Now that the 2013 NBA playoffs have officially been set, it's time to look at those teams that have the best chance of contending for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder are the top seeds in their respective conferences and are heavily favored to meet in a rematch of last years' NBA Finals. However, several other squads with various strengths figure to stand in the way of that marquee matchup occurring again.
Below is a power ranking of the top five title contenders and a breakdown of what allows them to garner that distinction.
5. Indiana Pacers
Thanks to stout defense, being the top rebounding team in the NBA and a less arduous road to the Finals as opposed to the hotly contested Western Conference, the Pacers come in at No. 5.
The emergence of third-year swingman Paul George has been an X-factor, as Indiana has proven it can thrive even without the services of Danny Granger.
George's offensive efficiency is much better at home, and the Pacers will have at least one series with homecourt advantage this postseason. That will likely set up a battle with the New York Knicks, whom Frank Vogel's squad actually matches up favorably.
In both home contests against the defending champion Miami Heat, the Pacers also emerged victorious. That bodes well should those two squads meet in the conference finals.
Having said that, it's hard to put a lot of stock in the regular season, but Indiana has the size up front with Roy Hibbert, David West and George to give the top two teams in the East problems. The taste of nearly going up 3-1 on the Heat in last year's postseason will also only help.
4. San Antonio Spurs
Yet another injury to Manu Ginobili would have the Spurs even lower than this if not for their immense experience.
However, Gregg Poppovich has once again pushed all the right buttons, brilliantly utilizing his deep roster and shuffling lineups around to keep his key contributors fresh for another playoff push.
Ginobili returned for the season finale against Minnesota, but whether he will be his normal self down the stretch is in reasonable doubt.
With six players averaging in double figures and Gary Neal pouring in 9.4 points per game of his own, the Spurs are an extremely balanced and fundamentally sound team.
However, making it out of the West will prove to be difficult. Even before a likely encounter with the Oklahoma City Thunder in a conference finals rematch, the Spurs will encounter a series of difficult opponents in the first two rounds.
It remains to be seen how the recent acquisition of Tracy McGrady will affect the rotation and whether the former perennial All-Star still has enough in the tank to be a factor.
San Antonio caught somewhat of a break by drawing the shorthanded Los Angeles Lakers in the quarterfinals, but this looks to be the end of an era for the power trio of Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.
3. New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony has taken the reins of this storied franchise and pushed the Knicks back to prominence. New York won its first division title since 1994 and Melo has been the driving force as the NBA's leading scorer.
Head coach Mike Woodson has cleaned up the recently sloppy Knicks, and the team has become sound defensively while averaging the fewest turnovers in the league at just 11.6 per contest.
That type of care with the basketball will go a long way in helping New York stay in games. However, trouble may loom with a physical opening round matchup against the gritty, veteran-laden Boston Celtics, who are looking to make one last push with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce as cornerstones.
The last time the Knicks advanced past the first round was in 2000, and the Indiana Pacers will likely present a difficult test in Round 2.
There is good news looms on the injury front, though, as big men Tyson Chandler, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby are all expected to be available for the playoffs. That type of length will give both of the aforementioned squads a headache and give the Knicks an edge against the undersized Miami Heat.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
Electric point guard Russell Westbrook is averaging a career high in three-point attempts with nearly four per game and he's hitting just over 32 percent of them.
It will be interesting to see how his shot selection is throughout the playoffs. There is no denying how explosive he is, but he has plenty of other options to defer to—not least among them being fellow superstar Kevin Durant.
Serge Ibaka has developed a heck of a mid-range game and his increase in scoring output has helped absorb the loss of James Harden. Westbrook can also effectively use Ibaka in pick-and-roll situations now that the big man can knock down jumpers from the outside.
New sixth-man Kevin Martin has also performed exceptionally, averaging 14 points in his first season in Oklahoma City.
With so much star power and its nucleus relatively intact, the West's top seed has one of the best home advantages in the league and will have that at their disposal through the West finals.
Oklahoma City has all the tools to reach the NBA Finals once again despite the cluttered nature of its conference, but getting past the Heat is going to be another matter.
1. Miami Heat
It's hard to fathom the reigning champions losing four out of seven games to anyone.
LeBron James will likely run away with his fourth league MVP award, playing his best basketball ever.
The more assertive role that James has taken has seen Dwyane Wade play second-fiddle more frequently. Wade is not declining, even if his 21.2 points per game are the lowest since his rookie season.
That average still ranks eighth in the NBA and he's actually become more efficient than ever, shooting over 50 percent for the first time in his career as a beneficiary of James' facilitation ability.
Chris Andersen has been a crucial spark off the bench and gives Miami an imposing interior presence on defense that it simply didn't have before his arrival. Veteran three-point sharpshooter Ray Allen has enhanced the versatility of the Heat's offense as well.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra has a surprising amount of flexibility in the lineups he chooses to deploy moving forward, but it probably won't take much tweaking to get the Heat back to the Finals out of the association's inferior conference.
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