It's decision time, and I don't mean that in a LeBron sort of way. On the eve of what will be a dynamic two-month ride through the playoffs, it is time to predict which two teams will still be standing in the NBA Finals.
Of the 16 teams that made the playoffs, only two can receive the dubious honor of being selected for a spot in the fictional Finals being conjured in my imagination on April 15. To the 14 teams I'm eliminating, fear not. I picked the Cavs to win it all last spring.
|Chris Bosh starts for the Heat and Lamar Odom comes off L.A.'s bench, but they will often match up in crunch time. (Getty Images)|
But we would've been denied the controversy that has surrounded the superstar concoction in South Beach and the fallout that has been under way for the past nine months. It has been a remarkable regular season, marked by the ups and downs in Miami, the rise of Derrick Rose and the Bulls, the awkward reinvention of the Celtics, the renewed excellence of the Spurs and the laser-like focus of Kobe Bryant as he chases his third straight title and sixth of his immortal career.
Back in July, Heat vs. Lakers in the Finals seemed like a foregone conclusion. The owners and players, in fact, might as well have had their work stoppage a year early -- canceling the 82-game formality and just going straight to a best-of-7 between L.A. and Miami.
Then the Heat struggled. The Spurs reinvented themselves. The Celtics stunned everyone by trading their starting center and enforcer, Kendrick Perkins. The Bulls took off, emerging as a suffocating defensive force under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau and giving us a runaway MVP performance from Rose, who had wondered even after Miami got LeBron and Bosh, "Why can't I be MVP of the league?"
The Thunder got better -- dangerously better. The Trail Blazers and Nuggets endured. The Mavericks were still the Mavericks, whatever that means. The Knicks finally got their man, Carmelo Anthony, and formed their own star-studded threesome that brought playoff basketball back to New York for the first time in seven years.
But guess what? After all that, we're going to wind up getting exactly what we thought we would get back in July. The two most talented teams -- one from the most glamorous market, the other a once-in-a-lifetime free-agent creation -- will be colliding in an epic Finals matchup in June.
We're going to get the Heat vs. the Lakers, a basketball and business bonanza that will be a fitting sendoff for a sport that stands at the precipice of deconstruction -- a conspiracy by the very owners who were willing accomplices in all that is wrong with basketball essentially asking for a mulligan.
"We didn't really want a league where the players made this much money and only the wealthy franchises in glitzy markets had a realistic shot at winning a championship," they say now, even though that's exactly what they wanted.
But back to my prediction, which would seem to fly in the face of some, but not all, logic. The champions of the regular season, the Bulls and Spurs, certainly have the easiest path to the Finals and would be worthy participants. But there's precedent for the teams with the best regular-season records falling short in the season that matters -- the one that begins Saturday. Cleveland had the best record the past two years and failed to make the Finals. Dallas won a league-best 67 games in 2007 and got bounced by Golden State in the first round.
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Since LeBron has been in the league, the teams with the best records in each conference have met in the Finals only once -- in 2008, when the Celtics beat the Lakers.
But how are the Heat going to make it to the Finals with a 1-6 regular-season record against the Celtics and Bulls -- two teams they must beat in best-of-7 series to get there? Of the top three teams in the East, the Bulls have the easiest path. They only need to beat Miami or Boston. The Heat will have to beat Boston and Chicago; the Celtics, Chicago and Miami. Same with the Spurs, who would have to beat the Lakers or the Mavs -- not both.
Couple of things: First, the Heat are a vastly different team than the one that struggled in those regular-season games against Boston and Chicago. The first two losses to Boston are entirely irrelevant; those were two weeks apart in October and November, also known as a lifetime ago in the NBA. The most recent loss to Boston, just before the All-Star break, came down to a missed free throw by LeBron with 13 seconds left.
Miami's three losses to the Bulls were by a combined five points -- and the most recent was a one-point loss on March 6, courtesy of a phantom foul called against Mike Miller on Luol Deng with 16 seconds left. It also came as the Heat were mired in a five-game losing streak; they're 15-3 since then, including a confidence-building victory over Boston on April 10 with home-court advantage on the line in their presumed second-round series.
Point guard, center, bench, end-of-game offensive execution -- these were Miami's weaknesses six months ago, and they remain. When they need a basket from the supporting cast at the end of a playoff game on the road, who will provide it? When the ball is in the hands of the stars at the end of the game, who will take the last shot -- Wade or LeBron? Who will check Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose?
Fair questions, all. But compare those to the questions Boston and Chicago are asking themselves heading into the playoffs, and the Heat should feel good about their chances. Are the aging Celtics going to be able to get their mojo back after trading Perkins, their defensive traffic cop and best screener on offense? If the Celtics or Heat force someone besides Rose to beat them, who's going to do it?
LeBron and Wade have been defensive terrors all season. But ever since they went into attack mode, emphasizing driving to the rim over settling for jump shots, the Heat have been a different team. Add a key adjustment by coach Erik Spoelstra -- who, remember, was supposed to be watching Pat Riley coach this team by now -- and the Heat are more dangerous than they've been all season. Bosh, an awkward third wheel for much of the season, has been given his moments to shine with James and Wade on the bench. It has done wonders for his confidence, and for the Heat's pecking order.
The Lakers? As long as Andrew Bynum's knee holds up, they are by far the class of the West. With Bryant dialed in as he chases his Jordan-tying sixth title, the Lakers will not suffer the kind of shenanigans that put momentary scares into their title hopes last spring against the pesky Thunder and Suns. Their size and length ultimately will wear down the Mavs, Spurs and/or Oklahoma City en route to their fourth consecutive trip to the Finals.
So who wins this fundamental clash of evil vs. evil -- the glamour team in the most glamorous market against the team with the front-running stars who took the easy way out by teaming up in the party capital of the NBA? The Lakers do. Despite the enormous challenge of getting past the two best teammates in the league, Wade and LeBron, a place deep within Bryant's diabolical psyche will be pleased that Miami was able to knock Thibodeau's defensive wizardry and the Celtics' championship experience out of his way. As rare as it is to assemble three of the 20 best players in the league (and two of the best three) on the same team on the same day, it is rarer still for such a team to accelerate the time-tested script for falling short before you finally embrace the trophy in June.
So, Lakers over Heat in seven. Enjoy every minute, before the NBA fades to darkness.