This time of year may be the best time of year that sports has to offer. We just finished up an epic March Madness, the NFL Draft is approaching, and the 2011 NBA playoffs are just around the corner. From what the NBA season has shown us thus far, anything can be expected during this year's race to the finish. Which teams will show up this weekend and which teams will falter under the bright lights?
The NBA title is not easy to achieve and all 16 teams should have their work cut out for them if they want to hoist that trophy. No one's path will be easy. We should all expect the unexpected.
So keep in mind, while every team will have a difficult time, these are the 10 teams that will have the toughest path to the NBA Finals. The first five slides will be the five lower-seeded teams that have the hardest paths. The last five slides will consist of the contending high seeded teams that will have the toughest time. That's the way I broke it down.
I know what you're thinking. This would be the obvious pick. And yes, it really is. The Indiana Pacers are the worst team that will still be standing in a few days. As of Wednesday afternoon, they are a lowly 37-44 and must face up against the powerhouse Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls have shown that they are a force to be reckoned with and the Pacers should struggle in a seven-game series against Derrick Rose and his team of cronies. The Pacers were only able to pull off one win in four games against the Bulls this year, so the chance they pull off an inevitable upset is...well...very, very slim.
In reality, the Pacers should just be happy they are still even in the picture.
As of today, we do not know where exactly the Grizzlies stand seed-wise. All we know is that no matter what, they will still be receiving the short stick. Either they go up against Kobe and crew, or they take on the playoff-savvy San Antonio Spurs. Both outcomes look bleak.
Even without considering their playoff seeding, the Grizzlies will also be without their best player Rudy Gay for the duration of the playoffs. Zach Randolph has been going off the charts lately, but he will not be able to carry this team by himself. Mike Conley, OJ Mayo, Marc Gasol, and Shane Battier will all have to step up if this team hopes to be around for much longer.
Don't get me wrong, the Grizzlies have definitely earned their spot amongst the West's elite, having beat out the faltering Jazz, the rebuilding Suns, and the lowly Rockets for this highly sought after eighth seed. Regardless, their chances of even making a run to the finals are one in perhaps 100,000 (side-note: that stat is not intended to be a factual statement...).
The Philadelphia 76ers are another team that is lucky to even be in the playoffs. And their first round match-up is against a team that many think will win seven titles within the next 10 years. With a losing record, this Philly team face lofty odds on their path to the Finals.
If they, by chance, pull off a stunning upset against the powerhouse Heat, could they withstand a second round matchup against playoff-strong Boston? And if they manage another upset, there is no way they take down the surging Chicago Bulls and their MVP point guard.
Philly fans: enjoy the ride while you can.
The New York Knicks are a new team with a new identity. They are finally back in the playoffs after years of mediocrity. Things seem to be looking up. But don't expect things to miraculously change for them during this year's playoff appearance. Yes, they did add Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony (trading the farm for them). Of course, they have one of the greatest fan bases in the NBA. But, they are still considered to be long shots for the NBA title.
While I consider them to be the most likely lower-seeded team to pull off a first round upset, they still have one of the toughest first round opponents. As is the case for the 76ers, the Knicks would have to make it past the Heat, the Celtics (in the first round), and the Bulls and/or Magic in order to play in the final round.
On top of all that, Stoudemire is nursing an ankle injury that has kept him out for a handful of games. Chauncey isn't getting any younger and is also struggling with numerous injuries this season.
The X-factor for this team will be the leadership of Carmelo Anthony and whether the bigs (or lack thereof) can shut down the likes of Chris Bosh, the O'Neals, Dwight Howard, and Noah/Boozer. Can Amare Stoudemire do it on his own with the incredible Shelden Williams, Shawne Williams, or Ronny Turiaf next to him? I think not.
The future is bright for this team. While they may not pull if off this year, they have reason to hope. They will have a stacked team come 2012 (Deron Williams/Chris Paul/Tony Parker/Steve Nash anyone?)
I want to believe in these guys. I really do. Since the epic collapse of my beloved Utah Jazz, I have been silently rooting for the overachieving underdog, the Denver Nuggets. Watching this team play has been inspiring and amazing for me.
