There are four odds-on favorites in the top-heavy 2014 NBA playoffs, and none of them are a surprise. The two-time defending champion Miami Heat lead the way with 2-1 odds despite being the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed behind the Indiana Pacers, who are listed at 6-1.
Leading the charge from the West are the San Antonio Spurs at 3-1. Coach Gregg Popovich's squad sports the Association's best record at 62-20, finishing three games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder (4-1). The league's scoring title winner, Kevin Durant, is seeking to capture his first Larry O'Brien Trophy. It does help that Durant and most of the Thunder's nucleus have NBA Finals experience, unlike Indiana.
The Heat beat Oklahoma City in the 2012 finals and topped the Spurs last postseason, so both of the West's top powers will be gearing up to get a shot at vengeance. But Paul George and the Pacers pushed Miami to seven games in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, suggesting they can take that next step with home-court advantage.
Those are just some of the storylines in layered, juicy developments that surround the elite in the NBA's hierarchy ahead of the playoffs. Below is a closer look at the top favorites to win the championship, along with predictions as to how they will finish.
Note: Odds are courtesy of OddsShark.com.
Indiana Pacers (6-1)
They are 10-13 in their last 23 games, which is a problem, but the Pacers would shock the world if they lost to the sub-.500 Atlanta Hawks in the opening round. Even though the season series is tied at two apiece, there's no way coach Frank Vogel's stalwart defensive team will allow Atlanta to pull off what would be one of the biggest upsets in playoff history.
After a sensational start to the season, it seems Indiana let up a little bit. George did not play as well down the stretch after it looked like he was becoming the best two-way player in the game this side of LeBron James.
That's why the conference semis have to be a big concern, whether it's the Chicago Bulls or Washington Wizards as the impending opponent.
Who can the Pacers turn to as a go-to guy on offense? Relying on George isn't the safest option anymore, and Roy Hibbert has lost his groove as a post threat. Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press accentuated this issue on Wednesday:
The acquisition of Evan Turner has netted solid bench production, but the swingman needs the rock in his hands to create, stagnates ball movement and exacerbates Indiana's problems on that end.
Chicago is such a strong defensive squad and has Joakim Noah on the inside to pester Hibbert. The Wizards are young but confident and on a four-game winning streak to end the season, sporting a backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal bound to break out on the big stage.
But since the Bulls score the least points in the Association and Wall and Beal are making their playoff debuts, the Pacers advance to the conference finals again almost by default. Despite how awful they've looked at times since the All-Star break, playing in Bankers Life Fieldhouse will be a prohibitive advantage.
Securing a recent victory over Oklahoma City should also give Indiana a collective, much-needed dose of confidence before its de facto tuneup series versus Atlanta.
Even with a potential Game 7 at home, though, the Pacers haven't been consistent enough to endorse as an NBA finalist. It won't even get to that point, as James and Dwyane Wade will get it done in crunch time and push the Heat to a fourth consecutive trip on the Association's biggest stage.
Prediction: Loss in conference finals
Oklahoma City Thunder (4-1)
Yes, Durant needs to tighten the leash on Russell Westbrook—or just get the ball in his own hands as soon as possible before Westbrook does something crazy.
Trusting Westbrook is a dangerous proposition. From his dubious shot selection to general carelessness in his nonchalant ball-handling at times, the superb athlete will make or break how Oklahoma City fares.
But on Wednesday, Westbrook showed the all-around prowess he can have when he plays within himself and is firing on all cylinders. He was just 5-of-15 shooting but still put up 22 points, six rebounds, eight assists and six steals in a 112-111 victory over Detroit.
Coach Scott Brooks felt as though his squad banded together like never before to achieve the second seed, per the Thunder's official Twitter account:
That can help the Thunder get past the difficult Memphis Grizzlies in Round 1, whose big men in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will be offset by the vastly improved Serge Ibaka and the typical defensive presence of Kendrick Perkins.
