Posted Apr 15 2011 3:02PM
The NBA season that starts in the cool, crisp air of autumn and often runs into the first few hot, sultry days of summer is often described as a marathon.
Actually, it's more like a backward triathlon as all 30 teams first trudge across the miles of pavement to the All-Star break, switch over to a post-trade deadline bicycle race for positioning and then ultimately jump into the churning playoff waters and start paddling for their lives.
So here we are at the deep end of the ocean for a look at who really has the capability to sink, swim and survive as part of the playoff food chain:
L.A. Lakers -- After all of the angst and the awesomeness, all of the plot twists and the star turns, all of the times we've climbed off and on the purple-and-gold bandwagon, are we really going to bail on the two-time defending champions now that Phil & Kobe are on the verge of cementing their legacy with a classic ending that will rival Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains in Casablanca? Well, that depends on the state of Andrew Bynum's knee and whether, for a change, it holds up through June. They've been up, down, in and out all season. But when they're on the Lakers still have unmatchable length on the front line, an unquenchable Kobe Bryant and the institutional knowledge of how much it takes to make it through the minefield of the playoffs. If Bynum can stay on the floor and produce the numbers that sparked the 17-1 stretch coming out of the All-Star break, they're better than last year and more than capable of the "three-peat" that will allow Jackson to walk off into a glorious sunset and Kobe to tie Michael Jordan. If not, the Lakers are vulnerable anywhere past the first round.
Miami Heat -- They are everyone's favorite dartboard target outside of South Florida, but that hasn't prevented LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh from shrugging off the criticism and putting together a regular season that was very successful. That is, as long as people weren't coming from the unrealistic view of picking a 73-9 record at the start. They are still fumbling in the lab to create real chemistry, but there is a good chance the Big Three's talent will be enough to get them to The Finals and by then, anything could happen. The damning stat of 1-for-18 shooting in the last 10 seconds of overtime or the fourth quarter could be less a problem if the shift continues to put the ball in Wade's hands late. On the plus side, they rank No. 2 in the league in field goal defense and in shooting. You can criticize the other starters, their bench, their summertime pep rally, LeBron's TV show announcement and their crying. But with all the flaws, they're going into the playoffs confident and capable.
San Antonio Spurs -- These are not the same Spurs who won four championships in the previous dozen seasons by pounding the ball inside and squeezing the life out of opponents with a suffocating defense. Coach Gregg Popovich transformed last spring's West semifinal losers into the team with the best record in the league by turning the offense loose and turning the Spurs into the NBA's best 3-point shooting team. The downside is that the defense has fallen off its pedestal and can no longer get that "must-have" stop. But with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker enjoying outstanding seasons and Tim Duncan rested and still very capable in the playoffs, it would be foolish the overlook the best team wire-to-wire since October. Ginobili's sprained elbow is a question as the playoffs begin, but should be more than fine by the time the heavy lifting begins in the semis. They'll give up size in some matchups, but the core has been around the block and that counts. Outside of the Lakers, they're the team to beat in the West.
Chicago Bulls -- How many times, especially in the first round, will we hear questions about the Bulls' lack of prior playoff experience as a unit? Then again, how many different words can we use to describe the one-year transformation of Derrick Rose from up-and-coming star to likely MVP? There is the improved shot, the unstoppable drives to the bucket, the highlight reel dunks, but mostly there is the acceptance of the leadership role and the fulfillment of that job by Rose that makes any questions about what the Bulls lack seem foolish. That and rookie coach Tom Thibodeau's get-up-in-your-grill-and-make-you-earn-every-bucket defense. While the Heat were accumulating superstars, the Bulls were assembling a true team with so many roles filled perfectly. Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Kyle Korver, et al, make for a group that doesn't know and doesn't care that it lacks experience.
Boston Celtics -- Oh no, not again this year. We're not going to fall into the same old trap of labeling the Celtics as too old, too tired, too broken down to make another run at another championship. That description mainly applies to Shaquille O'Neal, who has many miles to cross in the coming days to prove that he can be more than just the world's most humongous cheerleader. That puts much more of the burden on Jermaine O'Neal, himself just returned from surgery, to be the defensive stopper in the middle of the defense. Only time will tell if dealing away Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green at the trade deadline was too cute by general manager Danny Ainge and could wind up costing them rings. Ray Allen is struggling to find his shot, while Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have been searching to find their rhythm down the stretch. Maybe the biggest concern is about the wear and tear (ankle, plantar fasciitis, finger) of the season on Rajon Rondo. Yet with all the aches and pains and signs of age, we wouldn't be so surprised to see them make another run. Would we?
Orlando Magic -- From the moment that LeBron made his decision and they began holding pre-training camp victory celebrations in Miami, the Magic have been swimming upstream. There has been an air of jealousy, inefficiency and unfulfillment in Orlando. General manager Otis Smith has practically slept with his finger on the panic button, swapping for Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and any available characters at Disney World -- is there a dwarf named Hopey? -- in an attempt to play catch-up with the Heat. Dwight Howard is still the monster in the middle, but nothing else about the Magic is scary anymore.
