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If you had the chance to place a wager on which team would win the title, where would you put your money?
Chicago? The Bulls have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and Finals, they feature the No. 1 scoring defense in the NBA and boast the services of the 2010-11 MVP in Derrick Rose. But they are short on experience, don't offer much by way of a bona fide bench, and they are severely lacking at the shooting guard position offensively.
Boston? The Celtics are hungry for redemption after last year's Finals loss, but they quite honestly have not been nearly as intense defensively since Kendrick Perkins' departure. There are major question marks at center, where 39-year-old Shaquille O'Neal has essentially been out for three months and Jermaine O'Neal is a ticking time bomb in terms of injury.
Oklahoma City? The Thunder dispatched the Nuggets, a team that was playing the best basketball in the league just prior to the playoffs, in just five games. That earned them their first playoff series victory in franchise history (I'm sorry, I refuse to include the Supersonics history. Leave the people of Seattle with their own memories). But the youngest team remaining in the playoffs is very short on a key component: experience. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook form a frightening tandem, and this club will be in the conversation for title contention for the forseeable future, but that lack of experience is a major concern.
Dallas? Like clockwork, the Mavericks again won 50 games and earned a playoff berth. But fans and observers alike tend to remember things like a No. 1 seed getting ousted by a No. 8 seed in the first round, or blowing a 2-0 series lead after being up 13 in Game 3 with six minutes left against Miami in the NBA Finals, and a couple more first-round exits in recent memory. I'll pass, thank you.
Los Angeles? Not a lot to not like. Championship pedigree. The best closer in the league. The best coach in league history. The best frontcourt in the league. Sixth Man of the Year. A few factors working against them are the fact that with all these deep journeys into the playoffs, the Lakers have played more than 300 games in the past three years. The other is that they are one of the oldest teams in the league, and they obviously aren't getting any younger.
Miami? The Heat have arguably the most talented roster in the league. They have the best player in the league, and the third (or second) best player in the league playing right next to him. They have the No. 2 scoring defense in the league. A few concerns include their gaping hole at center, the fact that Mike Bibby can't defend a koi pond, and the failures during the regular season in finishing close games.
I would put my proverbial money on Miami. The Celtics are going to prove to be a very tough out, eliminating Derrick Rose and his top seed Chicago Bulls will be a monumental task, and standing in the way of Kobe Bryant to keep him from earning his sixth NBA championship is going to be unbelievably difficult.
But I believe the Heat have many scores to settle. Who else has two elite playmakers to score and set up others? LeBron James wants to turn giant zero in his championships column into a one, Dwyane Wade wants to add to his legacy by securing his second NBA title, Chris Bosh wants to silence the doubters who think of him as soft, just as Pau Gasol has done the past two seasons.
The Heat is on.