Paul George and the Indiana Pacers stand the best chance of dethroning LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
Still in the thick of the 26-game win streak that has granted them a cushy 12-game lead in the Eastern Conference, the Heat are almost literally unbeatable.
In a seven-game series, the Pacers are that pesky underdog who can crush the Heat's dreams of a repeat championship.
Past Success Against Miami
The Pacers matched up against the Heat in the second round of the 2012 playoffs and dominated the first half of the series, grabbing themselves a 2-1 advantage. Some were so convinced of the Pacers' superiority that after that third game, there was even overly reactionary talk of disassembling the eventual NBA champions.
Though an Indiana triumph did not come to fruition, the fight that the Pacers put up was quite impressive. For a young team to show the grit to stand fearlessly against a team like Miami is what you want to see in a championship team.
This season the Pacers have shown that their ability to compete with the NBA's premier team was no aberration. In the first two contests, both in Indiana, the Pacers held their own, smoothly handing the Heat a pair of double-digit losses.
Which team stands the best chance of beating the Heat in the playoffs?
In the most recent matchup between the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, the Heat struck back with a cushy 105-91 home win of their own. The Heat's blowout came in the comforts of American Airlines Arena, where they are 32-3. Also, it came right in the heart of their winning streak, when they have been playing their A-game every night.
The Pacers would get their chance to host the Heat three times at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where they are 28-8. Winning a road game against the Heat would be challenging, but in the playoffs, you just need to steal one to alter the dynamics of a series.
The primary issue that the Pacers pose for the Heat is their defense. They are the top ranked team in defensive efficiency, at 0.949, which is head-and-shoulders above the second-ranked team, Memphis, which has a significantly higher defensive efficiency of 0.965.
The heart of the Pacers' defense stands in their frontcourt. Between the 7'2" Roy Hibbert, 6'11" Ian Mahinmi and another quartet of core players over 6'8", it is tough for any team to score against Indiana in the paint. They allow a league-best 34.8 points in the paint. That will help to stifle Miami's prolific offense: the Heat rely on scoring in the paint for 41.2 percent of their points per game.
The Pacers are also wonderful at preventing fast-break points. They have earned the top spot in fast-break points allowed per game, at just 9.5. The Heat, while not overly reliant on the fast-break, still score an average of 12.6 of their points on it.
If those weren't enough facets of defense to be exemplary at, the Pacers also rank first in opponent three-point field goal percentage, at 32.1 percent. Miami can be overly reliant on the three-pointers at times, as 23.8 percent of their total scoring can be accounted for by the long ball.
The other area in which the Pacers are unmatched is rebounding.
They flat-out dominate the rest of the field in that facet of the game, leading the league with 46.3 rebounds per game. Perhaps even more eye-popping is their plus-5.2 rebounding differential, which is 1.3 ahead of Memphis, the second ranked team.
As good as the Heat are, they have a glaring hole in the rebounding department. Their rebound-per-game ranking sits at the opposite end of the leaderboard as the Pacers'. They average a putrid 38.3 rebounds per game, which is last in the league.
Miami's record speaks to the lack of hurt they have felt from their inefficiencies on the boards. But if the swing is thrown heavily in the Pacers' favor, the extra possessions and second chances could make things a little less comfy for the Heat.
Danny Granger Return
Right now, the Pacers have a trio of good scoring options in Paul George, David West and George Hill, each of whom scores at least 14 points per game. That is not enough to outgun the firepower the Heat packs. The Pacers' 94.4 points per game ranks only 21st in the NBA.
With the success the Pacers have enjoyed this season, it is easy to overlook the fact that their offensive output has been achieved largely without the assistance of Danny Granger.
Granger has been a vital contributor over the past several seasons for the Pacers. During three of his last four seasons, Granger has averaged over 20 points per game, to go along with his perennial five-plus rebounds per game.
The good news is, Granger will return by the playoffs. With Granger back, the Pacers will have a dynamic scorer to complement the rest of their offense. Perhaps he will not be as excellent as he was before his leave, but he will add plenty of pop to Indiana's offense.
Why They Have a Better Chance Than Other Teams
Of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, no one offers as many problems for the Heat as do the Pacers.
The Celtics pushed Miami to the brink in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. Those resilient Celtics have had a facelift, now without Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo, two key contributors last season. Not to mention the year of age stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have added since the last time the two teams met.
The Knicks, who currently rank third in the Eastern Conference standings, are smoke and mirrors. After their 18-5 start, they have been remarkably inconsistent, posting pedestrian 24-21 record.
Several teams from the Western Conference raise some questions against the Heat. But in a conference brimming with talented teams, and only one seat for a finals spot, the likelihood of any one of those teams surviving to dine with the Heat is far less than the Pacers'.
The Spurs currently sit atop the Western Conference standings and have the effective offense the Pacers lack, but they have some problems. With their star players all in their 30s, keeping pace with the ultra-athletic Heat would be difficult. The Spurs also don't have the kind of capabilities on defense as the Pacers.
The Thunder matched up against the Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals, but the matchup proved to be lopsided, with Miami's overwhelming 4-1 series victory.
The Thunder are now without James Harden, who was a key component in last year's finals team. Granted, Harden was not up to his usual standard of excellence during that series, but he was an factor that gave the Thunder an edge. Not to mention the Thunder's 0-2 record against the Heat during the regular season.
The Nuggets, who have been nearly as hot as the Heat lately, certainly have the offensive and rebounding prowess to give the Heat fits. The Nuggets are ranked second in the league in rebounding and third in scoring. Their deficiency comes with their defense. They allow 101.0 points per game, which is 24th best in the league. That will not be enough to contain the Heat's offense, which has already dropped 116 and 98 against Denver in their two victories over the Nuggets this season.
And to end with one last bit of evidence for the point. The Heat are 1-2 against the Pacers' this season. Against those top three Western Conference teams, they are 5-0.