As the 2013 NBA playoffs get underway, the burning question on everyone's mind is simple.
Who will have the guns to take down the reigning champs?
The Miami Heat have a near-record winning streak under their belts this season, the planet's best player (LeBron James) and a supporting cast that would likely win 50 games and make the postseason without No. 6.
However, the playoffs are about more than just the top-seeded teams. Dark-horse candidates to win the title are always fun to predict—in large part because the expected norm can be quite boring from time to time.
That being said, who can outshine the Heat enough to either oust the defending champs in the Eastern Conference rounds or NBA Finals?
Odds are there for a reason, and odds are Miami is going to go to the final series of the year in June. In case it doesn't, though, here are five teams that could unseat Miami at the top of the NBA heap (and no, one of them is not the Milwaukee Bucks in six games).
*For the purposes of this piece, "dark-horse" candidates are no higher than the No. 3 seed in either conference, eliminating San Antonio, Oklahoma City and New York (Knicks) from contention.
5. Chicago Bulls
If Chicago can get a full complement of players back, its playoff chances start looking more like a No. 1 or 2 seed than a No. 5 seed. If not, No. 5-seed territory sounds about right.
In addition to the soap opera that is Derrick Rose's surgically-repaired knee, the Bulls have had to deal with injuries to center Joakim Noah (limited at best against the Brooklyn Nets, via the Chicago Tribune), power forward Taj Gibson and guard Kirk Hinrich at various points this season.
While the future is bright for this franchise with those pieces in place, the present is bleak without them.
Still, Chicago had its best player cut right out from under it before the year even began and the team still managed to win 40-plus games and capture one of the top-five seeds in the Eastern Conference.
Impressive is the only word to describe it.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau has done more for the Bulls than anyone in the coach's chair since Phil Jackson, and he'll have to survive the first round as the team awaits the medical decisions on Rose, Noah and Gibson for the long term.
Chicago gets a place in the top five here because of its stingy defense, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds this season.
4. Denver Nuggets
Oh what a difference a week makes.
After crashing the Western Conference playoff picture this season with depth, athleticism and the surprise use of Andre Iguodala as a shooting guard after he arrived in the four-team trade that sent Dwight Howard to Los Angeles, the Nuggets were on a crash-course to the top of the conference and a showdown with the No. 2 seed in Round 2.
Now, Denver's a popular pick to get upset in the first round by the upstart Golden State Warriors.
With the loss of key cog Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried coming into the playoffs limping, the Nuggets are going to be in for a dog fight if they want to move on past the Warriors' potent offensive attack.
Still, Denver has some of the best depth in the NBA. It features at least four wing players who can go off at any moment and Ty Lawson might be the most underrated point guard in the league.
With that in mind, keep Denver in the mix to emerge from the West—but don't count on it.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Lob City was seriously threatened by Florida Gulf Coast's Dunk City this season as the best rim-rocking team in the nation, but at this point, the Clippers are happy to be known for more than just alley-oops.
Lump them into the category of teams capable of winning 50 games, showing depth and poise in the face of adversity and having a floor general (Chris Paul) who is quietly one of the most-clutch gamers in the NBA today.
While Paul is busy averaging 52.0 points per 48 minutes of crunch time (last five minutes of a game when score is either tied or within five points either way, courtesy of 82games.com), his teammates are busy improving.
Veteran leadership is in place (Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill). A lockdown defender (Matt Barnes) is there if they need it, and a bench scorer (Jamal Crawford) can come in and score 10 points more quickly than most teams can make defensive adjustments.
While I like the Clippers to go as far as Paul, Blake Griffin and Vinny Del Negro—yes, I said it, the coach—take them, I'm not sold on the team's overall defense or halfcourt offense to be good enough to beat Miami. Still, there's more talent on this team than most of the teams getting ready for the lottery, so it's hard to group LAC with anyone other than teams excited for the opportunity to pounce.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies have all the pieces to make it out of the first round, out of the West and through the NBA finals.
It's one of the reasons that Zach Lowe places this series winner as the only real threat to unseat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West on Grantland.com:
The playoffs feel like a coronation for Oklahoma City in the West and Miami in the East, and injuries have raised serious questions about teams that otherwise might have been able to challenge the march to a Finals repeat. The winner of this bloodbath rematch might be our only hope, and that adds extra drama to what is already the most droolworthy first-round matchup.
The Grizzlies are everything that Miami fears when looking at the compilation of a roster.
There are two big men inside (Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol) that could force Miami to play at a slower pace. There is a defensive stopper (Tony Allen) that might be the closest thing to the Holy Grail of guys that can stop LeBron James when he's headed toward the basket.
And don't forget—the Grizzlies lead the league in points allowed per game at 89.5. Additionally, the Grizzlies were one of only 16 teams to beat the Heat this year, going 1-1 and only losing by seven points during Miami's streak.
Put it all together, and expect Memphis to make some serious noise—if it can get out of the first-round, that is.
1. Indiana Pacers
Two teams have winning records against the Heat this season.
One is the New York Knicks (3-1). The other is the Indiana Pacers (2-1).
The Pacers held the Heat under 90 points in those two wins, which is going to be key to any team stopping the Vulcan death grip that has been seeing Miami on a schedule this season.
With those two wins under their belt, the emergence of Paul George as a legitimate threat to score on every possession and an underrated defense led by Roy Hibbert in the middle, Indiana will look to finish what it started in the 2012 playoffs with a win over Miami.
To get there, Indiana would need to beat the Knicks. Only one of those two teams will get a shot at the champ.
No disrespect to what the Knicks—specifically Carmelo Anthony—have done this season, but of the two, it has to be Indiana that has a better shot of playing with Miami in a seven-game series. The Knicks are beat up inside. They're almost exclusively a jump-shooting team and have little depth despite an aging roster.
On the other hand, Indiana is young and fresh at the guard spots. It has two frontline starters at the forward and center positions and backups that will be able to contend with almost everything that Miami can throw its way.
It's a tough road even to get to Miami, but Indiana has two wins over the Heat in the regular season and the postseason chops to get Nos. 3 through 6. It might be in dark-horse fashion, but the Pacers are a safer bet than most to reach the promised land—even if it means going through Miami.
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