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Shaun Powell

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Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, Derrick Rose and LeBron James.
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For the four title favorites, big questions still remain


Posted Apr 19 2012 11:46AM

Four teams in the NBA have managed to avoid major injury (for the most part), survive a compacted schedule, establish a chokehold in their respective divisions and most of all, win. Repeatedly.

And that's why the Thunder, Bulls, Spurs and Heat are your favorites to take the championship.

But as you know, stuff happens. Ask the 2010-11 Heat. Specifically, pick LeBron James' brain. While the best team usually wins in the NBA, as opposed to baseball where the hottest pitching staff usually wins, every now and then a Maverick comes along to tweak the blueprint.

And so, with profuse apologies to the Celtics, Lakers, Pacers and Clippers, solid teams all, this is about the top four and scenarios where they won't be celebrating in June:

CHICAGO BULLS

They have the coach, reigning MVP, defense and the role players necessary to kiss the trophy. But that's not what we're debating here.

Bottom line is, for all of the Bulls' advantages, this team was stretched out last playoffs by the Hawks, knocked woozy by the Pacers and couldn't finish against the Heat. Every step of the way last May and June, the Bulls were wobbly and exposed.

And they have virtually the same cast this season, plus Rip Hamilton. Meanwhile, the Pacers are vastly better, the Celtics are reborn and Miami is Miami. Would it shock anyone if the Bulls lost to any of these teams in the coming months?

There's also the condition of Derrick Rose. While the Bulls kept him benched lately with his nagging injuries, largely just to be safe -- and because the team won without Rose there was no urgency to rush him back -- will he be sharp for the postseason? He shot 29 percent in his three games back since mid-March.

"He's going to be a little rusty," said Kyle Korver, "I don't care who you are."

The good news is he won't need to be on his game in the first round. Still, there's Miami, the Pacers and Celtics, three teams with the fortitude to give the Bulls trouble. And while the Bulls certainly distinguished themselves in Rose's absence, the big play in a tight game will not be drawn up for Carlos Boozer or Luol Deng. Rose had better be Rose. Or else.

MIAMI HEAT

This is supposed to be a season of redemption for LeBron James and the Heat. The basketball world is delaying its judgment of both until the Finals, under the assumption Miami is poised for a deep playoff run. But suppose Miami doesn't reach the finish line? Is that really a stretch beyond reason?

Not quite. And here's why: Miami still lacks a firm rotation. Or even a solid starting five. The key positions of point guard and center are highly questionable. Too much burden still falls on LeBron and Dwyane Wade. One or the other might need to play at MVP-level every night against the Bulls, Celtics or Pacers, the three biggest threats in the East.

The major concern is size on the front line. Miami has started five different centers, and none scares anybody. Well, Chris Bosh, who's not really a center, is a Heat big man who'll draw attention. But Joel Anthony is the same player he was a year ago, and offensively, maybe worse. And since Bosh is a pick-and-pop big man who's often allergic to the rim, nobody brings a low-post game. Here's all you need to know: Ronny Turiaf gets run. Saw 30 minutes the other night, before he got hurt. And so the big-man quest in Miami continues.

Mario Chalmers and rookie Norris Cole were supposed to fuse themselves together and give the Heat 48 quality minutes at the point. And initially, such was the case, as Cole was a pleasant surprise. Then he fell off a cliff, shooting 32 percent in March and 30 so far in April. He's not giving anyone any confidence that he can be dependable in a big playoff game. Chalmers remains a hot-cold player who can't always be trusted with the ball; that's why he's occasionally waved off by LeBron, who plays point in big spots.

Those issues, along with conflicting signals from Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem, could make for another wait-till-next-year experience for Miami.

"We know we have to take a real big step forward as a basketball team," said coach Erik Spoelstra.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

You can seldom go wrong with Kevin Durant, a money player in so many ways, and Russell Westbrook, perhaps the best sidekick in the West. Add James Harden and OKC can stake its claim to having a different kind of Big Three, one that produces buckets.

"We worry about getting better every single game," said Durant. "The West is tough, as always."

But beyond their top five rotation guys, the Thunder are surprisingly average. Not bad. But certainly not great. Serge Ibaka is a terrific shot-blocker and rebounder and Thabo Sefolosha a solid defender. And then, who else?

OKC's major concern is matchups. The Thunder lost three out of four to the Clippers and split two games with the Spurs, and their win over San Antonio was done with Manu Ginobili in street clothes. So that's two teams, perhaps the two biggest threats in the West, that give the Thunder fits.

And there's also the Grizzlies, who took OKC to the limit last spring. Memphis would be tough again because Zach Randolph is healthy and Memphis has a big size advantage, along with a defender (Tony Allen) to make Durant work hard. Like Miami, OKC can't afford its best players picking the wrong time to slump.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Last year this time they rolled into the postseason as a potential contender, with all the usual suspects. And they subsequently got bounced in the first round by a younger and quicker Memphis team that also had the size necessary to chop down Tim Duncan. So why can't that happen again?

Well, it can, although it would be a bit more surprising this time. But even with more youthful talent on the roster and a rejuvenated Duncan, the Spurs could miss a chance to add to their ring collection.

It has more to do with the competition than the Spurs themselves, although this is not a team without flaws. The Spurs pride themselves for constantly adding the right pieces to surround the core of Ginobili, Duncan and Tony Parker, and it appears they've done it again. Still, those players are untested in May and June, so we don't know if there's a Bruce Bowen in the bunch. We don't even know if Stephen Jackson is the Stephen Jackson of a decade ago, when he helped the Spurs to a title.

Finally, let's talk Duncan. He has turned back the clock with some big performances (28 points, 12 rebounds against Memphis, 21 and 15 against the Wolves, 23 and 11 against Indy, 16 rebounds against Utah, etc.) when in the past he appeared on cruise control, waiting for the postseason. Will Duncan be able to post similar numbers and efforts from here? He looked old against the Grizzlies last spring when he averaged 12 points, 10 below his postseason career average. Any inability to maintain the pace will surely doom the Spurs against OKC or a team with a functional big man.

"We're feeling good and staying healthy," Duncan said the other day. "That's how we want to be for the playoffs."

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. 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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