The Miami Heat are in an unfamiliar position: They are not the favorites.
Not according to John Hollinger’s playoff odds from Tuesday, which give the twice-defending champs only a 6.8 percent chance of making it a three-peat, behind the Indiana Pacers (25.9), Oklahoma City Thunder (22.2) and Los Angeles Clippers (16.0).
Or the great Kevin Pelton of ESPN (subscription required), who has the cresting Thunder as the heavy favorite, winning 30 percent of his Finals simulations.
Some of this pessimism—or, in the parlance of less objective followers of the team, disrespect—stems from what’s happening in South Beach, where LeBron James and co. look newly vulnerable.
The Heat are struggling defensively (they’re 14th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, down from seventh, fourth and fifth during James’ first three seasons in town), have a wizened, injury-prone roster (the oldest in the NBA) and, at plus-5.2, sport only the fifth-best point differential in the league.
But the prevailing sense that Miami is no longer in the Association’s driver’s seat also springs from factors outside the Heat’s control. There are some good basketball teams out there, and they like championships too.
Indiana’s been in possession of the top record and point differential in the NBA for most of the season and boasts, in its length and physicality, a tried-and-true blueprint for challenging, if not upending, the Heat in a playoff series.
In Paul George and Lance Stephenson, it has two young players who have improved by orders of magnitude since the Pacers took Miami to the brink in last season’s implausibly competitive Eastern Conference championship.
The veteran Spurs also loom. San Antonio, though injury-addled and only 1-6 against fellow contenders Miami, OKC and L.A., is still a top-seven team in offensive and defensive efficiency. And the Heat surely haven't forgotten the Spurs came within a Ray Allen circus three-pointer in Game 6 and a bungled baby hook from Tim Duncan in Game 7 of denying them a repeat.
Gregg Popovich hasn't.
The Thunder have been very good for a long time but particularly terrifying lately. They’re in the midst of a 14-2 run (with signature wins over Houston, the Golden State Warriors, Portland, San Antonio, Miami and a suddenly game Brooklyn Nets team) that’s particularly noteworthy for what’s been absent from it: Russell Westbrook.
The guard has been out since Christmas after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee and figures to return at some point after the All-Star break, at which point the rolling Thunder will be even more of a headache.
Oklahoma City, as Pelton pointed out on ESPN on Tuesday, is a blistering 21-4 in games Westbrook's suited up, a 69-win pace. The Western Conference leader has an opponent-adjusted scoring differential of plus-10 with its No. 2 scorer compared to a still-impressive plus-6.1 without him.
Oklahoma City looks even more imposing when its recent success is considered within its body of work these last few seasons. The Thunder led the NBA in point differential in 2012-13 and are second to the Pacers this season. In each of the last three years, they've bettered the Heat in this measure.
The two prime movers behind the Thunder's greatness, an asphyxiating defense and Kevin Durant, both figure to pose a problem for the Heat if the franchises collide in June.
Durant has continued his apotheosis in 2013-14, arguably supplanting James as the top player in the league. The game's most dynamic scorer has become even more deadly with the ball in his hands, averaging bests in points (31.2) and effective field-goal percentage (56.8), while carrying the highest usage rate of his career (32.2).
A less discussed but no less important development is what he does when he's not scoring. The lanky forward has emerged as an excellent facilitator, keeping the Reggie Jacksons and Jeremy Lambs of the OKC rotation fully engaged in Scott Brooks’ occasionally unimaginative offense. Durant has a career-best 26.7 assist rate and is second among small forwards with 5.5 dimes per game.
If he’s not the best player in basketball—and I think most of us would argue the title still belongs to LeBron—he's a very close No. 2.
Meanwhile, the Thunder defense has received comparatively little fanfare but might be an equally essential component of the team's title hopes. OKC is big at every position, cat-quick and defends with a ferocity, recklessness and effectiveness that’s not unlike what the Heat bring to bear in the postseason.
And the team could get better. While the Thunder are fourth in defensive efficiency in 2013-14, like Miami, there’s reason to believe they can tighten things further when the games start counting. (Unlike the Heat, the Thunder are starting from a lofty baseline, not the middle of the pack.)
As Mike Prada of SB Nation pointed out, Oklahoma City—possibly owing to the unsustainability of such a hyperactive approach—plays much better D when its rested.
He’s got a point. The sample size is small, but in games following two days of rest, the Thunder have allowed opponents only 92.5 points per 100 possessions and held teams to a field-goal percentage of 41.4 and an anemic 27.3 percent mark from three-point land. These figures would put them first, second and first in the NBA this season.
This could make a postseason encounter with the Thunder especially lethal, as the playoff schedule dictates that teams play with ample rest.
Which team poses the greatest threat to Miami's three-peat hopes?
The Heat's lone regular-season matchup with their younger rival didn't do much to mollify these concerns. While it’s foolhardy to put much stock in a single game, Miami’s 112-95 Jan. 29 loss to the Thunder brought the fools rushing in.
The Thunder went small, attacking Miami relentlessly—“beating the Heat at their own game,” in the words of ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh. With Kendrick Perkins on the bench, Durant and his cohort wreaked havoc. The Heat were forced into 20 turnovers and hit only three of their 19 three-point attempts. After rushing out to a 15-2 lead, they were outscored 110-80 the rest of the way.
Unlike the rest of the NBA, Heat boosters have always been stoic in the face of Oklahoma City's rise, taking solace in their head-to-head successes against the favorite out West.
In going 8-3 against the Thunder since the formation of the Big Three—including a 4-1 victory in the 2012 Finals—the Heat were able to ratchet up the defensive intensity to a level OKC couldn't match or withstand. Their smaller lineup would blitz Durant and co. into uncharacteristic errors in crunch time.
It'd be difficult to overstate how meaningful this is. In the NBA, as Neil Paine has demonstrated, defensive efficiency is more predictive of postseason success than offensive efficiency. In other words, defense wins championships.
The unspoken assumption has been, in event of a rematch, the Heat would be able to press this advantage again—to outplay the Thunder on the less glamorous end of the floor. But the Jan. 29 contest called this belief into question.
"We played well to start the game," James said afterward, according to The Associated Press' Tim Reynolds (via Yahoo! Sports). "We played well all the way until like the second quarter. From that point on they did what they want to do."
To win an elusive third straight title, the Heat will have to figure out a way to stop the Thunder. Good luck.