After a blistering 27-game winning streak, the Miami Heat pushed all Eastern Conference challengers out of their rear-view mirror.
Even after falling to the Chicago Bulls 101-97 on Wednesday night, the Heat stood 11.5 games ahead of their closest competitors, the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers. If the defending champs were ever going to lose their focus, it would far more likely come from a lack of competition than a complacency from their recent achievement.
But could the standings be a bit misleading? Could there be a dark horse capable of dethroning the reigning champs lurking in Miami's shadow?
To their credit, the Heat have readily answered the bell no matter what the schedule makers have thrown their way. They have defeated all 29 other teams in the league and hold a record of 33-9 against all conference foes.
There's at least a chance, though, that Miami's season could come to a crashing halt in the postseason. These six teams all present their own unique set of challenges in a potential playoff matchup.
The Milwaukee Bucks were a trendy pick to snap the Heat's streak back on March 15. By the end of that night, though, the Bucks would be known simply as victim No. 21.
Despite winding up on the wrong side of a lopsided scoreboard, 107-94, the Bucks still have the potential to play Heat spoiler.
Bolstered by a high-powered perimeter trio of Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and J.J. Redick, the Bucks are a threat to explode offensively on any given night.
Any one of the three can play the role of distributor. Ellis starts his attacks off the dribble, and Redick makes his money beyond the arc. Jennings is the most versatile of the three, capable of punishing penetrations or firing a barrage of long-range lasers.
But Milwaukee's upset chances extend to a frontcourt featuring a horde of intimidating shot-blockers. Larry Sanders, the league leader with 3.0 blocks per game, leads a group that has length (Samuel Dalembert) and athleticism (John Henson, Ekpe Udoh).
Miami has a 2-1 edge in the season series but needed overtime for that first win.
But Milwaukee's deep-sleeper standing may already be falling apart. A feud between Jennings and coach Jim Boylan boiled over when a scoreless Jennings was benched for nearly the entire second half of the team's 100-92 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on March 27 (via Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).
The lingering effects of this apparent rift will become clearer over the season's final weeks.
Milwaukee's Upset Chance: 2.5 percent
Atlanta Hawks GM Danny Ferry shocked the basketball world when he cut ties with supreme scorer Joe Johnson over the summer. Whether that shockwave came from Ferry's gutsy call to trade a six-time All-Star or from the fact that Ferry found a team willing to take on Johnson's mammoth contract is a debate best left for a different article.
In trading Johnson, Ferry put the Hawks into perhaps the best financial position of any team in the NBA. Atlanta has financial commitments to just three players for next season.
It also had the potential to derail Atlanta's streak of five consecutive postseason appearances.
But the emergence of fourth-year point guard Jeff Teague (14.8 points and 7.1 assists per game) coupled with strong seasons from forwards Josh Smith (17.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists) and Al Horford (17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds) has kept the Hawks (40-32) entrenched in the playoff picture.
The Hawks have the athletes to run the floor with Miami, and having Smith around gives them a defender who at least fits the physical profile of a player capable of somewhat slowing down LeBron James. And while they can't match Miami's perimeter depth, they do have the league's second-best three-point shooter (Kyle Korver, 45.6 percent) and another blossoming markmsan (rookie John Jenkins, 39.8 percent).
Miami swept Atlanta 4-0 this season, but the Hawks did manage to keep two of those games within single digits.
If Teague can continue his development and Hawks coach Larry Drew can keep Smith focused, Atlanta has an outside of chance of making a series interesting.
Atlanta's Upset Chance: 10 percent
Boston Celtics forward Jeff Green has probably been racking his brain the past two weeks, desperately trying to retrace the steps he took on March 18.
That was the night that his Celtics nearly stopped the streaking Heat at 22 games, thanks in no small part to Green's best Boston performance. He erupted for a career-high 43 points on an efficient 14-of-21 shooting night from the field.
While the Celtics ultimately squandered a 13-point lead in the game's final nine minutes, they did show flashes of just how dangerous they could be come playoff time.
But if Boston (37-34) can shake off an unimpressive regular season and redefine itself in the postseason, it may be doing so without some familiar faces.
Rajon Rondo won't be suiting up again this season, but the Celtics have known that for a while now. What they don't know is the health of 36-year-old Kevin Garnett. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge guessed that ankle inflammation will keep Garnett sidelined for two weeks (according to Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com) in what was anything but an official timetable.
Garnett knows his best days are behind him and said that he'll handle his career on a year-to-year basis (via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports). He mulled retirement over the summer (via Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com) before returning to the team on a three-year contract that he may or may not play out.
Why does any of this matter? Because when coupled with Ainge's uncertainty, it does not paint the brightest picture about Garnett's ability to return to the floor with the same kind of spark he's given the team all season. ESPNBoston.com's Jackie MacMullan reminded the basketball world that a vague, underexaggerated Garnett injury wound up costing him the entire 2009 postseason.
MacMullan wasn't saying that Garnett won't ever return to the floor this season, but rather saying what Celtics fans may be forced to confront—we don't know how serious the injury is and we don't know if/how it will affect him in the postseason.
Without a healthy Garnett, the Celtics have no shot of stopping the Heat. Garnett doesn't have the legs to be an intimidating shot-blocker (0.9 blocks per game), but his basketball IQ helps him close off driving lanes and put himself in prime rebounding position. He's also comfortable operating away from the basket, something he'll have to do in a potential matchup with Chris Bosh.
If Garnett is healthy, though, this is still the majority of a Celtics team that already defeated the Heat once this season and came within two points of doing it again.
Then again, this is also the same Celtics team that has now lost five of its last six games.
