Ranking the Miami Heat Among the NBA's Title Contenders
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After a proverbial slumber of sorts, the Miami Heat have finally looked dominant in two back-to-back road performances, but to be fair, they weren’t against the mightiest of competition.
The Steph Curry-less Golden State Warriors and woeful Los Angeles Lakers are hardly the cream of the NBA crop (especially the latter), but regardless, wins are wins.
Aside from these recent performances, the Heat, despite some road bumps, have looked by and large like they’re still just as threatening as they were last year.
So, that being said, where do the Heat rank among the current title contenders?
5. New York Knicks
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Sure, some recent losses to the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls might dampen the initial Knicks hype from early this season, but whatever your opinion of New York happens to be, they’re still legitimate contenders.
Carmelo Anthony has been solid and stable throughout most of the season, and the rest of the complementary pieces have been outstanding. Now with Amar’e Stoudemire coming back, it will only further enhance the Knicks’ ability to score and rebound.
The Knicks are at their best when they’re shooting the ball well. Without the three-ball falling, they just aren’t as threatening, and it also means the onus of generating offense falls much more on Melo to score more, and the more one-dimensional an offense is, the easier it is to shut down.
Either way, nobody wants to see the Knickerbockers in a seven-game series. They are a streaky team that can torch you if they get hot from behind the arc early, and with an elite scorer with a gritty defense behind him, there’s no telling what they’ll be capable of if given the opportunity.
While they should be optimistic in New York, whether this Knicks team can get it done come playoff time remains to be seen, but hopefully for their sake, better seeding will ensure an easier first round match-up than last year’s opening bout against the Heat.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
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There is no denying it—the Clippers have been impressively dominant.
As if the changing of the guard for best team in Los Angeles wasn’t interesting enough, the Clippers steamrolled their way to a 17-game winning streak behind their improved bench.
What makes the Clippers scary is the fact that their depth will allow their starters to stay fresh all season long—something Chris Paul will love to have going into the playoffs this season.
After looking fairly banged up after last year's brutal Memphis Grizzlies-Clippers series in Round 1, nagging injuries and a smothering San Antonio Spurs’ defense proved too much.
A more offensively polished Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have also been impressive—these guys aren’t just catching lobs out there, they’re seriously doing work on the low-block and other facets of the game more consistently.
Also, Jamal Crawford has been a one-man wrecking machine when he has the ball in his hands, and he adds another dimension to an already lethal Clippers’ offense. A great regular season is all well and good, but let’s see if the Clippers can get out of the second round this year.
3. San Antonio Spurs
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It’s yet another season and the Spurs are still staving off the effects of Father Time to the tune of 31-11 so far. The Spurs' deadly perimeter game and unstoppable Tony Parker-Tim Duncan pick-and-roll still gives defenses fits, and it helps to have a deep, versatile roster that knows their respective roles.
Now as much as we love to harp on their age, they still have some solid, youthful players. Kawhi Leonard especially stands out as a incredibly versatile sharpshooter who can still put the ball on the floor and guard the opposing teams' taller wings. Danny Green is also a solid shooter and does a good job of solidifying the Spurs' core.
But again, the Spurs having a great regular season is nothing new.
We’ve heard this story before. We know how good this team can be, and with Coach Gregg Popovich at the helm, there is no questioning the discipline and resolve of this collective unit.
Despite the discipline, the solid core and depth, will age and fatigue of the key parts be a factor, something that seemed apparent in last year’s Western Conference Finals?
There is no doubt about it, we cannot count these guys out, but the wear and tear of a long season can prove to be too much regardless of an individual’s talent or ability.
They’re a solid team, but it’s possible they might fall just short of a NBA Finals berth because of the new sheriff in town.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
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As we saw right before our eyes last year in the Western Conference Finals, there was a changing of the guard.
No longer were the likes of the Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers the best in the West—no, rather than aged, wily vets, it was a rag-tag contingent of gravity-defying scorers and lockdown defenders that proved victorious.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are having career years in several key categories, Serge Ibaka is shooting better than ever and Kevin Martin is filling just fine in the absence of their old beloved sixth man, James Harden.
This team hasn’t missed a beat, and they look just as frightening to the competition as they did last year, perhaps more so.
There isn’t a team in the West with the combination of athleticism, scoring and defense that the Thunder possess, and with a scorer like Martin coming off the bench, they can still sustain the high level of play even with starters taking a breather.
Just like their arch-nemesis in the East, the Thunder stand atop their conference with confidence and focus. There is no question that redemption for a disappointing 2011-12 campaign is priority No. 1, and considering they are virtually the same team in most aspects, expect the Thunder to come out as champs of the Western conference yet again.
1. Miami Heat
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Similar to last year, the Heat are the big bullies of the East. Frankly, as great as their record is, it isn’t truly reflective of what this team is capable of, and as we mentioned earlier, it appears as if the sleeping giant might be stirring back to consciousness after some recent inconsistency on the road.
The Heat’s perimeter attack and bench was solidified with the acquisitions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, and the continued maturity of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole ensures they will have serviceable options at point for some time to come.
The biggest thing for the Heat is consistency. The team is at its best when they are playing their high-intensity pressure defense. Denying passing lanes, trapping ball handlers and forcing bad decisions is what they do best, but again, it all depends on their effort and focus.
Some nights, especially on the road, the Heat look lackadaisical and disinterested, two things that will lead to stagnancy and sloppy play.
Like the Thunder, this is a team that excels in the open court, and if everyone doesn’t show up with their track shoes, they are a team that just isn’t as effective. If this team is motivated and focused, they are undoubtedly the best team in the league.
Their ability to force turnovers, push the pace and eviscerate opposing defenses with their dribble penetration is masterful, and perhaps only a handful of rosters have the personnel to do the same.
The key for the Heat aside from the obvious things—you know, stretching the floor with threes, defensive intensity, etc., is ultimately, staying hungry for a repeat.
They’ve done it before, and they can undoubtedly do it again, but if they don’t show up come playoff time with the same intensity as last year, the hungrier team will outlast them.
Until someone can definitively prove otherwise, the Heat are still the prime favorites to win it all yet again.