In less than a week the NBA playoffs will be underway and except for the eighth spot in the West and some jockeying for position in the middle of the playoff pack, this year’s participants are set. But who are the real playoff threats this year? Who are the teams that have shown they can still get the job done when easy games against the bottom half of the NBA are no longer around to pad your win totals?
In the West, the Golden State Warriors have dominated all season against all comers as they remain on track to set the all-time NBA record for wins in a season. The only sliver of doubt about their eventual run to an NBA Championship is the Spurs somewhat obvious willingness to punt wins during the regular season in order to give their star players a day off. San Antonio’s tendency to play possum makes their outstanding regular season record that much tougher to properly evaluate.
The Thunder have a couple of superstar players, but they really don’t have superstar results against other winning teams. They are 0-3 against the Warriors, 0-2 against the Cavs and 1-1 versus Toronto. They do have a 2-1 record against the Spurs which could make things interesting in the second round of the playoffs.
The Clippers lack of success against winning teams makes them look like a potential first round upset, but it seems like they will have Blake Griffin back for the postseason, so this team could be better than their regular season record would indicate. Still, it’s hard to think of the Clippers as much of a threat as a second round opponent.
The only team outside of the top four in the West that could cause a stir is the dysfunctional and confusing ninth place Houston Rockets. The Rockets record against winning teams suggests they should be fifth in the conference and they could still sneak into eighth to give the Warriors a better than expected challenge in the first round.
In the East, it’s the Toronto Raptors that have by far and away the best record against winning teams. Almost on par with the Spurs when playing teams with a .500 record or better, Toronto has a winning record versus every team in the Eastern Conference playoff picture including the Cavs. Their only nemesis being the imploding Bulls whose magic number is one loss or one Pacers win to guarantee them a trip to the NBA Draft Lottery.
First place Cleveland remains the favorite to represent the East in the NBA Finals solely because of the very broad shoulders of LeBron James and it won’t surprise anyone if James can once again make his annual appearance at the NBA Championships. Toronto’s best hope at upsetting everyone’s plans is the late season return of defensive specialist DeMarre Carroll. Carroll was signed in the summer as a LeBron stopper and he was a huge part of the Hawks 60 win season and trip to the Eastern Conference Finals last year.
The Hawks are hot and are the sixth and final team in the NBA with a winning record against winning teams. Unfortunately, both the Cavs (0-2, -7 points) and the Raptors (1-3, -4.5 points) have dominated them this season.
There have been some very strange forms of analysis being uttered about the Miami Heat in recent weeks, usually along the lines of, if Chris Bosh came back, the Heat would be a big threat to come out of the East. First, there are no indications Bosh will be back and considering his medical condition, that’s probably for the best. Second, the Heat were only 29-24 with Bosh this season. Everyone would like to relive the glory days of star players like Dwyane Wade and Bosh, but time and circumstance catches up to all of us.
There isn’t a huge disparity between teams in third thru eighth in the East with the possible exception of Atlanta and this should make for some great first round matches as third plays sixth and fourth plays fifth.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as usual, heading into the playoffs, it’s the top two teams in each conference that should be considered the real threats again this year.