Boston's Upset Chance: 20 percent
Clearly the rest of the Eastern Conference has struggled to keep pace with the surging Heat, but the Brooklyn Nets have made one of the best efforts of any of them.
It doesn't sound like much, but Brooklyn's 7-3 showing in its past 10 games is the second-best1 record in the East.
The relative resurgence has had everything to do with Deron Williams reclaiming his position near the top of the point guard ranks. After spending the first three-plus months of the season looking lost, Williams has been spectacular in March. He has poured in 23.6 points (on 48.8 percent shooting from the field, 41.4 percent from deep) and dished out 7.7 assists in 12 games this month (via basketball-reference.com).
What's really made this mini-charge impressive, though, is the fact that Brooklyn's third-leading scorer, Joe Johnson, has been noticeably absent from it. He has missed three of the team's past seven games with a strained quadriceps and shot a woeful 36.8 percent from the field in the four that he played (via basketball-reference.com).
But with Williams playing at this level and Brook Lopez playing well all season (19.2 points per game, 52.3 field-goal percentage), Johnson is no greater than this club's third option right now.
MarShon Brooks and C.J. Watson can help ease Williams' scoring burden in Johnson's absence, but Brooklyn's biggest upset chances lie in the frontcourt. Gerald Wallace (6'7", 220 lbs) has the physical tools to make James work on the offensive end. The Heat don't have anything close to an interior scorer like Lopez, save for James' trips to the low block. Andray Blatche has the potential to expose Miami around the basket, and Reggie Evans (10.4 rebounds, 23.8 minutes per game) is one of the best glass cleaners in the business.
Brooklyn's track record against Miami this season is anything but favorable. The Nets are 0-3 against the Heat with an unsightly average margin of defeat (21 points per game). But two of those games came with Avery Johnson stalking Brooklyn's sideline, and Williams wasn't right in that third game.
A playoff meeting between these teams would likely come down to which team can control the pace. Miami could easily run this prodding Brooklyn team out of the gym (like it has twice this season), but if Williams can maintain his composure he can help slow the tempo.
Brooklyn's Upset Chance: 22 percent
Even prior to their streak-busting 101-97 win over Miami on March 27, the Chicago Bulls were quietly building their case as potential Eastern Conference sleepers.
And that has nothing to do with a possible Derrick Rose return, something that grows more improbable by the day.
When coach Tom Thibodeau's team is at its best, it has the potential to put forth one of the strongest defensive showings in the league.
From Kirk Hinrich at the point to Joakim Noah anchoring the interior and everywhere in between, the Bulls have toughness and defensive savvy that few other teams can match. They lured LeBron James into a place he hadn't been all season, frustrating The King with physical fouls that eventually boiled over into James' first flagrant foul of the season (via Michael Wallace of ESPN.com).
For Chicago, it's not a question of talent but rather its ability to consistently bring the same energy that was displayed for 48 minutes against Miami. In a span of two weeks, the Bulls reached the highest of highs (the aforementioned win over Miami) and the lowest of lows (a 42-point drubbing by the 26-46 Sacramento Kings on March 13).
But if the Bulls can catch the playoffs at the right time of their roller-coaster season, they're a threat for whichever team they're paired up with.
Chicago's Upset Chance: 25 percent
The Indiana Pacers have long been tabbed as one of Miami's biggest conference challengers.
And for good reason, too. They pushed the Heat to six games in a physical semifinal matchup in the 2012 playoffs. They're also one of just three teams (along with the Bulls and New York Knicks) with two wins over the defending champs this season.
Indiana's plan of attack is as simple as it is frighteningly effective.
The Pacers bully their opponents.
That physical play begins up front with former All-Stars Roy Hibbert and David West setting the tone. Paul George carries that physicality to the wings, adding an awe-inducing athleticism to the mix. Lance Stephenson's emergence and Gerald Green's return keep up that athletic play on the perimeter, while point guard George Hill brings championship experience to the equation.
One player who will not be a part of the action is former All-Star Danny Granger. He'll undergo season-ending knee surgery (via USA Today) and has played just five games this season while trying to avoid going under the knife.
It's hard to say that the Pacers have missed a beat in Granger's absence. Their 95.4 defensive rating ranks No. 1 in the league (via NBA.com), as does their 53.0 rebounding percentage.
Size and solid rebounding can give Miami problems. And the Pacers have both in spades.
Indiana's Upset Chance: 33 percent
The New York Knicks are old, slow, battered and bruised.
But with their superstar, Carmelo Anthony, closing in on 100 percent after having his knee drained, the Knicks are heating up at the right time. Their six-game winning streak now ranks as the longest in the league and grows more attractive now that they've racked up victories against the Celtics and Memphis Grizzlies in their past two games.
The Heat know just how good these Knicks can be. By Dec. 6, 2012, the Heat had suffered two 20-point losses to the Knicks, which still rank as Miami's most lopsided losses of the season.
The Knicks are not without concerns, though.
Tyson Chandler's lingering battle with a bulging disc in his neck is far from over. Amar'e Stoudemire hopes to be ready for playoff basketball (according to Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com) but can hardly be counted on for postseason production. Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace are dealing with their own injury problems.
But they're not without hope, either.
Anthony is perhaps the most well-rounded scorer in today's game, capable of tipping the scales in New York's favor on his offense alone. J.R. Smith packs perhaps the strongest offensive punch of any second-teamer in the NBA. Kenyon Martin is making countless executives question their decision not to sign the former No. 1 pick after he floated on the free-agent market for nearly the first four months of the season.
If those two are clicking and the Knicks' shooters get hot, New York can do what only one of Miami's previous 28 opponents did: beat the Heat.
New York's Upset Chance: 35 percent