The Miami Heat are clearly the heavy favorites to win the Eastern Conference for the third season in a row. That should come as a surprise to no one.
But will LeBron James and Co. be tested on their quest for a second straight NBA title? As the intensity increases on a nightly basis, the true contenders will separate themselves from the pack.
The path to the 2012 championship was a bumpy ride for the Heat, who ran into problems against both the Indiana Pacers and the Boston Celtics. The Pacers pushed Miami to six games in the second round and Boston battled them to the seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The difference in both of those series was James, who is on pace for his fourth NBA MVP award in five years. That’s an impressive feat, but here’s the scary part for the rest of the conference: James is playing the best ball of his career.
LeBron’s career averages for field-goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage are 48.9 percent and 33.6 percent, respectively. This season, he is shooting 56.7 percent from the field and knocking down 41.2 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
If any team were to knock off Miami in the playoffs (the key word there is “if”), it will likely be one of these five squads. Here are the top threats to the Heat in the Eastern Conference:
5. Boston Celtics
Even without All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, haven’t we learned our lesson about doubting the Celtics?
Boston nearly shocked the world by taking the Heat to the brink of elimination in the ECF last year. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett would love nothing more than another shot at James to cap off their brilliant careers.
LeBron put on a legacy-cementing performance to stave off elimination in TD Garden in Game 6 of the ECF last season. But what if he didn’t completely shake off his Celtic demons? Pierce, KG and the Celtics have always been a thorn in James’ side. And then there’s the lingering sting of Boston losing Ray Allen to the enemy that could also serve as extra motivation for the Celtics.
Boston currently holds the seventh seed in the East. The rest of the conference surely would not mind if the Celtics slipped to the eighth spot and earned a first-round matchup with the Heat.
The Nets have a weapon to use against the Heat that most of their Eastern Conference counterparts don’t have: a superstar duo.
At least that’s what folks around the league thought before the season. Both Deron Williams and Joe Johnson have underachieved in their first season together, but perhaps they are saving their best ball for the playoffs.
Still, the duo is probably the best in the conference after Dwayne Wade and James, at least on the offensive end. It’s a luxury to have two players on the court that can create their own shots at the end of the games, especially when Miami turns up the heat on defense in the postseason.
The Nets also boast a solid scoring big man in Brook Lopez. One of Miami’s glaring weaknesses is its lack of interior defense. Lopez could pose problems in the paint against Chris Bosh, Joel Anthony and Chris Anderson while James is preoccupied with Williams and Johnson.
Stick an asterisk next to this one. If Derrick Rose does not return, the Bulls fall to No. 4 on this list. If he returns and eventually plays close to MVP form, the Bulls jump to No. 2. For now, they sit as the third-biggest threat to the Heat in the East.
Simply put, the Bulls do not have enough on offense without Rose to compete with the upper echelon teams in the NBA. They have completely wilted in recent contests against the Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder. If Rose returns with a vengeance, he mightily improves Chicago’s offense and gives the Bulls a chance to be competitive for the Eastern Conference title.
Chicago also has one of the stingiest defenses in the league and coach Tom Thibodeau is the ultimate mastermind at devising defensive schemes. Remember, he was Boston’s assistant coach when the Celtics defeated James and his top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
This is important because James and Wade often utilize ball screens to force the defense to switch defenders. This strategy pins slow forwards one-on-one with both of these dynamic players and both get to the line often. Gibson and Noah have proven that they could, at times, effectively defend James and Wade in those situations.
The second-best offensive player in the East is Carmelo Anthony. Superstars dominate the game and for that reason, the Knicks have to be considered a threat to Miami’s throne.
The Knicks have cooled off since their hot start, and they currently sit in third place in the conference. New York has two weapons that the Dallas Mavericks used to exploit Miami in the 2011 NBA Finals: Tyson Chandler and deadly 3-point shooting.
Chandler is the best interior defender in the East. He does a tremendous job protecting the paint without fouling, which is a vital skill against the attacking duo of Wade and James. Chandler is also a tough matchup for Bosh.
The Knicks rank sixth in the NBA in 3-point field goal percentage. Anthony, J.R. Smith and Steve Novak are all streaky shooters from downtown and each could pose problems by spreading out the Heat defense. Jason Kidd, who directed the Mavericks attack in the 2011 finals, is another strong 3-point shooter who specializes at finding teammates for open shots.
1. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers boast a deep, talented roster with scoring threats at every position. The X-factor for Indiana is former All-Star Danny Granger, who played 19 minutes in his first appearance of the season on Sunday, Feb. 24.
If Granger, who suffered a knee injury in last year’s playoffs, can become the No. 1 scoring option once again for the Pacers before the postseason, Indiana becomes a legitimate threat to deny Miami another shot at the title.
The emergence of Paul George has been a major reason why Indiana has vaulted past Chicago in the Central Division this season. George is a ridiculously athletic, 6’8″ wing who could defend either James or Wade.
The Pacers also surprisingly rank first in the league in allowing the fewest points per game this season. Their physical play on defense caused Miami problems in the playoffs last year and this Indiana team is much deeper.
While other contenders in the East have searched the free agent and trade markets for a secondary superstar, the Pacers have quietly developed one in the past three seasons. George has grown into one of the league’s best players, earning his first All-Star nod this season.
If Granger is healthy, he and George form a dynamic pair that could at least keep Wade and James in check. For that reason, Indiana is the top threat to Miami in the East.