With the Miami Heat advancing to the 2013 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, the playoffs have officially reached the stage in which legends are made. More applicably to this season, we've reached the stage that garners one specific question.
Which teams are looking strong enough to dethrone the defending champions?
As it presently stands, the Miami Heat have looked close to untouchable, winning eight of their first nine postseason games. Even as the Chicago Bulls played inspired, albeit injury-depleted basketball, the Heat managed to win their series 4-1.
As the 2011 NBA Finals showed us, however, no team is invincible.
With this in mind, it's imperative that we avoid giving into the belief that Miami cannot be stopped. Even if it is the best team in the league, anything is possible come the postseason.
So who might stop the mighty Heat?
There's something in the air this postseason that screams "2004." For those unfamiliar, that was the season that the defensive-minded Detroit Pistons took down the purely dominant Los Angeles Lakers, disproving the theory that superstars win titles.
Much like the Pistons, the Grizzlies are anchored by a Defensive Player of the Year center in Marc Gasol. It just so happens that Gasol is an equal threat to go for 20 points and 10 rebounds as he is to block three shots and dominate the rim.
Not so coincidentally, Miami's greatest weakness is its interior play.
Paired with Zach Randolph and reserves such as Ed Davis and Darrell Arthur, Gasol could help the Grizzlies exploit Miami's rebounding weakness. With the Heat ranking 30th in rebounding during the regular season, the advantage is certain to be present.
With Mike Conley, this year's Mr. Big Shot, the Grizzlies certainly have the clutch scoring necessary to take advantage of late game opportunities.
According to Alvin Anol of ESPN.com, Conley ranks 11th in the NBA in clutch scoring since Memphis traded Rudy Gay. Per Synergy Sports, Conley also allows just 0.66 points per isolation play defended and scores 1.05 points per isolation play.
|Player||Points Per Isolation Play||Points Per Isolation Play Defended|
All statistics provided by Synergy Sports.
If that's not enough, Memphis has the most dominant perimeter defender in the NBA.
The NBA's general managers voted Tony Allen as the best perimeter defender in both 2011-12 and 2012-13. It just so happens that Allen and Conley, All-Defensive Team members, play alongside Tayshaun Prince.
The same Prince that has been named to four All-Defensive Teams and won an NBA championship with, you guessed it, the 2004 Pistons.
Just ask Kevin Durant how dominant that perimeter trio can be.
Against the Grizzlies, Durant posted a slash line of .421/.357/.776. During the regular season, Durant tallied a slash line of .510/.416/.905.
For what it's worth, LeBron James shot 42.4 percent from the field and Dwyane Wade hit 38.7 percent during two regular-season games against Memphis.
This should come as no surprise, as the Grizzlies led the league in scoring defense during the regular season. Most importantly, Memphis was second in opponent three-point field-goal percentage, sixth in turnovers forced, third in opponent points in the paint and ninth in opponent fast-break points.
All traits a team needs to be able to take down the Heat.
San Antonio Spurs
They may be having trouble with the Golden State Warriors, but don't think for a second that the San Antonio Spurs have lost their title legitimacy. In fact, San Antonio remains the most dangerous team the Miami Heat could possibly draw.
It all comes down to depth, two-way efficiency, a legendary head coach and one of the greatest trios in NBA history—go ahead, try to find a point of weakness.
The matchup starts with what may be the greatest three-man grouping of the early century, as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili continue to pile up the accolades. Miami's Big Three may debate that fact, but here's what they can't argue.
Greatness is measured by success, not ability.
Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan have 93 playoff wins as a trio, 2nd-most by any trio in history. Magic, Kareem & Cooper have 110.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 15, 2013
Add three NBA championships to their name and our debate has concluded.
With that being said, Miami's Big Three is younger, more athletic and owns an NBA championship of their own. That quickly results in the rational belief that Miami's trio holds the advantage in this hypothetical series, despite San Antonio's countless accolades.
With all due respect to Erik Spoelstra, however, the coaching battle is a no contest.
Gregg Popovich has won four championships with the San Antonio Spurs, winning every time he's made a trip to the NBA Finals. Oftentimes, the Spurs have entered those series, or the postseason in general, with the lesser paper roster.
That's why the games are played.
Gregg Popovich is 18-3 in best-of-7 series when winning Game 1; from @eliassports, only Phil Jackson (36-0), Red Auerbach (15-0) better.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 6, 2013
You don't enter that rare company without being a master of in-game adjustments.
As for what this year's Spurs team brings to the table, it's all about balance. Parker is an elite point guard and Manu Ginobili continues to be one of our generation's great big game performers, while Tim Duncan is dominating on both ends of the floor.
The key of San Antonio, however, is that it has alternatives everywhere you look.
During the 2012-13 NBA regular season, the Spurs were fourth in both scoring offense and point differential. They were also second in field-goal percentage, fourth in three-point field-goal percentage and third in free-throw percentage.
In case you aren't getting the picture, the Spurs can score from anywhere on the floor and they do so with supreme efficiency.
Suddenly, Miami's elite defense doesn't look like such an unstoppable freight train—you know, how every postseason turns out when one team is "too good to be defeated."
Furthermore, the Spurs were eighth in opponent field-goal percentage, fourth in opponent free-throw attempts and third in opponent points per shot. This proves that San Antonio is not only dominant offensively, but responsibly controlling defensively.
It doesn't hurt that the Spurs are sixth in points in the paint and fifth in opponent fast-break points—two ways to take down the almighty Heat.