8 Teams That Can Give Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers Playoff Problems

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 27, 2014

8 Teams That Can Give Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers Playoff Problems

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    Wednesday's meeting between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers might have been an Eastern Conference Finals preview, but contrary to popular belief, that isn't set in stone just yet.

    Although the standings and the stat sheets paint these two clubs as the baddest beasts from the East, all of those numbers will be cast aside come playoff time.

    From the championship-or-bust Brooklyn crew to the Windy City's blue-collar ballers and even that unexpected (unintentional?) contender lurking north of the border, potential postseason pitfalls could crush those championship dreams running rampant through the Circle City and down in South Beach.

    Perhaps that's placing too much of a premium on the Pacers' problems. Maybe it's digging too deep into Miami's malaise.

    That's yet to be determined. For everything we think we know from the first five months of the season, March certainties don't always carry over to June. Just ask the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets, whose 15-game winning streak into late March couldn't prevent a premature playoff exit in early May.

    Anything can—and does—happen in the NBA's second season.

    Assuming both the Pacers and Heat can traverse an Eastern Conference playoff path that looks more treacherous now than it has all season, then what? Does either team look capable of surviving a seven-game series with the Western Conference's finest?

    The battle-tested San Antonio Spurs look ready for another age-defying, lengthy playoff run. The Oklahoma City Thunder are ready to ride MVP front-runner Kevin Durant as far as he can carry them.

    If additions are being made to the rafters inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse or AmericanAirlines Arena next season, they will have been earned.


    Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

Brooklyn Nets

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    Record: 37-33

    Offensive Rating: 104.1, 14th

    Defensive Rating: 104.3, 16th


    What Makes Them Problematic: Veteran poise and a small-ball system the league can't figure out.

    Between another post-All-Star break surge from Deron Williams (17.6 points on 47.7 percent shooting, 13.3 on 45.1 before) and coach Jason Kidd's systematic change, the Brooklyn Nets have quietly emerged as an intimidating postseason spoiler.

    Now, you could argue—and rightfully so—that $190 million should buy something better than that. But the Nets can't erase their stumbling start to the season, nor reverse the damage done by Brook Lopez's troublesome foot or Kevin Garnett's bad back.

    What they can do, though, is make the best of a bad situation. Like, trading size for speed and rattling off 27 wins in its last 39 games, as Brooklyn has done, for instance.

    "The biggest thing (to the turnaround) I think is with Jason," Nets general manager Billy King said, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. "Now we have a system of how we’re going to play, an identity."

    With proven scorers (Williams, Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce), versatile bigs (Andray Blatche and Mirza Teletovic) and a lanky perimeter force (Shaun Livingston), the Nets are a walking matchup nightmare. Throw in the roster's decades of experience, and this is a club that won't be overwhelmed by the big stage.

Chicago Bulls

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    Record: 40-31

    Offensive Rating: 99.0, tied for 28th

    Defensive Rating: 97.7, second


    What Makes Them Problematic: Insatiable intensity and more talent than we give them credit for.

    The thorn-in-the-side Chicago Bulls haven't gotten any less pricklier despite losing former MVP Derrick Rose for (essentially) an entire season. Again.

    The secret to the Bulls' success, as they would tell it, is that there is no secret.

    "When we play the Miami Heat, our intensity has to be through the roof for 48 [minutes]," Joakim Noah said, via ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell. "Regardless [if] shots are going in or not. Of course you want to win the game, but the way we're going to win is our edge."

    Hard work certainly helps, and no one works harder than coach Tom Thibodeau's team.

    But so does having a 6'11" center in Noah who's good for 5.1 assists a night. Or employing an athletically gifted, defensively inclined stopper in 6'7", 220-pound swingman Jimmy Butler. Or bringing a potent post presence off the bench in Taj Gibson, who shouldbut won't—take home Sixth Man of the Year honors.

    Sure, the Bulls struggle at times to score, but so do the Pacers. And the Heat don't always play defense.

