat represent the Eastern Conference in the 2013 NBA Finals. The New York Knicks may have something to say, but as of now, the smart money is still on the Heat to win the Eastern Conference. What Western Conference foes stack up best against them and could shock them in the 2013 NBA Finals?

First, we have to consider how the Heat can be beaten. Shockingly, the Heat give up more points per game (100.2) than the Sacramento Kings (100.1). A prolific offensive team can certainly take liberties with the suddenly-shoddy Heat defense.

Center hasn’t been a huge problem, or so the Heat would have you believe. Their three losses have come against the New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers. All have sizable front courts who can take advantage of the smaller Heat.

An offensive-minded team with a strong frontcourt would definitely give the Heat fits. Adding in a defensive specialist to deal with LeBron James is a plus. What Western Conference teams fit the profile?

All statistics accurate as of games completed on November 16, 2012. Stats retrieved from basketball-reference.com.

No. 5: Minnesota Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves in their current form are more of a defensive team, but that’s due to injuries to Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. When they get healthy, they will run with anyone and will be able play an excellent brand of half-court basketball, if needed.

Even without Love and Rubio, the Timberwolves have held opposing frontcourts to a minuscule 45.7 points per game, which is best in the NBA by 3.2 points. They’ve had to rely heavily on some relatively-unknown players, like Dante Cunningham and Greg Stiemsma, to pick up the slack.

When Love returns, the trio of Andrei Kirilenko, Love and Nikola Pekovic will provide a bit of everything. Pekovic is the concrete block anchoring the paint, Love is the MVP who can score and rebound and Kirilenko is the do-it-all who will be tasked with guarding LeBron James.

A deep team like the Timberwolves who have firepower in multiple positions can give the Heat fits in a series. Chris Bosh might be able to neutralize Pekovic or Love, but not both.

No. 4: Denver Nuggets

Offense is usually a major strength for the Denver Nuggets, although they’ve started a bit slowly due to some poor shooting performances. Once they get that sorted out, they’ll be back to their elite offensive attack that gives teams nightmares.

Despite shooting 43.6 percent from the field as a team, 30 percent from the three-point line and 64.7 percent from the free-throw line, the Nuggets are No. 12 in the NBA in scoring (98.4). The reason is that they’re relentless on the offensive glass. They lead the NBA in offensive rebound percentage, at 36.2 percent.

The Nuggets are athletic enough and deep enough that they can crash the offensive glass and still beat the other team back to play defense. Big, lumbering, slow players can’t get away with that. JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari are as athletic of a front line as any in the NBA.

Andre Iguodala would provide the defense against LeBron James, and if Ty Lawson shakes his shooting funk, the Nuggets would be a tall task for the Heat.

The Heat won in Denver 98-93 on Thursday night, in a game where they got thrashed on the glass 48-29, while giving up 21 offensive rebounds. Lawson scored zero points in the game, which won’t happen again.

No. 3: Los Angeles Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers have had their share of criticism about their early 2012-13 performances. The truth is, they are No. 12 in the NBA in scoring (98.4) and No. 12 in points allowed (94.1). This is with all of the turmoil surrounding a new offense, new players and a slew of injuries.

Now that Mike D’Antoni is in place and Dwight Howard is feeling better, the last piece is Steve Nash. Once he gets back, the offense will be remarkable. The Miami Heat don’t have an answer for the Pau Gasol-Dwight Howard tandem in the frontcourt. LeBron James will be tasked with keeping an eye on Kobe Bryant, so that will leave Chris Bosh with Howard.

Gasol is such a dynamic player, that he can play from the post or the perimeter, depending on where he’s needed most. The Heat don’t have an answer for that extra player in the paint, and most teams are struggling with the same thing. The Lakers are No. 2 in the NBA in offensive rebound percentage (35.6) and are tied for No. 1 in the Western Conference in defensive rebound percentage (74.7)

The Lakers match up well at the two spots where the Heat are most vulnerable. Point guard and center will go the Lakers’ way, and unless injuries pile up late in the year, I see the Heat needing a herculean performance from James to beat the Lakers.

No. 2: Memphis Grizzlies

The Memphis Grizzlies are a tremendous team that is opening a lot of eyes with their hot start. They are No. 4 in the NBA in points per game (102.0) and No. 3 in offensive rating (110.7). Defensively, they rank No. 6 in points allowed per game (92.8) and No. 7 in defensive rating (100.6). They can play on both ends of the court and are one of the most complete teams in basketball.

Led by one of the best stat-stuffers in the NBA in Rudy Gay, the Grizzlies have been on the cusp of greatness for a few years. Injuries have hounded them, but when they’re healthy, they’re deadly. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol make up one of the toughest front courts to defend in the NBA. Gasol is a terrific passer, as he averages 4.3 assists per game.

Mike Conley runs the show on offense and his ability to get into passing lanes and play tough defense would provide a major problem for the Heat. Defensive specialist Tony Allen is a premiere defender who can shut down just about anyone.

The Grizzlies have superb three-point shooting off the bench, with Wayne Ellington (46.2 percent), Jerryd Bayless (52.6) and Quincy Pondexter (44.0) leading the way. The only major red flag is depth in the frontcourt. If LeBron James and Dwyane Wade can get to the free-throw line and get the Grizzlies big men in trouble, there’s no help on the bench.

No. 1: Los Angeles Clippers

Take a batch of young and athletic stars and match them up with some seasoned veterans who know how to get the job done. Load the bench with some hungry young guys looking to make a name for themselves and add in a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. The result is the Los Angeles Clippers.

Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are a handful for anyone with their athleticism and energy. Caron Butler and Willie Green provide some space on the floor with their excellent three-point shooting. Jamal Crawford leads the team in scoring off the bench.

Eric Bledsoe is a star in the making as the backup point guard and we haven’t even mentioned Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups yet. This Clipper team is as deep as they come and they have a major chip on their shoulder after getting demolished in last year’s playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs.

The Clippers boast the No. 2 offense in the NBA, averaging 102.8 points per game. Their top two scorers shoot 90.2 and 91.3 percent from the free-throw line. They have the best defensive turnover percentage (17) of anyone in the league.

The Heat would have trouble with that kind of defensive pressure because they are not nearly as deep, especially in the backcourt. Paul would have a field day with the Heat point guards in a series. The only saving grace for the Heat is the lack of success that Jordan and Griffin have had in the playoffs. If those doubts start creeping back, it would be enough to allow the Heat to sneak by.

Article originally written by HoopsHabit for Bleacher Report

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