5 NBA Contenders We're Starting to Worry About

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 15, 2014

5 NBA Contenders We're Starting to Worry About

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    The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers were so strong out of the gate, their fans formed summer vacation plans around a postseason run guaranteed to last at least through the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Late-season scuffles can't erase months of domination, but our eyes can't avoid seeing these NBA immortals show a hint of vulnerability.

    Panicking about these beasts from the East would be foolish. Dispatching them with a worry-free dismissal, though, wouldn't be any wiser.

    Something is going on. Not just with these Eastern Conference powers, but also with some of the giants lurking on the other side of the map.

    While alarm sirens aren't being sounded, eyebrows are certainly raised.

    So, what is it that has us concerned about these five NBA contenders? More importantly, what needs to happen for order to be restored?


    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and accurate as of March 14, 2014.

Golden State Warriors

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    Record: 41-26

    Last 10 Games: 6-4


    Why Are We Worried

    The proverbial immovable object has started to budge.

    The Golden State Warriors, third in defensive efficiency on the season, have allowed six of their last 10 opponents to break triple digits. That's the same amount of 100-plus-point outings the team had yielded in its previous 22 contests.

    The Dubs have run into some offensive machines (Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns), but they've also made some anemic clubs look like world-beaters. The Chicago Bulls (27th in offensive efficiency) exploded for 103 points in their 20-point win over the Warriors on Feb. 26. The Cleveland Cavaliers (24th) erased an 18-point deficit in their 103-94 win at Oracle Arena Friday night.

    "That's not our brand of defense," coach Mark Jackson said after the most recent defeat, via Diamond Leung of Bay Area News Group. "I don't care who we're facing. For us, it's a recipe for disaster and is unacceptable."

    With their potent offense on paper looking more mediocre on the floor (104.4 offensive rating, 13th overall), the Warriors need to get defensive to keep their championship hopes alive.

Indiana Pacers

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    Record: 48-17

    Last 10 Games: 6-4


    Why Are We Worried 

    The Pacers have as many losses in their last six games (four) as they suffered in their first 24.

    With an uncharacteristically leaky defense (104.1 defensive rating in their last 10 games, league-best 95.6 mark on the season), Indiana's erratic offense hasn't scaled enough peaks to make up for the valleys it falls into on a nightly basis.

    "They made more plays," coach Frank Vogel said of the Dallas Mavericks, who dealt his Pacers their season-high fourth straight loss on March 9, via Schuyler Dixon of The Associated Press. "That's the kind of thing that's been happening to us on a gamely basis it seems like."

    Paul George can't find his shot (.414, including .306 in his last seven), and Roy Hibbert can't find his offense (7.3 points on 43.1 percent shooting over the same stretch). The front office has worked to address the Pacers' depth (signing Andrew Bynum, trading for Evan Turner), but this team needs its two All-Stars to start looking the part.

    This offense will always be a complementary piece, but it needs to have a championship-level defense to complement first. That should be coming back, but something that depends so much on effort and energy should have never left.

Miami Heat

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    Record: 44-19

    Last 10 Games: 5-5


    Why Are We Worried 

    We've had to hit the history books to search for the last time the two-time defending champs have stumbled like this.

    With a 111-107 home loss to the Denver Nuggets Friday night, the Heat have now dropped five of their past six contests.

    "We haven't been in a stretch like this since probably the 2010-11 season," Dwyane Wade said, via Zachary Paul of NBA.com. "We lost five in a row. When we were in that stretch, we had to figure it out. It's the same thing with this. Something is off with this team."

    There's been a couple different somethings, actually.

    The defense has broken down (106-plus points allowed to the Nuggets, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs). The offense hasn't always shown up (88 points in an overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls). The team has started getting sloppy (17.5 turnovers in their last two games, 14.9 per game on the year). Four-time MVP LeBron James has looked human (19.8 points on .442/.278/.720 shooting over his last five games).

    Their track record says the Heat will figure things out. But this is a stark reminder that their three-peat bid carries no guarantees.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Record: 48-17

    Last 10 Games: 5-5


    Why Are We Worried

    The Oklahoma City Thunder have hit a rough patch—and the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook dynamic isn't the issue.

    That "problem" was always something of a forced narrative. It's a dying one now.

    The two All-NBA talents have averaged 55.7 points, 13.4 assists, 11.7 rebounds and 3.6 steals combined over their past 10 games. And Oklahoma City has just five victories to show for that stretch.

    "We need to have a sense of urgency knowing that teams are coming at us every night," Westbrook said after Oklahoma City's head-scratching 114-110 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on March 9, via Joe Resnick of The Associated Press.

    Westbrook and Durant have been doing their part. Serge Ibaka has shined as a third wheel (16.3 points on .578/.500/.826 shooting in his last nine). Everything beyond that trio has been a mystery.

    No one has replaced the toughness lost with Kendrick Perkins (groin strain) and Thabo Sefolosha (calf strain) on the shelf.

    Reggie Jackson has struggled since Westbrook's return (10.6 points on 41.2 percent shooting). Caron Butler has been a nonfactor offensively (8.4 points on 36.6 percent shooting in his first five outings). Jeremy Lamb has played his way to the bench (3.9 points on .275/.231 shooting over his last 10 trips to the hardwood).

    Star-studded trios are a necessity for today's contenders, but three players can't run a title race alone.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Record: 43-23

    Last 10 Games: 5-5


    Why Are We Worried

    Just as the Portland Trail Blazers started to defend, their offense has stalled and their injury report has grown.

    The Blazers appear to have dodged a bullet with three-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge's back injury. He took a nasty fall during the team's 103-90 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on March 12, but it may not have been as bad as it looked. According to Comcast SportsNet's Chris Haynes, Aldridge has a "low back contusion" and will be re-evaluated next week.

    Aldridge's tumble was an all-too-fitting end to Portland's season-high four-game losing streak that started in Dallas and finished in San Antonio. This one-time explosive offense had trouble lighting its fuse, with the team only breaking triple digits once in that mini-skid (a 118-113 overtime loss to the Houston Rockets on March 9).

    The Blazers, tied for third in offensive efficiency, are just 15th in the category over their past six games. Damian Lillard has seen more quantity (20.7 points) than quality (42.3 percent shooting) in his last seven outings. Nicolas Batum's shot abandoned him during those four consecutive defeats (.381/.294). Wesley Matthews has been searching for his since the All-Star break (.459/.410 shooting before, .377/.329 since).

    Portland's championship credentials rest heavily on its point production. At some point, this club needed to tighten its defense, but it doesn't have the pieces to sustain a lengthy postseason run at that end of the floor.

    This team needs to find a balance. With the firepower on this roster, that may well be coming soon.