The Miami Heat reaffirmed their spot atop the NBA pyramid with a convincing 110-100 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City Thursday night. It was the Heat's seventh win in their last eight meetings with the Thunder, dating back to last season.
While Oklahoma City remains the biggest threat to the Heat's throne, there are several other teams nipping at Miami's heels. The San Antonio Spurs have the best record in the league once again, and the Los Angeles Clippers, led by Chris Paul, are running away with the Pacific Division.
The New York Knicks, currently the No. 2 seed in the East, crushed the Heat in each of their two meetings this season. The Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers are two defensive-minded teams that pushed Miami to the limit in the playoffs last year.
The Knicks cooled off after a blazing 19-6 start, going 13-12 over their last 25 games. Jason Kidd, Ronnie Brewer and J.R. Smith have lost the touch from behind the arc, and the team is relying too heavily on Carmelo Anthony offensively.
However, the Knicks' fantastic start was not a fluke. Their success was built upon defensive intensity and solid ball movement. New York had impressive victories over the Miami Heat and swept the season series against the San Antonio Spurs.
ESPNNewYork's Ian O'Connor aptly compared this Knicks team to the 2011 Champion Dallas Mavericks, with Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd on both teams and Carmelo Anthony playing the role of Dirk Nowitzki.
That Mavs team started off 24-6, then lost 10 of 13 games before righting the ship and winning 18 of 19. New York is capable of putting together a title run if it picks up its defense and diversifies its offensive attack.
The Indiana Pacers have hit their stride after a slow start. Frank Vogel's club is 22-10 in their last 32 games and enter the break with a 32-21 record. They are in first place in the Central Division and are the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
Indiana has thrived without Danny Granger, its leading scorer in each of the past five seasons, who has missed the entire season while recovering from a knee injury. Paul George has blossomed in Granger's absence, averaging career highs in nearly every statistical category.
The Pacers' success has been predicated on their relentless team defense, which according to ESPN.com ranks first in defensive efficiency. Their size in the paint presents a difficult matchup for smaller teams like the Miami Heat.
Danny Granger is set to return after the All-Star break (via ESPN.com). Indiana gave the Heat all they could handle in the playoffs last season; with Granger back in the mix, the Pacers are the favorites to meet Miami in the conference finals this year.
It is not often that a team considered to be a title contender trades its leading scorer midseason, as the Memphis Grizzlies did when they shipped Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors. Lionel Hollins was not happy about the move. The Memphis coach quipped,
“When you have champagne taste, you can't be on a beer budget. It's a small market and I understand the economics of being in a small market." (via Yahoo.com)
Thus far, it does not appear as if the trade has affected team morale; the Grizzlies are 4-2 since Gay left town.
Devotees of analytics point out that Gay's PER prior the trade (14.2) was below average and his 43.8 effective shooting percentage was awful (courtesy of basketball-reference.com). Memphis also defeated the San Antonio Spurs and took the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games in the 2011 playoffs without Gay.
The team is built around Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, who pose a very difficult matchup for any team. Memphis is still capable of knocking off any of the big boys in the Western Conference.
Denver Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri has maintained financial flexibility while putting together a competitive and exciting team. Denver will not be represented in this weekend's All-Star Game, but it goes two-deep at every position and has six players scoring in double figures.
At 33-11, the Nuggets are currently the fifth seed in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference and well-positioned to move up in the standings. 17 of their remaining 28 games are in Denver, where they are 22-3 this season.
The question is: Will their model for success carry over into the postseason?
Denver is a quick and athletic team that likes to push the ball up the floor. According to ESPN.com, it plays at the second fastest pace in the league. The game tends to slow down in the playoffs, however, and without a superstar to create shots in the halfcourt, Coach Karl's club will struggle to score against elite teams.
This year's Los Angeles Clippers is vastly improved over the team that was swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs last season. The Clippers are 39-17 at the break, and if Chris Paul had not missed 12 games due to a knee injury, they would likely be in contention for the league's best record.
Their defensive efficiency is ranked sixth in the league, compared to 18th last season, according to ESPN.com. Los Angeles also beefed up their bench in the offseason with the acquisitions of the Sixth Man of the Year front-runner, Jamal Crawford, and forwards Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes.
San Antonio shut down the Clippers' attack in the playoffs by taking the ball out of Paul's hands. In Crawford, L.A. has another perimeter player who can create shots. The big question for the Clippers heading into the playoffs will be whether Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan can thrive in a halfcourt game.
The Spurs do not receive enough credit for their regular season success during the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan era. Pop's teams have won 50 games in 14 of his 15 full seasons as head coach. The lone exception came during the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season, in which the Spurs won the NBA Championship.
Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are another year older, though the Spurs still have the best record in the league at 42-12. That's with Duncan, Ginobili and starting small forward Kawhi Leonard having missed 10, 11 and 19 games, respectively.
Leonard could be a difference maker for San Antonio this year. The second-year forward is a lockdown wing defender in a Bruce Bowen mold with more of an offensive game. He can help the Spurs match Oklahoma City's athleticism if the two teams meet in the conference finals.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have shown no ill effects from trading James Harden. Remarkably, three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant has continued to improve and is averaging career highs in assists, steals and field-goal percentage.
OKC trails San Antonio by two-and-a-half games at the break, but they have to feel confident that they can beat the Spurs in the playoffs after overcoming a 2-0 deficit against them in the Western Conference Finals.
The Miami Heat are a different story. The Heat swept the season series with the Thunder with a 110-100 victory Thursday night.
Durant scored 40 points in the loss and Westbrook added 26, but no other OKC player was in double figures. Serge Ibaka contributed just six points and six rebounds, compared to Chris Bosh's 20 and 12 for the Heat. If the two teams meet in the Finals, Ibaka must be the best big man on the floor in order for the Thunder to have a chance.
The Miami Heat coasted through the first few months of the season. Then they turned on the defensive pressure that carried them to a championship last season and put the league on notice by winning their last seven games before the All-Star break.
The exclamation point came Thursday night in Oklahoma City. Miami jumped on the Thunder from the opening whistle, outscoring OKC 32-17 in the first quarter, and went on to win the game 110-100.
LeBron is playing the best basketball of his career, Dwyane Wade has rounded into form after offseason knee surgery and Coach Spoelstra has more weapons at his disposal this season with the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. Barring an injury to the Big Three, it is hard to imagine a team stopping them from repeating as NBA champions.