Even as the playoffs commence, the ultimate questions are these: Can anybody beat Miami? If so, who might that be?
In the East, the Heat’s only serious challenger is New York, but the Knicks are not up to the task. Here’s why: They have no low-post scorer who can take advantage of Miami’s most significant weakness – a relatively small frontline. Tyson Chandler can’t score with a pencil and, at his best, Kenyon Martin is a slasher and jump-shooter. This shortcoming will enable Miami’s defense to play tight perimeter defense, and only protect the paint from dive-cutters.
While it’s true that Carmelo Anthony is the league’s most versatile scorer, and that JR Smith’s step-back jumpers are unblockable, the Knicks don’t have any other guys who can consistently create their own shots. Which means that their offense is limited to the sticky-fingered adventures of Melo and Smith, plus occasional kickouts to a host of dangerous three-point shooters. A the same time, Miami’s team defense is quick, diligent, well-coached, and is extremely capable of making whatever in-game and between-game adjustments that prove to be necessary.
On an individual basis, LeBron James can play better defense against Anthony than Anthony can play against him. If this matchup does materialize, fans of every persuasion are in for a treat. Also look for Shane Battier to bump, bang, and use his trademark face-guarding techniques to somewhat subdue Melo.
Dwyane Wade may have lost a half-step, but he still has enough size, strength, and gumption to prevent the dependably inconsistent Smith from running wild.
At the other end of the court, the Knicks can offer a trio of adept defenders. Chandler is a prime-time helper, but will be hard-pressed to cover the lane and also attend to Chris Bosh’s mid-range (and beyond) jumpers. Iman Shumpert has the will, but hasn’t made a full recovery from his knee surgery. Jason Kidd has slow feet, a strong body, terrific instincts, quick hands, and remains New York’s best one-on-one defender. Not good enough, though, to prevent Wade from piling up his points.
Yes, the Knicks had great success against Miami during the regular season, but the playoffs are a different story. From the end of October to the middle of April, the head-to-head matchups are separated by several weeks so that scouting reports and specific game preparations are abbreviated. During the money season, however, there’s plenty of time to investigate and solve opponents’ game plans.
In any case, should there be a Miami-New York conference finals, the Heat are simply too deep and too talented for the Knicks to extend the series past five games.
It’s highly likely that Miami will face one of three Western Conference teams in the championship series. But only one of these foes has the capability to usurp the defending champs.
Not the Clippers for a variety of reasons: If Chris Paul is double-teamed on high pick-and-rolls, the Clippers offense is dramatically diminished. Sure, Jamal Crawford is an explosive point-maker, but in the long run he’s a low-percentage shooter who keeps both teams in the game.
Blake Griffin’s offense is still limited to baseline drives going left, and assorted spins and duck-under moves to set up a right-handed jump-hook. Needless to say, his every jump shot is an adventure – will it hit the rim or not? Yes, he’s a dunkaholic and can run and fly on the break, but he’s more of an opportunistic-garbage scorer than a dependable go-to guy. Plus his hesitant, off-balance, lateral movement makes his subpar defense a prime target for any offense.
Caron Butler is slow. DeAndre Jordan is strictly a flyer who can’t shoot himself in the foot. Matt Barnes hustles, plays scrappy defense, and can hit an occasional trey. And who is that imposter wearing Lamar Odom’s uniform?
Should they get that far (which is doubtful), the Clippers would be fortunate to avoid a sweep.
While the Thunder might be the odds-on favorites to make a return visit to the Finals, they have too many flaws to beat the Heat.
First off, there’s Kendrick Perkins, who sets sturdy picks and rebounds some, but specializes in defending low-post scorers. Too bad the Heat have none; which mostly renders Perkins useless. Which means that Serge Ibaka has to spend some time guarding Bosh. Because of Ibaka’s impetuous desire to leave his feet and block shots he will be saddled with fouls. That means Nick Collison has to play more than is advisable. And although Collison is an earnest and effective defender, he too is foul prone, and is a liability on offense.
And when LBJ moves into the power forward slot, he’ll easily be able to chump whoever tries to guard him.
Kevin Durant will get his points, but he’ll be bullied into frustration by Battier. Also, when LeBron plays small forward, KD will be routinely overpowered on defense.
Thebo Sefolosha is solid at both ends, and is probably the team’s best all-around player. He has the size and length to trouble Wade, but is marginal on offense only because he mostly gets leftover shots.
Kevin Martin brings his erratic-shooting, defenseless, and all-around soft game off the bench. Since playoff games unfold at a much more deliberate pace than those played in the regular season, Martin will have trouble finding open driving lanes.
As ever, the biggest X-factor for OKC is the mercurial Russell Westbrook. Although he’s quick as a wish, a streaky jump shooter, and irresistible in a broken field, Westbrook has still not mastered the point guard position. Too often he takes hasty, ill-advised shots and makes poor decisions with the ball.
In the end, Oklahoma City still lacks the maturity, the tip-to-buzzer intensity, and the defensive focus to overcome Miami.
That leaves San Antonio with the best chance to win another gold ring for Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich, et al.
That’s because TD still has too much gas in his tank for either Bosh or Udonis Haslem to slow down; Tiago Splitter has improved to the point where his activity in the paint will overwhelm Miami’s smallish frontcourt; and the Spurs will be able to dominate their own defensive glass as well as generate extra shots with their offensive rebounding.
The Spurs huge advantage in boardwork will be decisive.
The penetrations of Parker and a healthy Manu Ginobili will also capitalize on Miami’s lack of sky-closing shot-blockers. The perimeter accuracy of Danny Green, Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard, Matt Bonner, Parker, and Ginobili, coupled with San Antonio’s swift, unselfish ball movement, will make the Heat pay dearly for every defensive misstep or hesitation.
And more than any of the personal matchups, the Spurs’ most important advantages are their discipline; resourcefulness; versatility; intelligence; the multi-championship experience of TD, Parker and Ginobili; and the unparalleled expertise of Pop, who is easily the best coach in the league.
In a showdown between the Heat and the Spurs, it says here that San Antonio wins in triple overtime in the seventh game.