A semifinals showdown with either Los Angeles or Golden State awaits thereafter, but neither of those clubs is quite ready to elevate past OKC.
The process of Durant and Westbrook meshing seems like a perpetual work in progress. They are talented enough to carry Oklahoma City to a ton of wins—even within four of the finals—but will they do enough to hoist a championship trophy?
Answer: Not this year. San Antonio is simply too tough. With its window closing to win a fourth title with its current nucleus and a quest for vengeance versus Miami, little should stop the Spurs from steamrolling the Thunder in the conference finals.
Prediction: Loss in conference finals
Miami Heat (2-1)
A fourth trip to the NBA Finals and a three-peat are at stake in South Beach. This is as pivotal of a year as any for Miami's foundation of James, Wade and Chris Bosh.
All of them can opt out of their contracts following the playoffs. Should they fall short of a third straight NBA title, the incentive to split up may increase. Wade commented on the matter in a report by ESPN.com's Darren Rovell:
I'm at a position where I don't really have to worry about it. I've been with the same organization for now 11 years. We've won multiple championships, so it's no reason where I need to think about that yet. I'm not at a point where we are a bad team and I need to think about the future, so right now I'm really focused on just enjoying this team, enjoying our quest to try to three-peat. And when the season is over, and whatever happens, then I will sit down with Chris and I will sit down with Bron and I will sit down and make the best decision for myself and my family.
Fox Sports' Sam Amico feels that the dominant threesome will be back in conferring with his sources:
Hopefully Wade's testimony is true and Miami is focused on the task at hand, and enjoying each other's company. There's no reason not to believe him, because this is significant history they're after—though it comes with mountainous expectations yet again.
This team has been in the spotlight ever since James and Bosh arrived. They fell short in their first finals trip and have since won their next two. So far, so good I'd say.
It appears the Heat are on a collision course with both the Pacers and the Spurs yet again as their last remaining hurdles between ultimate NBA glory, though. While it's already been spoiled that Miami should beat Indiana, depth is a major concern for the Heat in their prospective rematch with San Antonio.
No offense to Erik Spoelstra—he's done a tremendous job juggling superstar egos—but Popovich gives the Spurs the coaching edge. He had to have learned something from 2013's seven-game defeat that was nearly a six-game win.
Prediction: Loss in NBA Finals
San Antonio Spurs (3-1)
This is a story of redemption for the Spurs' own veteran big three of "The Big Fundamental" in Tim Duncan, ever-electric point guard Tony Parker and sixth-man extraordinaire Manu Ginobili. They pushed the Heat to seven games last year, and there's reason to believe they can do it again—only winning this time around.
In fact, San Antonio had Miami on the ropes in Game 6. If not for a clutch Ray Allen three-pointer at the end of the game, the Larry O'Brien Trophy could have very well been in the Alamo City.
Dave Zirin of The Nation feels that the Spurs could be in for a test in the opening round of this year's playoffs, though, in an intrastate battle with the Dallas Mavericks:
What's been most impressive about San Antonio is how Popovich has managed his superstar trio, rested Duncan, Parker and Ginobili when he could and how he integrated some younger players into more prominent roles.
Eight players average at least nine points per contest, including Patty Mills, who has stepped up and become a big part of the Spurs' rotation.
Mills spoke about how the chemistry San Antonio has developed away from the hardwood has helped the team's seamless transition in executing game plans—no matter who's on the floor at any given time:
They will experience a joy of epic proportions when Popovich guides the franchise to their fifth NBA title—all during his tenure—in a sweet revenge matchup with the Heat in six games.
Oklahoma City plays too disjointed with Westbrook commanding the point and can't execute in the half court the way the Spurs can. It speaks volumes that San Antonio is first in the league in team assists, while the Thunder are near the middle of the pack.
The balance the Spurs bring to the table is just too much for anyone—even the Heat's formidable triumvirate—to handle. Another championship banner will go in the AT&T Center rafters, and perhaps Duncan can walk away from the game by coming out on top.
Prediction: NBA champions