    With a blue-collar mentality and more white-collar ability than they want us to believe, the Bulls are back to being a massive roadblock on the path to the podium.

Golden State Warriors

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    Record: 44-27

    Offensive Rating: 104.6, 13th

    Defensive Rating: 99.5, third


    What Makes Them Problematic: A lockdown defense and incendiary offense.

    Numbers do lie sometimes, folks. While the stat sheet says the Golden State Warriors are winning with defense (!), that glosses over the fact that this roster is one of only three in the league featuring three players averaging at least 18 points per game.

    History isn't the only thing keeping us from recognizing the Dubs as defensive specialists. Not when budding superstar Stephen Curry is erupting for 23.5 points and 8.5 assists a night.

    But the Warriors, apparently staunch subscribers to the "defense wins championships" theory, still like to paint themselves as such.

    "Defense has been our biggest thing," 18.5-points-per-game scorer David Lee said, via A. Sherrod Blakely of Comcast SportsNet. "We know the NBA now is about matchups and about team defense."

    The Warriors had to get defensive to climb the playoff standings, but their prolific offense is what keeps them on the verge of contention.

    Both Indiana and Miami know how dangerous this team can be. Golden State is one of only two teams with road wins over each team on the season (along with—wait for it—the Detroit Pistons).

    The Warriors averaged 110.5 points in those two victories. They can dismantle a defense just as easily as they've been silencing offenses.

Houston Rockets

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    Record: 48-22

    Offensive Rating: 108.5, fourth

    Defensive Rating: 102.4, 10th


    What Makes Them Problematic: A star-studded duo that can punish on the perimeter or brawl near the basket.

    The Houston Rockets (or as you may know them, the team no one wants to see in the playoffs) are starting to paint the picture that's been flowing through the mind of visionary general manager Daryl Morey for years.

    So, what is this method to Morey's madness? It's imperative to have superstars in a superstar-driven league.

    Morey found two of the best in scoring savant James Harden (27.6 points on .502/.457/.853 shooting since the All-Star break) and interior anchor Dwight Howard (18.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks).

    It took some time to get that dynamic duo on common ground, but that threshold has been crossed. Houston has winning streaks of five and fourand counting on the lattergames in the month of March alone.

    Morey's blueprint didn't stop at Howard and Harden. The executive surrounded his prolific pair with an arsenal of long-range shooters, and this team is reaping the rewards of his work.

    "There was a time we struggled on 3s, but the more guys have worked in the gym and stayed on their shots, the better opportunity we have to make them," Harden said, via Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle.

    Boasting both top-heavy talent and impressive depth (six players average double-digit points), Houston will be a tough out for anyoneMiami and Indiana included.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Record: 50-22

    Offensive Rating: 109.1, second

    Defensive Rating: 101.5, tied for sixth


    What Makes Them Problematic: A coaching genius, the league's premier point guard and a high-flying frontcourt that no longer has to play above the rim.

    The fact that the Los Angeles Clippers have an MVP candidate surprises no one. The fact that the player isn't named Chris Paul is terrifying.

    Blake Griffin has been phenomenal in his first season under Clippers coach Doc Rivers. With a higher emphasis placed on a face-up game that allows him to maximize both his athletic advantages and underrated playmaking ability, the Griffin Force has been, well, forceful: 24.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists.

    The entire team oozes confidence and that comes from the messages Rivers has delivered.

    He called Paul, "an amazing point guard, one of the best of all time," via Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times, and Paul made sure his stats (18.5 points, 11 assists, 2.5 steals) validated that claim. The coach put Defensive Player of the Year expectations on DeAndre Jordan's shoulders, via ESPN's Arash Markazi, and the big man responded with Defensive Player of the Year numbers (13.7 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and one steal per game).

    L.A. can grind out a defensive struggle with Indy or break the tape in a track meet with Miami. This team isn't just good, it knows it's good—a lethal combination come playoff time.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Record: 52-19

    Offensive Rating: 107.6, seventh

    Defensive Rating: 100.5, fifth


    What Makes Them Problematic: Disruptive length, explosive athleticism and the NBA's best scoring tandem.

