Doing a radio hit over the weekend, I was asked who has the best chance to upset either Miami or Indiana in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
In reality, for either to lose a series before the conference finals will require injuries, a lack of attention to detail essentially unprecedented in postseason history, or both.
For the record, we settled on Detroit as a potential apple cart upender, because the Pistons do have – for a sub-.500 team, that is – a lot of individual talent, and their size makes them unconventional. But the intellectual exercise only reinforces the real answer: “Nobody.”
In the West, the situation is completely different. Before the season, four teams – the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers and Warriors – were seen as legitimate Finals contenders, with perhaps a few outliers tossing the Rockets in the mix. But the list of teams capable of beating a top contender round-to-round?
Any team good enough to make the top eight, really. That included a Memphis squad now dead in the water. But the Grizzlies’ fall is counterbalanced by surprise runs from Portland and Phoenix only adding to the conference’s incredible depth. Assuming Golden State and Minnesota get in (both have playoff-worthy point differentials), the West playoffs will be completely without gimmes.
The biggest beneficiary? Miami. One big reason I – like many – picked against the Heat to three-peat was the burden of history. Reaching four straight Finals is exceedingly difficult, which is basically why it almost never happens. The grind, physical and mental, is just too much.
This season, however, the Heat can basically save all their energy for one round of the conference tourney. And because they’re comfortable playing as a two seed and nobody is pushing them from behind, they can carefully manage minutes down the stretch as well. Maybe that lets them slip past the Pacers, where they could meet a West representative weary from three brutal rounds.
At the very least, context works in Miami’s favor this season.
On to the rankings. Merry Christmas, everyone!