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Who is a dark horse team to keep an eye on down the stretch?
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Steve Aschburner: Toronto. And before someone pipes up about it’s impossible by definition for the defending NBA champions to be a “dark horse,” let’s remember that Miami dropped to 37-45 the season after LeBron James left and clearly would have qualified as a dark horse. Kawhi Leonard’s decision to leave Toronto with the confetti and champagne still in his hair seemed certain to make that team a one-and-done champion. But the Raptors learned how to win without him last season, going 17-5 when Leonard sat out, and have been applying those lessons this season. Who’s to say it won’t continue in the postseason? They don’t fear the Bucks after last spring’s East finals (spotted Milwaukee a 2-0 lead, then swept the next four), and they’ve tightened up defensively more than they’ve slipped offensively in Leonard’s absence. Guess 25 years means it’s time to repeat an NBA lesson, a la Rudy Tomjanovich: Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
Shaun Powell: Methinks the architect Pat Riley is feeling smug about the Heat right now. He has built Miami into a growing threat and while Jimmy Butler and company are probably another year and trade away, they can swoop in if circumstances fall in their favor come postseason. They may be more than a tough out.
John Schuhmann: Philadelphia. If you go back to preseason predictions, the Sixers wouldn’t be considered a dark horse; they were a popular pick to reach The Finals. But as we come out of the All-Star break, they’re in fifth place, with a 9-19 road record and the league’s 20th-ranked offense. It’s not time to count them out, though. The Sixers have played the toughest schedule among the top six teams in the East and their 25-2 record at home is best in the entire NBA. The Sixers have one of the league’s biggest home-road differentials in regard to point differential per 100 possessions last season, but they won three of their first four road playoff games and were the closest to knocking off the eventual champs.
Sekou Smith: Miami’s the pick in the East. If the tweaks at the trade deadline provide the boost they could, this Heat crew could play spoiler in the entire playoffs, not just the East. The toughness and roster stick out. Having a coach with the championship seasoning Erik Spoelstra brings to the operation certainly aids the cause. But the defensive potential of All-Stars Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and newcomers Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder gives the Heat versatility to deal with anything other East contenders might throw at them.
Michael C. Wright: Miami isn’t necessarily a dark horse, but nobody before the season expected the Heat to be playing at this level. Miami is 11-5 against teams in the top eight of their respective conferences, they’ve beaten the Bucks, and are a combined 5-1 against the Pacers and the 76ers. Of the top eight in the East, only the Celtics own a winning record over the Heat, and the additions of Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill just might take this team over the top.