These guys have a lot of heart and, along with the New York Knicks, are the most likely to pull off a first round upset. During the months of March and April, they have a 15-5 record. That's outstanding, especially since they traded their "best" player Carmelo Anthony. But they have some lofty opponents to overcome.
Although the Western Conference seeds have still yet to be decided, the most likely opponent for them will either be the Mavericks or the Thunder. Both teams will be tough to overcome. While I see these guys making it out of the first round, they will then have to face the veteran leadership of the San Antonio Spurs. This may be the last chance that the Spurs have to make a serious run to the NBA Finals. They will be pulling out all the stops. The Nuggets are just another tree that lies in front of the speeding Spur-bulldozer.
Unless the speedy Nuggets, led by Ty Lawson and Kenyon Martin, can come up with some sort of miracle concoction, don't expect these guys to be playing for the trophy. But don't count them out in the first round, either.
These guys have been on fire since the All-Star break. Since February they have been the best team in the league. Regardless of how well they have been playing, the Lake-show will still have to show up strong in the playoffs this year. The Western Conference is stacked, with anybody being able to beat anybody in a seven-game series.
Right now, as with many teams in the Western Conference, the Lakers don't have a set playoff seeding yet. But with a talented Western Conference, the Lakers shouldn't be too cocky if they hope to wield one more ring before the inevitable retirement of Phil Jackson. They will be going for ring No. 12 for Phil. Can they pull it off?
There are a few key factors in their run to the Finals.
#1. Bynum MUST be healthy and consistent. Bynum has been a beast of late. In the last two months of the regular season he has been averaging just over eight points and over 12 rebounds, which is key. The young center will need him to be physical and dominant, especially going up against some of the big Western guys like Tim Duncan and Kendrick Perkins.
#2. Ron Artest and Lamar Odom- Simply put, the kings of inconsistency need to be consistent and exist out there on the court. Without these guys, the Lakers have no chance.
#3. THE BLACK MAMBA- Kobe. Obviously, he will always need to be a factor for the Los Angeles Lakers. Can he come alive in the playoffs? Can he show why he is one of the greatest players of all-tine? Can he dismantle the Spurs?
The Lakers will some potentially tough match-ups in the future, whether it be the Thunder (who gave them grief last year), the Mavericks, or the Spurs.
This is the team everyone waited so long to see in action! And they have had quite the season. The Heat certainly have had their share of lows and highs. They have gone on winning streaks and seemed unbeatable. They have gone on losing streaks and seemed completely dysfunctional.
One thing seems certain now: the Heat may have one of the toughest roads to the Finals of any team not named the Boston Celtics.
Although the records say otherwise, the East may have some of the best teams in the NBA. While the Heat should be able to sneak past the 76ers in the first round, the second round could match them up against either the New York Knicks or the Boston Celtics. LeBron and company have struggled mightily against the Celtics this year, only managing one win against them in four tries.
Everyone seems to be rooting against Miami as well. No one wants them to win. It seems almost poetic that they have the most difficult path to the end. If they, by some miracle, figure out how to dismantle the Celtics in seven games, they will most definitely be facing the Chicago Bulls (who may have quite an easy road to the Finals).
Can the Heat live up to expectations? Can they defeat their rival Celtics? Can they stop the Bulls who seem impossible to beat?
A few things need to occur in order for them to wield their second trophy. LeBron and Dwyane, of course, need to be themselves. Chris Bosh is the X-Factor. He CANNOT disappear as he's done during stretches of the season. He must grab rebounds and he must make his shots. Without him, LeBron and Wade may not be able to carry the load themselves. The Heat's bench has been largely absent all season as well. This cannot be the case in the playoffs.The competition is too great.
One of the biggest things I see as their downfall is their play in the fourth quarter. They have a tendency to squander big leads and lose close games. The playoffs will have their fair share of close games. The Heat need to capitalize when it's most important, not only relying on LeBron and Wade to make a last-second shot.
LeBron should not be forced to carry this team on his shoulders during the final stretch. They have been most successful when allowing others to take the final shot (for example: Eddie House). If they want to be successful in the playoffs, the Heat have to win close games.