    It's silly to start this discussion anywhere other than Kevin Durant. Once numbers start approaching Michael Jordan territory, you know something special is taking place.

    The term "unguardable" is thrown around far too loosely, but it absolutely applies in this case. KD's historic streak of 36 games (and counting) with 25-plus points is only mildly more impressive than his season scoring average of 32.2 (exactly four points better than the NBA's second-best scorer, Carmelo Anthony).

    As good as he is as a scorer, though, Durant is so much more than that. He isn't scoring his way to 7.6 rebounds, a career high 5.6 assists or 1.3 steals.

    "This dude is unbelievable," Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman wrote. "He can beat you in so many ways."

    So, too, can these Thunder.

    One of only three teams with top-seven standings in both offensive and defensive efficiency, this group can let its opponents decide the game's style—then play it better than they can.

    If Russell Westbrook (21.3 points, seven assists, 5.7 rebounds) can put his knee problems behind him, the Thunder can terrorize with experienced youth, unnatural length and unfair physical tools.

San Antonio Spurs

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    Record: 55-16

    Offensive Rating: 108.1, tied for fifth

    Defensive Rating: 100.0, fourth


    What Makes Them Problematic: Unprecedented consistency and more playoff scars than you can count.

    People under the age of 16 have never witnessed the San Antonio Spurs finish a regular season with less than 50 wins. If that statement isn't shocking to you, well, all I can say is cherish your youth.

    Winning isn't supposed to be this easy. Outside of the Alamo City, it isn't.

    Four-time champion Spurs coach Gregg Popovich doesn't turn back clocks—he stops their movement altogether.

    That's why 37-year-old Tim Duncan is still good for 15.2 points and 10 rebounds a night. Why 36-year-old Manu Ginobili still makes a compelling Sixth Man of the Year case (12.4 points, 4.4 assists, 20.0 player efficiency rating). Why 31-year-old Tony Parker can have his playing time drop below 31 minutes per game (30.4 to be exact) and still produce 17.5 points and 6.1 assists.

    The Spurs have been too old to contend for years, yet here they stand in late March as, "the only ones heading into the playoffs that actually look the part of a true champion on a nightly basis," NBA.com's Sekou Smith wrote.

    The Spurs can beat the Heat. If not for a few missed free throws and Ray Allen's miracle, they would have last season. And while San Antonio dropped its first game with Indiana this season, Popovich's schemes can exploit the Pacers' offensive issues.

    Father Time's unblemished record is absolutely in jeopardy.

Toronto Raptors

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    Record: 40-31

    Offensive Rating: 105.2, tied for 10th

    Defensive Rating: 101.5, tied for sixth


    What Makes Them Problematic: Bulldog toughness and a why-not-us mentality.

    Yes, the Toronto Raptors are only 1-5 against the Heat and Pacers this season. But their next double-digit loss to the conference leaders will be their first.

    Their offense is even better than that number suggests. Since shipping out Rudy Gay in mid-December, Toronto is averaging 106.6 points per 100 possessions.

    That was thought to be the next step in first-year general manager Masai Ujiri's house-cleaning project. It may have been his last.

    "You can sink and drown, or you can float," All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan told Grantland's Zach Lowe. "And we out here like Michael Phelps."

    The Raptors are somewhat similar to the Bulls. They're scrappers with more talent than the label implies.

    DeRozan has emerged as a top-shelf scorer (22.7 points per game). Kyle Lowry has done a little of everything (17.6 points, 7.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds). Amir Johnson has split his time as a scorer (11.1), rebounder (6.8) and shot-blocker (1.2). Sophomores Jonas Valanciunas (10.5 points, 8.6 rebounds) and Terrence Ross (10.9 points) have flashed tantalizing upside.

    The Raptors will be a tough out no matter whom they draw. They weren't expected to be in this spot, so they're playing free of any pressure. That's an incredibly beneficial gift to have, and one that makes it impossible to rule out this team surprising us yet again.