Heat don’t seem to have challenger

Ebullient in their Game 7 win, beaten and battered but finally victorious, the Chicago Bulls on Saturday celebrated as a stunned Brooklyn Nets team headed for the tunnel, the showers and the long and disappointing offseason.

But the Bulls, while worthy of praise for the poise and toughness they took to gut out a 99-93 Game 7 win without Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, are also a perfect metaphor for the state of the NBA playoffs in general as we kick off the second round Sunday: full of teams good enough to advance, but possessing few if any real challengers for the Miami Heat.

Indeed, as the postseason was reshaped by storylines about the Oklahoma City Thunder losing Russell Westbrook and two of the top four seeds falling in the West and the Knicks looking surprisingly vulnerable against the Celtics — as the hardships and mediocrity of everyone else crystallized — the Heat waited.

They waited to play. They waited for Dwyane Wade to heal. They waited for Sunday afternoon’s inevitable announcement that LeBron James and his insane level of play had earned him his fourth Most Valuable Player Award. They waited to see if any real challenger would emerge on either side of the conference divide.

Few did. Instead, several faded away.

In the Eastern Conference, Chicago remained without Rose and its remaining players seemed to fall, one by one. The Bulls will limp into their Monday opener against Miami banged up and formidable only in the sense that they hate the Heat and will burn with the desire to beat them. The Bulls are tough, and they have heart, and in dispatching an underwhelming but more talented Nets team, the Bulls reasserted themselves as the NBA’s most capable team when it comes to willpower and tenaciousness. That can get you past Deron Williams and the Nets. It’s highly unlikely to be enough against LeBron and the Heat.

The other side of the Eastern Conference playoff picture suddenly looks equally unlikely to produce a true competitor for Miami. The Knicks, a team I’ve doubted all season long, are still likely to prove me wrong and get to the Eastern Conference finals. But they showed against a poor Celtics team that they are far from a juggernaut. Carmelo Anthony, in particular, had stretches so appallingly bad it’s hard to see them winning a seven-game series against a truly good basketball team. And J.R. Smith got himself suspended from one game, then missed his first 10 shots to announce his return in the next. That the Celtics made a series of it at all speaks volumes about the Knicks’ issues.

Does that mean their second-round opponent, the Indiana Pacers, can beat them? There was a point where I thought it a certainty. The Pacers play great defense, they rebound, they have in Paul George a budding young star and their lack of depth would at first blush seem unimportant in a playoff series where rotations tighten up.

But the Pacers, like the Knicks, have looked particularly mediocre lately. Since Danny Granger returned from injury in February and then went down again in March, the air has gone out of this team, a curious fact given that it had been humming along just fine without Granger for most of the season.

The Pacers and Knicks were the darlings of those of us looking for an alternative to the Heat. Now, it looks like Miami made all of us look as bad as they did the Milwaukee Bucks in their opening-round sweep.

The Western Conference is much tougher, but not as tough as it might have been. The Clippers’ flameout against the Memphis Grizzlies — they went up 2-0 in the series before losing in six games — takes an intriguing challenger out of the mix. Denver, the No. 3 seed, turned out to be no match for Golden State’s Steph Curry and the playoffs’ tendency to weed out teams that rely too much on depth and points in transition.

Then there’s Russell Westbook’s season-ending injury, a stroke of awful fortune for the Thunder that eliminates the Heat’s fiercest threat and makes the West feel as open as the East feels already set.

Now, the Grizzlies-Thunder series is suddenly very interesting. Without Westbook, the Thunder are obviously not what they were. And the Grizzlies, with their tenacious defense, dual big men and keen sense of their own identity, are a very good team. In gutting out that series win over the Clippers, they’ve earned what could end up being an easy road to the Western Conference finals.

We also have the San Antonio Spurs against the Warriors — the old dynasty trying to match the Lakers for NBA titles in the modern era vs. the upstart with the young gun making the most noise this postseason.

Still, as magnificent as Curry was against Denver, it’s hard to see him being able to lift his team any further. David Lee is banged up — many thought he’d be out for the season when he tore his hip flexor in the last series — and the Spurs had a quietly splendid regular season and have rounded into even finer form heading into this time of year. The Spurs might now be the Heat’s most capable challenger.

Vegas thinks so, pegging them as the second-most-likely team to win it all, followed by the Thunder, Grizzlies and Knicks. The Heat, of course, are heavy favorites.

Looking at all that’s happened in the past two weeks, it’s easy to see why.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.