This year, the playoff race is made up of your postseason regulars, some young up-and-comers and the overwhelming favorites.
Here we’ll separate the pretenders from the contenders and identify which five teams you can expect to make some late-season noise.
After surrendering last year’s NBA championship on their own court, the Miami Heat have positioned themselves on a favorable path back to the Finals.
Although they’ve split decisions during their recent eight-game stretch, Miami still holds the third-best record in the league.
In a seven-game playoff series, this might prove to be crucial.
With the Eastern Conference’s second seed and a 20-2 home record, the Heat have made it nearly impossible to win in South Beach.
Led by the “Big Three” of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, not only does Miami have a multitude of scoring options, but with Mario Chalmers, also the fiercest set of perimeter defenders that the league has to offer.
While the team ranks second in average point differential (+7.3), they lack an interior defensive presence that matches their suffocating perimeter play.
This deficiency places an extra burden on the back-court and forces the guards to exert extra effort when it comes to rebounding.
This will prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the star-loaded team as they progress in their playoff run.
Their tremendous depth is accompanied by their tremendous defensive effort.
Even in the extended absence of players like Rose, Richard Hamilton, C.J. Watson and Luol Deng, second-year coach Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls playing at a consistently high level.
The Bulls have the traits of a team that does everything the correct way.
Their 45.9 rebounds and 88.9 points allowed rank as first and second in the entire league.
Unlike Miami, they offer a four-man front-court rotation that stretches the defense, crashes the boards, plays great weak side help defense and provides energy off the bench.
In a slowed playoff series, this type of stability and versatility is exactly what they need to defeat the Miami Heat.
The Oklahoma City Thunder close out my group of “overwhelming favorites”.
No longer is this team up-and-coming. They are here.
The Thunder lead the Western Conference with an average point differential of +6.6.
Not only do they have two superstars who can explode for 50 on any given night, but also a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in James Harden.
The return of shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only does his presence give OKC an elite wing defender, but also allows them 24 games to completely solidify the rotation as the playoffs near.
Aside from a dynamic scoring punch, the Thunder boast one of the most physical and intimidating group of post defenders in Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka.
Although the two don’t pose as serious scoring threats, they fit the needs of the team perfectly.
Similar to the Chicago Bulls, they rebound the ball extremely well and just like the Miami Heat, are most dangerous when in transition.
With 16 games remaining on their schedule, expect them to close the season as the top seed out west and for the Western Conference championship to include them.
These postseason regulars will enter the 2012 playoffs as more of a wild-card team.
While they have their own version of the “Big Three” in Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, they are still getting acclimated to first-year head coach Mike Brown, and the addition of Ramon Sessions into the starting lineup.
Sessions has provided the Los Angeles Lakers with an offensive element of dribble-penetration that they’ve been lacking for years; however, he has not played a meaningful game in his four-year career.
His seven-game stint in LA has given the team a sense of confidence and excitement, but it has also coincided with Bynum’s open defiance.
The Lakers cannot afford to stray from their most efficient offensive weapon in a time that so much remains undecided.
If Los Angeles can get over these issues, they’ll come to realize that they have a roster that is built for an extended playoff run.
Aside from their plethora of championship experience, the slower playoff pace plays right into the hands of a team that is centered on execution and rarely runs in transition.
After giving the Oklahoma City Thunder all they could handle in last year’s Western Conference Semifinals, the Memphis Grizzlies are poised to capitalize on their blown opportunity.
Although All-Star power forward Zach Randolph has been limited to only 11 games of action, the team has managed to stay in contention.
Mike Conley, Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol have filled in admirably and alone, would’ve given any playoff team some serious issues.
The return of Randolph gives them additional depth along the front-line and a proven 20-point scorer for their playoff run.
While the team doesn’t excel at any certain area, they carry a blue-collar mentality and play each contest as if it were their last.
Even though it will take some time for Randolph to reach game-shape, Memphis should be more than ready to improve on their most recent playoff run.