As the regular season enters its final week, the four teams heavily favored to hoist the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Trophy in June are the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
All four teams have their pros and cons, and each has taken a different path to championship contention this year.
If the title was handed out strictly on merit in the second half of the season, the Spurs would run away from the competition. Including its incredible 19-game win streak San Antonio has gone 22-3 since the All-Star break and currently holds a three-game lead over the Thunder for the top seed in the West.
Powered by forward and NBA leading scorer Kevin Durant’s likely MVP campaign, OKC has persisted despite the absence of point guard and top assist man Russell Westbrook for 35 games this season. Four games remain on the Thunder’s schedule and they could leapfrog into the top seed, but would need the Spurs to really falter.
Miami and Indiana have limped to the finish line in the last few months of the season. Questions surrounding shooting guard Dwyane Wade’s health, an uncharacteristic 16-11 post All-Star game stint and a bench ranking just 24th in the NBA in scoring all have the two-time defending champion Heat searching for answers.
The Pacers have gone 13-13 in the second-half of the season, including its current 4-8 stretch that may or not have to do with team chemistry issues surrounding the acquisition of swingman Evan Turner at the trade deadline.
The top seed in the East could be up for grabs on Friday when Miami hosts Indiana, with the former a half-game back.
The first-round matchups for all four teams are also still up in the air.
If the playoffs began today here’s what the first-round matchups would be:
East: No. 1 Indiana vs. No. 8 Atlanta; No. 2 Miami vs. No. 7 Washington; No. 3 Toronto vs. No. 6 Charlotte; and No. 4 Chicago vs. No. 5 Brooklyn
Very few upsets happen in the first round of the playoffs, so whether Miami or Indiana hold the top spot they should eliminate the Hawks and upstart Washington. The Raptors have a tough defensive matchup against the Bobcats, and will have to figure a way to contain 20-point, 10-rebound machine forward Al Jefferson.
The Bulls and Nets will likely meet in the first round for the second straight year. However Brooklyn has been the hottest team in the league with a 33-14 record since Jan. 1 and has been completely overhauled compared to the team Chicago eliminated in the seven games last year.
Seven of the eight spots in the East have been clinched, as the New York Knicks and the ailing Carmelo Anthony stand two games back of Atlanta for the final seed. Both have four games left to play and two more losses for the Knicks would end their disappointing season, since the two teams split their season series and Atlanta owns the next tiebreaker of better conference record by three wins.
West: No. 1 San Antonio vs. No. 8 Phoenix; No. 2 Oklahoma City vs. No. 7 Dallas; No. 3 L.A. Clippers vs. No. 6 Golden State; and No. 4 Houston vs. No. 5 Portland
Unlike in the East, both San Antonio and Oklahoma City might need seven games to dispatch the high-scoring Suns and Mavericks. Dallas took the season series 2-1 from OKC. The Clippers and Golden State could be the most contentious series in the first round, thanks to lots of bad blood between both teams.
Houston and Portland is another pairing that should make for a dramatic seven-game series. Both teams appear allergic to defense, and the Rockets should specifically have concerns over who will contain Blazers guard Damian Lillard, and Portland may not have an answer for center Dwight Howard.
The matchups out West can still see a major shakeup with Golden State, Dallas and Phoenix failing to clinch spots just yet. The Warriors are separated by only 2.5 games from No. 9 Memphis, but four of their last five games come against .500 or worse teams.
The Grizzlies came up with a huge win over Miami on Wednesday to stay in contention to make the postseason for a fourth straight year for the first time in franchise history. Back by one game, Memphis lost its season-series to Dallas but the two squads play in the regular season finale next week. The Grizzlies also split with the Warriors, but own a 3-0 season series lead over the Suns and they also play next week.
As far as Las Vegas is concerned, the Heat’s late-season issues aren’t very worrisome. The Heat are an 11/5 favorite to win the title and become the first team since the L.A. Lakers to complete a three-peat. The Spurs are next up at 3/1, OKC at 9/2, and Indiana at 11/2, according to odds from Bovada.lv.