Dallas Mavericks -- It's becoming such a familiar tale that little children all over North Texas can tell it to themselves as a bedtime story -- the Mavs win 50 games and then flame out early. They have won only 10 of 21 playoff games since taking that infamous 2-0 lead on Miami in the 2006 Finals. Now they finally have a bona fide center in Tyson Chandler. But there remains a sense that they put far too much on the shoulders of Dirk Nowitzki and are lacking an overall killer instinct. What does it say when your own coach labels you soft? That you're not going to be raising a trophy in June.
Oklahoma City Thunder -- If the playoffs were merely a two-on-two tournament, the Thunder could be happy to run Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook out onto the floor and take their chances. They're still moving in the right direction under the shrewd guidance of GM Sam Presti and they've addressed a need for bulk and attitude in the middle of the lineup with the acquisition of Kendrick Perkins. But they still have a few rungs to climb to reach the top of the ladder. They have got to develop an end-of-game strategy that gets the Thunder better shots than clock-running-out, contested jumpers by Durant.
Portland Trail Blazers -- It seems that every spring rolls around with analysts saying the Blazers are the team that nobody wants to face in the first round. Then the Blazers go out and lose in the first round. This time they've taken another star-crossed season and turned it into another potential giant killer. With LaMarcus Aldridge as the unquestioned offensive leader, Andre Miller still zooming up the lists as one of the great underrated guards in NBA history, Brandon Roy settling into his role as the third hand rather than lead horse and Gerald Wallace running on the wings, Portland also has the talent and the defensive chops to take down a higher seed in the first round and perhaps even make a deep run like Phoenix did a year ago. But don't we say that every year?
Denver Nuggets -- Call them the anti-Knicks or the anti-Heat? Or how about the Denver Kneat? Wouldn't it be neat to see a team without any of the so-called "franchise players" -- who are supposedly needed to win in today's NBA -- prove everyone wrong? Coach George Karl spent the first half of the season trying to keep his sanity and winning games during the Melo-Drama by cranking out the best offense in the league. After the trade, he has turned the Nuggets into the No. 1 defense. They play tough. They play together. They play all of the time in every game. And they could be a tough out in any given series. But as heart-warming a story as it might be, going all the way is strictly fantasy.
Atlanta Hawks -- The Hawks are getting the right first-round matchup against Orlando, a team they've beaten three times in four games this season. But that only speaks to the dysfunctional Magic more than saying anything about the Hawks stepping up among the elite. The switch from Mike Woodson to Larry Drew has cost the Hawks some of their defensive identity and Drew still hasn't been able to get through to Josh Smith to make him any less frustrating and unfulfilling. Rather than taking steps forward, the Hawks have slipped a rung or two farther down the ladder and could be looking at an overhaul with a weak showing.
New York Knicks -- Remember the immediate aftermath of the trade? Remember the joy, the excitement, the thrill of having the magic back in Madison Square Garden? Well, what if the magic turned out to be just a cheap card trick? Yes, the names on the backs of some of those jerseys -- Stoudemire, Anthony, Billups -- are interesting. But despite the late winning streak that zoomed them up into the No. 6 spot, the Knicks haven't figured out how to put it together yet. Maybe that's because they sent a handful of good players to Denver. That's what makes this a brief trip.
Philadelphia 76ers -- When the Sixers opened the season 3-13, with the way they were playing nobody in their right mind might would have given them a chance of reaching the playoffs. That's precisely why coach Doug Collins threw out all of his plans, revamped the offense in midstream and changed the way Philly would play. He's resurrected Elton Brand, got Andre Iguodala to play a role where he can shine, turned Louis Williams loose, made Thaddeus Young a joy to behold and the Sixers one of the most entertaining teams in the league to watch. Unfortunately, Philly proceeded to draw the worst possible first-round matchup against Miami and the fun stops now.
Memphis Grizzlies -- After five years of wandering in the desert, the Grizzlies can celebrate finally making a return to the playoffs. They now resume the chase to pick up the first playoff win in franchise history after three consecutive sweeps (2004-2006). The bad news is they have to chase that inaugural win without forward Rudy Gay. Zach Randolph is a funnel cloud of points, rebounds and relentless activity in the low post and Mike Conley is finally playing like the fourth pick in the 2007 draft at the point. By resting Z-Bo, Tony Allen and Conley for the last two regular season games, coach Lionel Hollins, dropped to No. 8 and maneuvered his team into this match-up with the Spurs. Be careful what you wish for. This is as far as they go.
New Orleans Hornets -- Back before anyone knew that the Spurs were going to win 60 games and return to ruling the West, the Hornets went into San Antonio for Game 2 of the long regular season and whipped them. Then they did it again later in New Orleans. Monty Williams has put the pride and snap back into the team. However the loss of forward David West leaves Chris Paul without his favorite pick and roll playmate and leaves the Hornets scrambling to keep pace with the big boys in the conference. They would have been overmatched by the sheer size of the Lakers even with West in the lineup. If CP3 goes out and drops a triple-double in every game, he'll make things interesting, and it will make for fun TV. But the Hornets simply don't have enough firepower to survive.
Indiana Pacers -- Team president Larry Bird said at the start of the season that there was no reason his Pacers shouldn't make the playoffs. Well, how about this one? Now that they're here, the Pacers hardly stand a chance against the No. 1 seeded Bulls. Interim coach Frank Vogel chucked the bombs-away 3-point philosophy that got Jim O'Brien fired. But the Pacers still don't have a real identity or sense of direction. Except toward the exit. Quickly.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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