Now that we’re done with the NBA All-Star Game and Kobe Bryant exerting his every fiber to prove some meaningless point in a meaningless game against LeBron James, we can get back to the regular season’s home stretch and the one glaring fact that will shape every bit of it.
The Miami Heat are the one dominant team towering above everyone else. The rest of the would-be contenders are going to have to spend the remaining part of the regular season adapting and preparing for that fact.
The Heat don’t have the league’s best record, but in LeBron they have the league’s best player playing the best ball of his career. Chris Bosh has been extraordinary during the Heat’s current seven-game winning streak, as well, and Dwyane Wade has looked every bit a part of the Big Three.
This is not a team, right now, that anyone is likely to beat in a seven-game series.
In fact, they’re so in sync, their beatdown of the Oklahoma City Thunder before the break marked their sixth straight win against the best team in the West. It also was proof that Kevin Durant, Russell Westbook and Co. need to find another level if they hope to have any chance at a successful Finals reunion against Miami. Life without James Harden is what it is, and they’re going to have to adjust to it.
There are more needs nagging the other Western Conference foes if they hope to get to the Finals and, presumably, beat Miami. The San Antonio Spurs need to stay healthy and find a way to match up against younger teams with fresher legs. One of those teams, the Los Angeles Clippers, has just gotten its starting lineup back — Chauncey Billups, in particular, has been a nice catalyst set next to Chris Paul — but they feel slightly inadequate as constituted.
Blake Griffin’s mediocre free-throw shooting offers teams a way to stop his explosive play. Add in DeAndre Jordan’s abysmal free-throw shooting and the rest of his fourth-quarter handicaps, and it’s clear why rumors persist that the Clippers might be consider something like a Jordan-and-Eric Bledsoe-for-Kevin Garnett trade.
Memphis is good, but it no longer has Rudy Gay, a shot-creator and star who can wade through the heavy pressures of the playoffs and offer up buckets when everyone else is locked down by a first-team defense or the moment. That’s a need that doesn’t always register on the analytics pages, but the fact remains: The playoffs are very often about stars rising to a level that normal players cannot.
Golden State, as well, is a very good team not ready for a real run, and the Lakers are just hoping to avoid disgrace by getting into the playoffs.
Out East, there’s little reason to worry. The Heat are the giants and few teams can really match them over seven games.
For the Knicks, they’d need to get more from Amar’e Stoudemire over an entire, grueling series, and their huge reliance on 3-point shots (a league-high 33 percent of their attempts are from long range) and their so-so defense (15th in the league) highlight too many faults. When you’re talking about taking on LeBron James while he’s playing so well people can’t say his name without mentioning Michael Jordan’s, well, good luck.
The Bulls are an intriguing question mark. They’ve become a fine unit that fights together and executes the vision of their tough, defensive-minded head coach. If Derrick Rose somehow returns at full or nearly full health, they could become an immediate contender. But Rose has wisely made it clear he won’t rush it, and the past has shown us that the Heat know how to handle the skills of the youngest MVP in league history.
The team with the best chance might be the Indiana Pacers. Paul George has emerged as a star, but just as important he can match up on LeBron defensively. He’s 6-foot-8, he’s young, he’s athletic, and he’s a focal point of a Pacers defense that ranks among the top teams in the league in defensive rating (1st), shooting defense (1st), blocks and steals per game (3rd) and rebounding (4th).
Danny Granger will return from injury this month, and if he injects the team with depth and help — rather than disrupts their culture and chemistry — and the Pacers learn from last year’s playoff letdown against Miami, they could be dangerous even to the Heat.
But the fact remains: All the Heat have to do to remain the huge favorites is to simply keep doing what they’ve been doing.