Every NBA Title Contender's Biggest Roadblock to Bringing Home the Trophy
As the 2012-13 NBA regular season winds down, title contenders are beginning to separate themselves from the pack.
However, just because teams have established themselves as contenders doesn't mean that they won't encounter their fair share of on-court issues in the weeks ahead.
Whether it's an opponent's scheme or a facet of the game that teams can't seem to get a handle on, be aware that even the league's elite have flaws they must overcome in order to be crowned NBA champions.
For the purposes of this slideshow, "contenders" are the teams ranked in the top three of their conference.
Los Angeles Clippers
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Roadblock: San Antonio Spurs
The Los Angeles Clippers may hold a 2-1 season-series lead over the San Antonio Spurs, but the Spurs' recent thrashing of the Clippers reminded us just how significant a threat Gregg Popovich's bunch is to the current kings of L.A.
Not only was the Clippers' 116-90 loss to the Spurs discouraging, but it brought back memories of San Antonio's 4-0 dismantling of the Clips in the Western Conference semifinals nearly a year ago.
The Clippers possess the firepower and athleticism to sneak past several teams in the Western Conference, but it would be foolish to think that they could simply blow by the Spurs.
What will be fascinating to watch in the teams' final regular-season meeting (Mar. 29) will be who can better control the pace. Possessing contrasting styles, the Clippers have actually thrived in the half court this season, while the Spurs have played at the league's seventh-fastest pace, per Basketball-Reference.
Oklahoma City Thunder
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Roadblock: Interior defense
The elite pairing of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook lead the league's most potent offensive attack with a fearlessness that is unmatched throughout the NBA.
Unfortunately, the Oklahoma City Thunder's defense still lags behind, as evidenced by the 97.5 points per game Scott Brooks' squad allows, just the 14th-best mark in the NBA, according to Basketball-Reference.
What's more concerning is that the Thunder allow 40.8 points in the paint per game, according to TeamRankings, which ranks 13th in the NBA behind Western Conference contenders like the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets.
The Thunder's interior defense also lags behind that of the defending champion Miami Heat, who have made a notoriously small front line work to their advantage.
Moving forward, it will be on Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Hasheem Thabeet and Nick Collison to lock down the painted area and make it a place opponents fear entering.
San Antonio Spurs
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Roadblock: Oklahoma City Thunder
With three established title contenders in the Western Conference, it's clear that the San Antonio Spurs should concern themselves with one foe over the other.
Just last week, the Spurs handled the Los Angeles Clippers by a score of 116-90, thanks to superb ball movement and equally impressive offensive rotations.
Grantland's Zach Lowe noted just how good a read the Spurs seemed to have had on the Clippers:
Spurs didn't just play well last night. They played like a team who understood LAC's tendencies on D, and how to exploit them.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) February 22, 2013
With the Spurs' understanding of how the Clippers operate, the team's primary focus should be on crafting a game plan to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team that vanquished Gregg Popovich's bunch from the Western Conference Finals a year ago.
Although the Thunder appeared to be dead in the water following an 0-2 start to that playoff round, they adjusted, using their elite combination of speed and athleticism to torch the Spurs over the final four games of the series.
Ideally, we'll be treated to a Spurs-Thunder showdown in the penultimate series of the NBA season, with the proceedings lasting seven games this time around.
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Roadblock: Consistent offensive production
The Indiana Pacers are the antithesis of the Oklahoma City Thunder, in that they pride themselves on defense first while scoring the ball at an alarmingly slow rate.
Throughout the course of the 2012-13 season, the Pacers have scored over 100 points just 15 times, while they rank 26th in the NBA in points per game (93.7), according to Basketball-Reference.
Frank Vogel's squad also ranks 22nd in the league in offensive rating, posting 103.2 points per 100 possessions while playing at the league's fifth-slowest pace (89.8).
The silver lining here is that while the Pacers play at a painfully slow offensive pace, their defense ranks first in the NBA in opponent's points per game (89.4) and allows the fewest points (98.5) per 100 possessions.
While the team's defense may be able to contain the Miami Heat or the New York Knicks for a game or two at a time, that sort of aggressive play will be hard to count on consistently over the course of a seven-game series.
The return of Danny Granger should help ease some of the offensive pains the Pacers have had to this point.
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Roadblock: Indiana Pacers
Aside from the Boston Celtics, the Indiana Pacers have been the Miami Heat's staunchest competition in the Eastern Conference over the last year-and-a-half.
Although the Heat wound up bouncing the Pacers from the postseason one year ago, we shouldn't ignore the fact that the Pacers took a 2-1 series lead, holding one of the league's most prolific offenses to 75 points in consecutive games.
Now, in 2012-13, the Pacers continue to cause problems for the defending NBA champions.
The Pacers have defeated the Heat twice this season, holding LeBron James and Co. under 90 points in both meetings.
And while their defense has set the tone in both games, the Pacers have outscored the Heat by an average of 11.5 points per contest, led by the inside-outside combination of David West and Paul George.
While these regular-season numbers may be discouraging to Heat fans, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the Pacers sustain that sort of ridiculous defensive efficiency for seven games.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra is renowned for making quick and incisive adjustments, so any issues his team encounters in a potential rematch with the Pacers will likely be quelled in short order.
New York Knicks
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Roadblock: Perimeter Defense
The New York Knicks shoot the three-pointer as often and as well as any team in the NBA. Ironically, the Knicks aren't particularly adept at defending the three, which has caused some problems of late.
Head coach Mike Woodson has put smaller lineups to work this season, with one of the most lethal being the grouping comprised of Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. However, according to 82games, that five-man unit allows 1.15 points per possession and has posted a plus/minus of plus-one in 88.7 minutes this season.
While that lineup can present matchup nightmares for opponents on the offensive end, the Knicks haven't had an answer for talented wings in recent weeks, and the team's recent trade of Ronnie Brewer to the Oklahoma City Thunder won't help matters.
What's worse is that according to TeamRankings, the Knicks rank 23rd in the NBA in opponents' points from three-pointers.
To that point, in two ugly losses since the All-Star break, the Knicks have allowed the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors to shoot 45.8 and 38.9 percent, respectively, from beyond the arc.
In addition to their collective failures attempting to guard the perimeter, the Knicks don't have a lockdown defender (Iman Shumpert needs time to grow) whom they can count on to defend athletically superior wings come playoff time.
In those games against Indiana and Toronto, Paul George and Rudy Gay both went off, as George piled up 27 points (4-of-9 from three) and Gay poured in 32 points of his own.