Ranking Three Possible Finals Opponents for Miami Heat

David WeissCorrespondent IIIJanuary 14, 2013

Ranking Three Possible Finals Opponents for Miami Heat

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    Give the Miami Heat credit—it's been three years since its free agent bonanza in 2010 and they have remained the prohibitive favorites to win the title to date. 

    Predicting champions in the NBA these days, however, is a simple formula. 

    While many deduce that it involves some breakdown of a team's performance in the regular season as well its cumulative success in the postseason over recent years, it really comes down to numbers. 

    Count how many superstars a team has and if the number equals more than one, you can basically pencil them in for a Conference Finals appearance at the very least. 

    Unless, of course, defensively-deficient coaches, injury-riddled big men and future Hall of Famers with not-so-subtle ulterior motives come into the equation. 

    In any case, when it comes to talent, two facts hold true: The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder stand a foot above its peers, and the Western Conference is much deeper and tougher to navigate out of than the East. 

    With all due respect to the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics, there are three teams in the league that pose a far bigger threat to Miami's chances of repeating. 

    And to no one's surprise, they all play in the wild, wild West. 

#3. Memphis Grizzlies

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    No one ever knows what to expect from the Memphis Grizzlies

    Two years ago, they stood as one of the handful of eight-seeded teams to ever eliminate a one-seed in the first round of the playoffs, defeating the San Antonio Spurs in six games

    In contrast, they blew a 27-point lead in Game One of their first round series against the Los Angeles Clippers last year, ultimately getting eliminated in seven games

    Over the past few weeks, the Grizzlies have been hounded with trade rumors surrounding team cornerstone Rudy Gay.

    And yet, you'd never guess that they'd won four of their last five games, including an overtime win against the San Antonio Spurs.  

    With an imposing frontcourt of Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies are one of the few teams in the NBA with the kind of size to beat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. 

    In the Heat's only match thus far against the Grizz this season, they were trounced at home, 104-86

    With Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Kevin Love reeling from injuries and Father Time taking its toll on Tim Duncan, you could make a legitimate argument that Zach Randolph is the best big man in the game. 

    That makes the Memphis Grizzlies the biggest dark horse of the 2013 NBA Playoffs and one of the three teams in the NBA with a shot at dethroning the champs. 

#2. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Chris Paul is the best leader in the NBA. 

    In only two years, he's elevated a franchise that was always known as a laughingstock into an elite team that currently boasts one of the league's best records.

    Beyond that, the Clippers' depth and chemistry is unparalleled. Have we seen a team with such an schoolyard vibe since LeBron James was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers? Probably not. 

    Here's the real dirty secret though: Blake Griffin is starting to evolve from being just an All-Star caliber highlight reel to a legitimate superstar

    In Miami's loss to the Clippers earlier this year, Griffin torched Miami for 20 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and two blocks in only 30 minutes of play. 

    Before you stop me and say, "Well, it's just the regular season and the Heat are saving themselves for the playoffs," think about this:

    Beyond LeBron James, how much more talented are the Clippers than the Miami Heat?

    It's almost staggering to think about. 

    Say what you will about the reversal of fortune between LA's two basketball teams, but ultimately, the difference comes down to depth and leadership. And if Blake Griffin can be just as dominant in the playoffs as he was against Miami in their first matchup of the season, we may be vastly underestimating the potential of Lob City. 

#1. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Just because Miami defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder on Christmas Day with the same kind of relative ease that it did in last year's NBA Finals, you probably think a James Harden-less Thunder team is going to be just another walk in the park again this year.


    The one play that changed the entire complexion of the series happened in Game Two, when Kevin Durant was guarded by LeBron James in the waning seconds and a foul may or may not have been committed. 

    Just imagine for a second if a foul was called and the Thunder won that game to take a 2-0 series lead in the NBA Finals? 

    Do you really think Miami wouldn't have started getting in its own head as the series moved to South Beach? How those haunting memories of the 2011 collapse in the NBA Finals would have transitioned from motivation to crippling self-doubt? 

    Because I do. 

    And you know what? If the Thunder make it out of the Western Conference again this year, it's beginning to look like they will probably host the Finals yet again. 

    Now, I'm not saying that they are any better or tougher than they were last year. 

    I just know this: 

    1. They won't overlook the sizable advantage that comes with playing at home during the NBA Finals a second time around. 

    2. The last time we saw a team fueled as much by vengeance as them, it was the 2012 Miami Heat who were coming off a Finals defeat to the Dallas Mavericks

    No wonder Kevin Durant seems a bit edgier this year.