Following arguably the most exciting first round in league history, the 2014 NBA playoffs look far deeper and more intriguing than they have in years. The opening round taught us that no teams are true championship locks, which should make for equally compelling series as contenders face off.
Though the Miami Heat remain the favorites to three-peat, their lack of secondary scoring and Dwyane Wade's dubious health make them tricky propositions. As these updated championship odds illustrate, nearly every team still alive harbors realistic NBA Finals aspirations:
|San Antonio Spurs||+285|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||+490|
|Los Angeles Clippers||+865|
|Portland Trail Blazers||+2650|
via Oddsshark as of May 5, 12 AM ET
The second-round bracket, via ESPN.com, looks clearer for the Eastern Conference contenders. Keeping that in mind, here are a few of the best values when considering the aforementioned championship odds.
Even as overwhelming favorites, it's hard to pick against the Heat when considering their path. Yes, the Nets swept Miami in the regular season, but two of those wins came without Wade. As Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun Sentinel notes, Wade's regular-season knee woes have internally become less of a concern:
The knee is only a concern for those on the outside. It has become less an issue for the team, reaching the point where it’s rarely discussed in the locker room. The only time Wade mentions it is during interviews with reporters.
The reality is Wade felt he let down his teammates last year because of the injury. It was tough for him to sit out the playoff game against the Bucks. He eventually returned to help win a second straight NBA title, but wants to play the entire slate during the attempt at a three-peat.
Against Charlotte, Wade showed few signs of attrition. He averaged a tick over 33 minutes per game in the four contests, with 17.5 points per game on 49.1 percent shooting from the field. More importantly, Wade has been an active asset in Miami's uber-aggressive pick-and-roll defense, a devastating weapon that has provided the backbone of the Heat's three consecutive NBA Finals runs:
One year after painful postseason knee soreness, Dwyane Wade is at the vanguard of the Heat’s high-energy defense. http://t.co/WP5hiU3GMh— Joseph Goodman (@JoeGoodmanJr) April 25, 2014
The Heat figure to receive a stiff test from the fearless veteran Nets, and Indiana still has the history of two consecutive tough postseason series to lean back on. Nevertheless, while far from locks to win the championship, LeBron James and Co. remain the indisputable favorites.
Los Angeles Clippers
At +865, the odds are simply too good to pass on a Clippers team that no longer looks like a second-tier contender in the Western Conference.
The Donald Sterling debacle remains a dark cloud, but it appears Los Angeles was able to put the situation in the rearview mirror in overcoming a feisty young Warriors team. Now the Clippers will be slight underdogs against an Oklahoma City team with whom they split the season series.
The key to the series could be how well Chris Paul holds up. The Clippers point guard is playing through hamstring and hand injuries, and now will face arguably the league's most explosive point guard in Russell Westbrook. However, as Nate Duncan of BasketballInsiders.com illustrates, the hamstring injury has not hampered Paul's typically excellent defense:
Defensively Paul has still been fantastic, helping hold Curry to only one dominant game in the series. Hamstring injuries are a little easier to manage on defense, where the need to explode straight forward or jump as high as one can (the two most common ways to hurt a hammy) is lessened. Paul has proved impossible for Curry to separate from in isolation (see his game-ending stop on Curry in Game 3), and has often stymied the pick and roll and pin down games with his ability to get over screens.
Paul was able to grit out a terrific 22-point, 14-assist effort in Game 7 as well. Considering both the circumstances and the stat line, it was arguably his best playoff performance as a Clipper:
Chris Paul has at least 20 points & 14 assists in a playoff game for the 6th time in his career, 1st time since 2011.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 4, 2014
If Paul can hold up, he likely gives Los Angeles the edge in the series' most critical matchup. The Western road to the Finals is paved with landmines, so when factoring in the odds, the Clippers clearly provide the best value.
Admittedly, the Pacers look like one of the weakest top seeds in recent memory. It's rare that a team with home-court advantage is a decided underdog, but Indiana does not even look like a lock to take care of the fifth-seeded Wizards.
Indiana's offense continued to flounder for the large majority of the first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks. Per NBA.com, their 101.6 offensive rating was the worst of any team to advance. That mark was effectively a carbon copy of their 101.5 regular-season mark, one that ranked ninth-worst in the league.
History has shown that a team can win the championship with terrific defense and mediocre offense but not atrocious offense. Indiana's defense did rebound against the three-happy Hawks, holding Atlanta's floor-spacing offense to 98.2 points per 100 possessions, the best mark of any first-round team.
Thus, the more pressing concern is rejuvenating Paul George and Roy Hibbert, the two All-Stars who formed the backbone of the Pacers' early-season domination. George rebounded with 24- and 30-point efforts in the final two wins of the series, including an 11-for-23 performance in Game 7 that marked the most assertive performance he has shown in months:
“The bigger the stakes, the better he’s going to play. He proved that on both ends of the court.” - Vogel on George pic.twitter.com/VcFcQYMH4P— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) May 4, 2014
Hibbert, on the other hand, continues to flounder. Before playing 31 minutes in Game 7, Hibbert played 12 minutes in both Games 5 and 6. While Atlanta's stretch bigs Paul Millsap and Pero Antic were poor matchups for the plodding Hibbert, the defensive anchor of Indiana's defense was shockingly ineffective.
Washington's traditional frontcourt of Marcin Gortat and Nene should provide Hibbert a more tenable matchup, but even if the Pacers advance, both the Heat and Nets have a propensity to go small and stretch out defenses. Indiana's flickering championship aspirations will be extinguished if Hibbert remains a non-factor.
If only because of conference, the Pacers must remain a consideration at those long odds. It would take a miraculous turnaround to make Indiana true championship contenders again, but they may at least be worth a flyer against their weak Eastern Conference competition.