The Celtics have been here before. This time last year, many people thought they were too old to make any damage in the playoffs. The Celtics then proceeded to take down the Heat, the Cavaliers, and the Magic. Only the Lakers were able to silence them in the final seconds of a Game 7.
They know how to win. They have veterans who know how to win. They have an incredible fan base. The only question: can they do what they did last year? The Guys in Green seemed to falter down the stretch of the regular season and dropped down to a No. 3 seed behind the Heat and Bulls. These are the teams they will need to beat in order to reach the Finals.
As I said before, the Heat-Celtics matchup should play out like a regular NBA Finals matchup. It will be emotional. It will be physical. It will be intense. Only the team with the will to win and the heart to move forward will come out on top. But if the Celtics can make it passed the Heat, the Bulls will be in the wings, waiting. For the regular season, the Celtics and Bulls have split the series.
Their road has been made even more difficult with a questionable trade at the deadline. The Celtics unloaded their injured big man Kendrick Perkins for softy Nenad Krstic and young Jeff Green. Neither of these guys are suitable replacements and neither will be able to lead this team victory.
Obviously, a lot rides on the shoulders of the big four of Pierce, Garnett, Allen, and Rondo. But the most rides on the shoulders of the O'Neals. Both of these guys will need to step up and the fill those big shoes left by Kendrick Perkins. Otherwise, the Celtics may be facing an early exit.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are the golden boys of the NBA. It seems that everyone wants these boys to succeed. Kevin Durant is the leader, Russell Westbrook has emerged as an elite player, and Kendrick Perkins has joined the squad to take over at a spot that was a glaring weakness for them last year. Will they capitalize on the hype and the expectations?
The toughest matchup for these guys could potentially be the first one. If they don't improve their seeding, it looks as if the Thunder will be matched up with the surging Denver Nuggets. Durant and his squad must not underestimate Ty Lawson and his band of misfits. This could be a very long series for the Thunder.
If they do happen to squeeze past the Nuggets to the second round, they inevitably will face the veteran Spurs or the Lakers. While I can see the Thunder taking down the Lakers, the Spurs will be a lot tougher. I hope to see this series. It will be a classic the New vs. the Old. Who would come out on top? I give the Spurs the edge in a series with the Thunder, simply based on the fact that they know what it takes to win in the playoffs. The Thunder don't.
Kevin Durant must score consistently. Russell Westbrook mustn't disappear. And Kendrick Perkins needs to remain healthy. If so, the Thunder could surprise us all the NBA Finals.
Come playoff time, one things remains true...many people will be rooting for the Thunder, always the underdog.
Did I forget about these guys? Yes, I may have. The Magic have been largely overlooked this year, with the arrival of a much stronger team down south of them and the emergence of the Chicago Bulls. The Orlando Magic, at times, have seemed to lack an identity. This is probably the reason for their major dismantling at the trade deadline, trading Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat, and Rashard Lewis away for Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, and Gilbert Arenas.
The Magic at one time were contenders for the title. Now, nobody is talking about them. And they run the risk of losing their superstar Dwight Howard in free agency if they don't find success soon. This is why their path to the Finals is the most difficult. And it's extremely important. They cannot afford to bow out early. Almost everything depends on their success.
Their first round matchup will put them up against the disappearing Atlanta Hawks. This shouldn't be too tough for them, seeing as how the Atlanta Hawks won't pose much of a threat. That isn't to say that they can't possibly lose. But I don't see it happening.
But then comes their second round matchup. The Chicago Bulls. The probably-MVP and his surging warrior Bulls. The Bulls have a mission and they won't be an easy team to beat. For this reason, the Magic need to figure out how they can beat this team. They only beat the Bulls once during the season.
The Magic need their big man, Dwight Howard. He needs to stay out of foul trouble and not play like he did in the playoffs last year. Gilbert Arenas needs to be big off of the bench. Hedo Turkoglu needs to be his old self.
Even so, the future for the Magic looks quite bleak.
I sure hope everyone is excited. I sure am. This should be one of the most entertaining playoff seasons in recent memory. Anybody could win and anybody could lose. Looks to be a fun ride.